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Series / The First Lady

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An American Anthology drama that follows the lives of three first ladies of the USA: Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis).

The first season also stars O-T Fagbenle, Dakota Fanning, Regina Taylor, Kiefer Sutherland, Aaron Eckhart, Clea DuVall and Lily Rabe, among others.

It started airing on Showtime on April 17, 2022. On August 2, 2022, it was announced that the show had been cancelled after one season.

Tropes for the series:

  • The '40s: The last end of the Roosevelt Administration, Eleanor's career with the United Nations, and Betty's courtship with Gerald take place in this decade.
  • '50s Hair: Betty Ford has a Grace Kelly-esque flip in the 1964 flashback.
  • The '60s: Betty Ford's struggles as a housewife and the start of her addiction take place in 1964.
  • The '70s: The Fords' time in the White House from 1974 to 1977; also we get a brief flashback from Michelle's POV in the late 70s where her parents visit friends in a predominantly white neighborhood and find graffiti on their car.
  • The '80s: Michelle's young adult years in college and starting her career and Betty's struggles at rehab all take place within in this decade.
  • '80s Hair: Betty is seen in a platinum blonde perm and a young Michelle Obama wears her hair in a relaxed or pressed wedge cut when we respectively last or first see them.
  • The '90s: Betty Ford is seen getting awarded by the Bush Administration for her work with substance abuse addiction and this is the decade Barack and Michelle's courtship and marriage start.
  • Addled Addict: Betty Ford is increasingly affected by her drinking and pill use, having panic attacks that scare her family or flubbing her words in a public speech. Finally they stage an intervention to get her help.
  • Affectionate Nickname:
    • Lorena Hickok is fondly nicknamed "Hick" by Eleanor.
    • Malvina Thompson, Eleanor's secretary, is called "Tommy".
  • Age-Gap Romance: Eleanor is clearly older than Hick. The real Eleanor was eight years older. Gillian Anderson (Eleanor) is in fact thirteen years older than Lily Rabe (Hick). The series portrays them having an affair.
  • The Alcoholic: Betty Ford becomes this over time, along with using pills, to ease her pain from an injury.
  • Alliterative Title:
    • See Saw.
    • Punch Perfect.
  • Angry White Man: Donald Trump and many of his followers are portrayed this way, raging against corruption in the government, which isn't an example by itself but with clear underlying racism/sexism since it's only ever aimed at Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
  • Artistic License – History: The series acknowledges in a disclaimer before some episodes that artistic liberties have been taken. Probably the biggest example was having Eleanor Roosevelt have an affair with Lorena "Hick" Hickok, a lesbian reporter friend of hers. Though many historians suspect they had a relationship, it's still not known with certainty what exactly happened (whether it was sexual at least-both had clear love for each other, as expressed in their many letters).
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Michelle Obama understandably expresses frustration over being asked to support Hillary Clinton, but many white women don't reciprocate, saying things involving black women are a "black issue". Her mom points out though that if Trump wins, it won't just affect white women. Michelle silently accepts that she's right.
  • Breaking the Cycle of Bad Parenting: Eleanor Roosevelt's late mother dismissed her for being plain and shy and thus this affected Eleanor's relationship with her children, especially daughter Anna, as she seemed distant as a mother. When Anna calls her out on this Eleanor applauds her for being such a good and loving mother to her own children.
  • Daddy's Girl: The series focuses on the First Ladies' relationships with their parents and children.
    • Eleanor Roosevelt was close to her father, even heartbroken when he has to go to rehab for his alcoholism, but not as close to her mother who saw Eleanor as a disappointment for not being beautiful. This affects her relationship with her daughter Anna, who is close to her father, even aiding him in hiding his renewing his past affair with Lucy Mercer.
    • Betty Ford was traumatized by her father's suicide but is close to all her children. Inverted with Susan Ford, who is close with her parents but perhaps moreso with her mother.
    • Michelle Obama is close to both her parents, but her father's death affected her and influenced her actions to work on the board for hospitals in Chicago. Her father encouraged her ambitions while her mother became a great support during Barack's presidential career. The Obama daughters are both close with their parents.
  • Death of a Child: The Sandy Hook shooting makes Barack Obama tear up in a heartfelt speech calling on the nation to take measures against gun violence. Later, he and Michelle learn one of the black girls who visited the White House from South Side Chicago was killed in a drive-by shortly after she'd gone back home. Michelle attends her funeral, and they're both shaken thinking how it could have been one of their own daughters (the shooting took place near where they lived in Chicago).
  • Driven to Suicide: Betty Ford's friend Nancy loses her husband to suicide, which causes Betty to reflect on her own dad killing himself years before.
  • The Edwardian Era: The period where Eleanor is a teenager attending Allenswood and when she courts and marries Franklin. Eleanor even wears Gibson Girl styled hair and high necklines and boater hats. Her uncle Teddy also was President during that era and escorts her down the aisle.
  • The Flapper: Hick and other women are still wearing flapper-style garb in the early 30s.
  • The Gilded Age: A flashback to Eleanor's childhood and her mother's funeral takes place in this era, complete with all the ruffles and full sleeves fashionable for that time.
  • The Great Depression: The Roosevelt Administration first enters into this period, with long bread lines and a lot of unemployment.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • Michelle Obama, first black First Lady of the United States (2009-2017), along with her husband Barack Obama, their daughters and Rahm Emanuel.
    • Betty Ford, First Lady of the US (1974-1977), along with her husband Gerald Ford, their children, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
    • Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the US (1933-1945), her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt, daughter Anna, Sara Delano Roosevelt (Franklin's mother) and Lenora "Hick" Hickok.
    • Several more minor supporting characters are also real historical people too.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Eleanor is a very genteel, elegant feminine woman who is always dressed in the way expected from a Proper Lady during the early 20th century, having an affair with Lorena "Hick" Hickok during the 30s. Hick meanwhile is more androgynous with flapper-style clothing, but certainly not butch either.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Discussed when Michelle Obama is urging Barack to now publicly support same-sex marriage, noting that when he was born, his black father and white mother couldn't even be married in much of the US, with many states making it a crime. By his expression, her point hits hard.
  • Mama's Boy: Franklin Delano Roosevelt has his opinionated and demanding mother Sara try to interfere with his marriage to Eleanor and stop his political career after he gets polio.
  • Manly Tears:
    • Franklin Roosevelt breaks down crying about Eleanor's affair with Hick, when she's left once they talked about the matter.
    • Barack Obama tears up while reading of the Sandy Hook shooting, and then while he's addressing the nation about it. He lates mentions doing this on national TV when speaking to Michelle.
  • The New '10s: The setting for the rest of the Obama Administration where the family deals with the coverage of school shootings and police brutality and the girls, especially Malia, become more politically savvy as they enter adolescence.
  • Not Staying for Breakfast: After sleeping with Hick the first time, Eleanor tries to quietly leave. Hick notices though, and she left some things behind when doing so.
  • One-Word Title:
    • Nadir.
    • Rift.
  • The Noughties: Where the Obamas deal with a sick Malia, raise a young family, and when Barack runs for President and they meet the Bushes in 2009.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: Played straight with Sara Roosevelt, whom Eleanor has to learn to defy for Franklin's political ambitions. Averted with Marion Robinsion, Michelle's mother, who has a civil (even close) relationship with her son-in-law Barack Obama.
  • Out-of-Character Alert: Eleanor is congratulated by her mother-in-law Sara for resigning from the Daughters of the American Revolution over them refusing to host a black singer. She's astonished, since Sara and she always clash usually, asking Tommy if she seems well.
  • Parents as People: Explored.
    • Michelle and Barack are Good Parents, but Barack is questioned on his political stances, especially his silence regarding same-sex marriage, that gets him taken to task by his then-adolescent daughter Malia.
    • Betty Ford is a loving, fun-loving, progressive mother but she also deals with her addictions, trauma from her father's suicide and abusive first marriage, and it interferes with her ability to be a good mother and has her lash out at her kids as they confront her in an intervention.
    • Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt both love their children but Eleanor's own childhood with her dismissive mother and Franklin being a Mama's Boy and his infidelities interfere with their children, especially daughter Anna who feels hurt by her Mother's distance and to Eleanor's horror (but understanding) runs interference to cover up her father's renewal of his relationship with Lucy Mercer.
  • Period Piece: The series takes place from the '30s to the late 2010s during each First Lady's' time in the White House when their husbands are President.
  • Police Brutality: The highly publicized cases of these against black men in the 2010s are shown in the Obama segments, with the Obamas being affected deeply by the videos.
  • Recovered Addict: By the end of the Fords' segment, Betty has recovered from her addition to alcohol and prescription drugs, opening up her center to treat others as her family congratulates her.
  • The Roaring '20s: When Franklin is struck with polio and Eleanor helps him recover and continue his political ambitions.
  • Scary Black Man: Both Michelle and Barack. Michelle is labeled as such by the right-wing media during Barack's first campaign as President after proclaiming that for the "first time in my life, I'm really proud of my country" with the capper being The New Yorker having an illustration of Barack as a jihadist and Michele done up to look like Angela Davis.
  • Secret Path: Eleanor puts Hick in an adjoining room to hers inside the White House. Unbeknownst to most people this has a door connecting it, implying that they can continue their affair and it's said this isn't the first time the White House had such things happen (disturbingly, such rooms were often used for enslaved people). However, it's unclear whether they do.
  • Soapbox Sadie: The series is about three different First Ladies who were/are outspoken and politically active, often pushing their President husbands to do more even when it's inconvenient. All of this is portrayed positively, however it might be frustrating to others.
    • First we have Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who advocates for feminism, civil rights in the 1930s, giving refuge to Jews escaping Europe and then world peace.
    • In the 1970s, Betty Ford (wife of Gerald Ford) also advocates for feminism and more liberal views on issues like abortion or drug use more specifically along with breast cancer awareness once she gets a mastectomy. Later once she's recovered from her own addictions, Betty starts advocating for people who need alcohol and drug treatment, starting her own center to help them.
    • Michelle Obama supports healthcare reform, feminism, same-sex marriage, gun control laws and better treatment of black people generally.