So The Kennedys finally limped to what could charitably be called a conclusion this week, with the live TV event that was Bobby’s assassination at LA’s Ambassador Hotel in 1968. As my partner Barry said, it was probably unwise to have been playing such ominous music as Bobby was hustled out through the kitchens towards Sirhan Sirhan, who wasn’t even shown. Meanwhile, the now mute Joe Kennedy watched events unfold with frosty wife Rose from their posh New England mansion.
It’s been a peculiar beast, The Kennedys, suffering from much controversy in the US over smearing the Kennedy family. There are also a number of complaints about its historical veracity, though few seem to have mentioned that it was pretty terrible as an example of TV drama too. As it was produced by arch neocon Joel Surnow – the man responsible for the less than liberal politics of 24 – it was always reasonable to expect something of a hatchet job on America’s most revered Democrat President. And so it proved. After a fantastically bland opening episode that told us nothing about the Kennedy family we didn’t already know – Jack was a war hero, Joe a bit of a bastard with Nazi leanings, and Bobby a committed Catholic with an ever growing brood of children – we got to see JFK portrayed variously as indecisive, a puppet of his father, and a speed addict.
All of this does actually have some basis in history – though I question whether Jack’s supplier of amphetamines sounded quite so much like Dr Strangelove. Doing a mini series on this family is hardly new territory for American TV, but this ‘warts and all’ approach is definitely a new one. Surnow seems to be trying to tell the story of the family as a whole, rather than just JFK, in the style of The Godfather. It’s a lofty ambition, but one that doesn’t come off, mostly because the writing is so broadbrush that the people in it are more caricatures than characters.
Greg Kinnear does well as John F Kennedy, though in keeping with really cheesy historical drama, he’s been made up to resemble the real President as closely as possible. Struggling manfully with appalling dialogue delivered from underneath an immobile, sculpted coiffure, Kinnear does his best to deliver a performance, and just about manages – though it’s a surprise to hear that it was considered good enough to merit an Emmy nomination. That’s no slur on Kinnear; I think Olivier would have struggled with a script this bad.
Also up for an Emmy is Barry Pepper, who fortunately only has to endure Bobby Kennedy’s haircut rather than having full facial reconstruction. Pepper too does his best with some terrible dialogue, making Bobby seem a peevish, headstrong figure in the administration as he baits Sam Giancana and slags off the head of the Joint Chiefs.
Giancana is less of a bad guy here than J Edgar Hoover, though, and Enrico Colantoni plays the founder of the FBI as a thuggish heavy. It’s surprising that anyone could play Hoover with less subtlety than Bob Hoskins did in Nixon, but with the aid of this script, Colantoni manages it. Plus, any fan of Galaxy Quest will find it hard to take affable alien leader Mathesar seriously as one of the biggest bogeymen of the twentieth century.
Probably the ultimate bad guy in the series, though, is the notorious Joe Kennedy Sr, here portrayed as a cold, manipulative, power-hungry monster in the mould, predictably, of Don Vito Corleone. He’s played by superb British actor Tom Wilkinson, who makes the surprising choice of playing the Kennedy patriarch as Hannibal Lecter. It’s true, honestly – he has the same dead eyed expression, and precisely the same cold drawl.
Oh yes, the accents! After more than twenty years of Mayor ‘Diamond Joe’ Quimby in The Simpsons impersonating JFK’s Boston drawl, it’s hard to take them seriously. Kinnear and Pepper do well enough, though Kinnear in particular has a tendency to come off more as an impressionist than an actor. Wilkinson doesn’t really bother with such cheap theatrics – after all, they would interfere with his Anthony Hopkins impersonation. But the award for most varied, inconsistent and downright terrible attempt at a Boston accent must go to the horribly miscast Katie Holmes as Jackie, who seems to have come from a different part of the East Coast in every scene.
Each episode dealt with a different historical event – the civil rights riots in Mississippi, the Cuban Missile crisis, the bay of pigs – and was preceded by a portentous quote from a poet or a book of the Bible that had some vague relevance to what was about to happen. It basically seemed to present history as a kind of cheap soap opera, in which people strode about in rooms agonising, then were unconvincingly inserted into genuine archive footage.
Terrible drama, then, but somehow compellingly watchable, like that other Surnow opus, 24. After the blandness of the first episode, I almost didn’t watch any more, but kept coming back week after week to see how much worse it could get. Trumpeted as something of a broadcasting coup by the British History Channel – after the US History Channel refused to show it – it was noticeable that the Radio Times’ enthusiasm seemed to die off after about a fortnight, and suddenly it was being shown two episodes a night, as if to get it over with as quickly as possible. Of course, if it is meaning to show the Kennedy family as a whole, this might mean we’re due another five seasons in which Ted gets annoyed in the Senate. Somehow I doubt it though, as the series didn’t consider Ted interesting enough to even warrant a mention. For that I’m sure Ted would have been grateful. Despite a surprising amount of Emmy nominations – for best miniseries, and acting nods for Kinnear, Pepper and Wilkinson – this was the sort of historical drama that makes The Tudors look like I, Claudius.