You may never have heard of ReelzChannel, but if you're a Dish Network, DirectTV, Comcast, or Time Warner cable subscriber, there's a good chance you have it. And if you do, you might want to set your DVR for what The Hollywood Reporter has called the "most radioactive miniseries ever made."
The Kennedys, which began airing April 3 and will continue playing in repeats, has taken a seriously bumpy road to air. It began when the History Channel brought Joel Surnow, noted conservative and creator of the hit series 24, on board to help produce a miniseries about America's political royalty.
From the early stages of development, Surnow's involvement sparked outcry, with former Kennedy adviser Theodore Sorensen labeling the production "vindictive" and "malicious." Rumors abounded that Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver called in favors to prevent it from airing. Finally, the History Channel announced that despite the fact that consulting historians pored over every episode and approved each, the final product "wasn't a fit for the History brand." (Ironically, they are still planning to run the series on their UK network this month.)
So despite an A-list cast, multimillion-dollar production values, and an Emmy-winning executive producer, The Kennedys sold to an upstart cable channel few have heard of for a bargain-basement price.
From the first two episodes of the eight-part series, it's difficult to see what the fuss was about. The tale Surnow and his team weave about the famous political clan hardly repackages the Kennedy Camelot trope, yet there's little room for anyone to argue that the script takes excessive liberties with the historical record.
Did Joe Kennedy call for the appeasement of Hitler? He did. Is there evidence that John F. Kennedy won his first campaign for Congress as a result of a dirty trick? There is. Were the Kennedy men repeatedly unfaithful to their wives? Please, is there anyone in America who doesn't know the answer to that one? Such details are unflattering, but they're not inaccurate.
Yet although the miniseries includes some less-than-glowing aspects of the Kennedy dynasty, it also treats the family, particularly Jack and Bobby, with a full measure of sympathy and seriousness.
Its first gift to the Kennedy legacy comes from casting. Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy is so eerily spot on, at times you have to remind yourself you're not watching the actual man. Barry Pepper, one of the most unsung actors working today, doesn't bear as striking a resemblance to Bobby, but his performance as the younger brother who is both more principled and more naïve gives us a view as to how the brothers used their separate gifts to strengthen each other. Katie Holmes has the grace and beauty of Jackie Kennedy, but, not unlike the woman herself, seems something of a blank slate, inviting the viewer to project whatever vision of first lady perfection they prefer onto her.
The real revelation, though, is Tom Wilkinson as clan patriarch, Joe Kennedy. As Papa Joe, Wilkinson's growling, steely-eyed ambition is palpable, clarifying the mystery of why none of his sons pursued any profession other than politics. Academia earns respect, Hollywood adulation, but politics is naked power, and Joe wouldn't have his boys wasting time on anything less. When Jack begins to buck his father's iron fist, he gives us a man and president worth admiring.
John finds the political voice that inspired a nation when a meeting with the mothers of fallen soldiers leaves him sincerely moved and tearful. Confronted with the underhanded ploys his father uses to impact elections, he's troubled. Yes, he cheats on Jackie (and again, where's the shocker there?), but he also empathizes and connects with the common people and strives to be a worthy leader.
That's not to say plenty of the material here isn't invented melodrama extrapolated from the historical record (it is a miniseries after all), but it isn't nearly as nuclear as the Kennedy family's lobbying or the History Channel's kowtowing would suggest.