Preview: The Kennedys 1×1

Like reading out from a textbook

The Kennedys

In the US: Sundays, 8pm ET, Reelz Channel. Starts 3rd April
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, The History Channel. Starts 7th April

GCSE History empathy essay (by the writers of The Kennedys, aged 16)
Please write about the Kennedys, from the 1930s through to the 1960s. Try to show the ambitions of the family and their attitudes to the presidency, the Second World War and especially John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s father, Joe.

It is 1960 during the presidential election campaign. JFK is running for office and he looks just like he does in those paintings you see of him. When he talks, he has a normal mid-west accent, I think, because although I’ve never heard JFK talking, I can’t imagine he would have a memorable or distinct accent.

“Hi, Jackie, my back hurts,” says JFK. “Can you help me to become president? Although it’s close, I think I am likely to win and become a significant politician if you do.”

“Certainly, JFK,” says Jackie, who looks exactly like Katie Holmes but dressed in pink. “But first I must have my baby.”

Joe Kennedy enters with Bobbie. Both are Irish so are Catholic. Bobbie talks with a strange Boston accent. I don’t know why.

“Hello, my brother who is running for president,” says Bobbie. “Can I help you?”

“You’d like that and so would your wife, wouldn’t she?” snaps Joe in an English accent, since Irish people from Boston are very like English people, I am told. “However, I am a domineering father and I will not let that happen.” Then he turns to his elder son and grimaces. “Hello, JFK,” says Joe. “I am not very glad you are going to become president since I always hoped I would be president and when that didn’t work out, I hoped my eldest son would become president. But he died during the war and now I hate God and you will have to do. Grr.”

Joe remembers 1936 which was before the war, when he was an ambassador in Europe. He remembers it perfectly.

“I will become president by taking over from Franklin D Roosevelt,” he says, looking just a little bit younger. “I will do this by ensuring that America does not enter the war that will happen in Europe in just a few years’ time and give many speeches without permission saying Germany is good.”

He then remembers the speech. Young JFK, who does not look much like older JFK, is watching the speech that he gives. He is not happy.

“I do not think this is a good idea. It will mean my father will not become president one day,” he says. He is very wise and is both fearful and worried about his father, who is domineering.

“Be quiet. You are rubbish,” says his older brother, who does not think much of his brother. “I will become president instead and you will not. Except if I die in a plane crash during the war and you will get lots of medals in the navy and have to take over from me, which will never happen.”

Six months later, after many dinners, Joe cannot run for presidency because his wife said so. Then his eldest son dies. So he says to JFK, “You will run for Congress and you will have to become president because my eldest son who is dead cannot do so.”

JFK is unhappy but he knows that he must become president.

Here’s a trailer of what happened when they filmed that particular GCSE History essay as a $30 million TV series that almost no TV network in the world would touch with a barge pole.

THE KENNEDYS, a major new four part series, uses public events as a background to tell the intimate story of this iconic family. It is about epic achievements and private failures, about loyalty and love, resentment and betrayal, about people imbued with great gifts and burdened by great flaws, about success of Biblical proportions and tragedy worthy of the Greeks.

It is a story of family loyalty, of lives built on the deaths of siblings, and of sons bending to the will of their dominant father.

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. is determined that his son will one day become President of the United States of America. But it is his eldest son Joe Jr. that he wants to make it to the White House, second son Jack is just an afterthought.

Only after his older brother’s death during WWII is John F. Kennedy is pushed into politics by his father. Jack realises he doesn’t possess the innate political gifts of his older brother and he requires a constant infusion of drugs because of his physical ailments, which the public must never know.

There are other matters that must stay private if the Kennedys are to succeed. Jack’s wife, Jackie, worries that his infidelity will be the curse of their marriage. But when he wins the Presidency, she tells him that his questing for sexual conquest must end. “I’ve had my private humiliations,” she says, “I won’t have them in front of the American people.”

Bobby Kennedy manages Jack’s campaign, and after his brother’s victory he wants to slip back into private life. But Joe Sr. has other plans and neither of his sons can refuse their father’s wishes.

Ultimately, Joseph Sr. sees his sons reach the highest levels of power and prestige. But the cost is incalculable.

Starring Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear as JFK, Barry Pepper as Bobby Kennedy, Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy and BAFTA and Golden Globe Award winner Tom Wilkinson as Joseph Kennedy Sr.

Is it any good?
It’s not the disastrous right-wing propaganda-fest that everyone feared when they heard Joel Surnow (24) was behind it, but in terms of actual drama it’s a bit poor.

Everything looks good and there are some good actors here. The script does gloss over a few historical details, but not egregiously so. The production values aren’t magnificent but they aren’t bad, and there are some honest attempts to make it all look of the period. The titles are laughably bad but we can let them off there, don’t you think?

The trouble is that it’s both dull and poorly written. I’m slightly exaggerating with that GCSE History essay I just wrote, but not a whole lot. For the first half of the first episode, which is largely told in flashback from the 1960 campaign, pretty much every line of dialogue is an unnaturalistic effort to establish political ambition and the exact point in history being shown, with everyone displaying an uncanny precognition about how history will recognise them, and without any of that extraneous “everyday life” stuff or normal language creeping in to sully the waters. The constant leaping around between time periods doesn’t help and the focus on historical and political moments to the exclusion of any real character moments or anything off the central theme of Joe Kennedy Sr’s ambitions for Joe and his other sons and the lengths he went to to get them into office means that we’re no closer to getting to know anyone involved, even though this is a drama. It gets better during the second half, but nothing really fills the gap left by the sudden exodus of all the history dumping that made up the first half. Things just sort of happen or continue the previous theme.

No one, with the exception of Barry Pepper, actually appears to have seen footage of the people they’re impersonating or if they have, decided not to do an impersonation, although they all look the part. Unfortunately, most of the cast are so well known, all you can think is “Hmm, that’s Katie Holmes. She looks like Jackie O. Hmm, not sure about the accent. I wonder what Jackie O was like.” So although this isn’t the whitewash that everyone thought it would be and meant it’s not being shown on the US History Channel, for example, as a mini-series, it’s barely even up there with The Winds of War.

One for curiosity value, really, or if you can’t be bothered to read a textbook but would like one read out to you.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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