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Greg Kinnear portrays John F. Kennedy in a scene from the eight-part movie, The Kennedys, premiering Sunday, April 3, 2011 on the ReelzChannel network. (AP)
Greg Kinnear portrays John F. Kennedy in a scene from the eight-part movie, The Kennedys, premiering Sunday, April 3, 2011 on the ReelzChannel network. (AP)

John Doyle: Television

The Kennedys miniseries: If politics were this boring, no one would do it Add to ...

Here we are in the middle of an election campaign. Politicians try to charm, flatter, seduce or scare us. It’s what they do to gain power, but once in power, they’re distant from us.

Perhaps we imagine them either a) busy running the country with a firm eye on raising money and votes, or b) rather like civil servants, running the economy and other stuff we pay them to do.

Neither picture is the truth, of course. It’s only later we hear about bitter feuds, money in envelopes changing hands and, oh, endless travel to nice locations on the pretence of research or making speeches to people who can’t vote for them.

You have to wonder what comes closest to capturing the reality of political drama – is it the blood-soaked lust-driven turmoil of The Borgias (which is really about Vatican politics) or the incredibly tedious melodrama of The Kennedys?

Yes, The Kennedys miniseries – the series that was dropped by the History Channel in the United States in January amid much argument and accusation. It was said that the Kennedy family had leaned on History because the series is a hatchet job concocted by the primary producer Joel Surnow (he also produced 24), who is a hard-right conservative.

The Kennedys began airing in the United States last weekend on the tiny ReelzChannel and starts this coming Sunday here on History Television. And it is awful – truly, mind-bogglingly tedious television. It goes on and on for eight episodes and never gets better.

The reviews from American critics are, in the main, blistering and rightly so. The series (made in Canada with Muse Entertainment as the production company) looks cheap and sticks to the TV dramatics level of an afternoon soap opera.

There is nothing controversial about it. If anything, it makes the Kennedy clan – the most talked-about, studied and alluring political American political family ever – seem incongruously banal. In particular the two leading characters, John F. Kennedy (Greg Kinnear) and his missus, Jackie (Katie Holmes), are about as interesting as some background characters on Mike & Molly.

This president Kennedy is a sort of put-upon suburban dad. Put-upon because his father Joe (Tom Wilkinson, who is surprisingly bad) has these high expectations and, you know, this politics thing is kinda boring and, in any case, he’s got this back injury that bugs him all the time. He seems to have no warmth or zeal. Even his notorious dalliances with other women lack ardour. Mostly, he slips out of a crowded public event to meet some blond lady in a basement room where, it seems, they mainly talk about how little time he has for their meeting.

As for Holmes as Jackie, the famous young lady’s main acting trick appears to be concentrating on speaking like a small child, in order to emphasize her innocence, one supposes. She looks really pretty in some of the outfits, and there are scenes that bear more resemblance to a staid magazine photo shoot than a TV drama about high-level politics. At one point – in Episode 5 or 6, I lost track – her character is revealed to be hooked on uppers administered by a guy known openly as “Dr. Feelgood,” and Holmes presents this Jackie as an excitable, motor-mouth child invited into the adult party. Acting, it ain’t.

There is only one element of The Kennedys that’s actually fun and feels real. That’s when Lyndon Johnson (Don Allison) turns up. It’s at the time of some Southern states refusing to integrate their schools. The Southerners sneer at president Kennedy. Johnson offers to work his political magic and get them onside. Bobby Kennedy (Barry Pepper, whose accent is very weird) says, “These bastards wouldn’t even listen to the president of the United States. Why would they listen to you?”

And Johnson says, “Because I know these boys inside and out, and I know their secrets. I know what kinda rub they like on their ribs, what kinda scotch they like to drink and what kinda gals they like to screw.” Then, when Johnson is told he’s unreliable because he stole an election in Texas, he drawls, “Well there’s buyin’ and there’s stealin’.”

It feels like political talk – raw and real. It sounds like what goes on in the backrooms. The rest of what happens on The Kennedys is the sort of dead-on-arrival drama that tells kids history is boring.

A lot of Canadian actors turn up in The Kennedys – Kristin Booth as Ethel Kennedy, Charlotte Sullivan as Marilyn Monroe, among others. Good for them – a paycheque and maybe a career boost. But the importance of The Kennedys series itself has been boosted by a fake controversy. It can only be true that the American History Channel dropped it because it’s bad TV.

Politics cannot possibly be this boring, can it? If so, why’s everybody trying to get elected?



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