By every metric of sophisticated, smart storytelling, FX (currently free on many cable services) is HBO’s match. It does not produce as much content, but it is a wonderfully curated channel.
From Nip/Tuck in 2003 through The Americans, Justified, American Crime Story and the remarkable continuing Fargo anthology, FX has adroitly offered storytelling that has significant meaning.
Mrs. America (starts Wednesday, FX, 10 p.m.) is the sort of drama that only FX would make. A knowingly playful but culturally weighted drama about real people and real events, it’s about the recent past in the United States with significant relevance for the present. It also has an all-star female cast in Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Paulson, Uzo Aduba and Tracey Ullman.
It’s about Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchett), who led the conservative backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. constitution in the 1970s, and her battles with prominent feminists such Gloria Steinem (Byrne), Betty Friedan (Ullman), Bella Abzug (Martindale) and Shirley Chisholm (Aduba). As such, the miniseries must tread a careful path. The ERA issue remains unsolved. Schlafly cannot be a caricature and her impact on grassroots American politics must be dramatized with care, but without alarmist zeal.
It works. Blanchett is magnificent as the formidably smart Illinois housewife who, only reluctantly, became a conservative trailblazer and the nemesis of Second Wave feminism. The first words spoken are by a woman. She asks, “Do these look real?” She means her breasts and the occasion is a fundraiser for a Republican politician, the featured entertainment being women walking around the stage in bathing suits.
It’s the early 1970s and Schlafly duly takes part in the GOP event but she’s really there to network. She had earlier ran for Congress and lost. She’s an expert in foreign policy and knows more about the the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks than most men in government. She was an adviser to Senator Barry Goldwater. But while Steinem, Friedan and others are pushing Congress and the Senate to pass the ERA, Schlafly is being pushed to the sidelines. She doesn’t want to touch “women’s issues,” but she is left with little choice. It’s her path to power.
Before long, she’s making speeches to middle-class mothers like herself, full of cutting, derisive terms about “women’s libbers” and using her newsletter to ignite a storm against the ERA, an amendment that Richard Nixon had no problem with passing. It is in later episodes that the full heft of Schlafly’s campaign becomes clear. She will welcome anyone into her tent, be they racist or homophobic. She is, of course, too cultured to actually have empathy with these people, but she will use them to further her cause.
Eventually, she is creating what became the Moral Majority fundamentalist Christian movement, the legacy of which would help propel Donald Trump into power. What we’re looking at, through the lens of the 1970s, is the making of contemporary America with its sharp, sometimes terrifying cultural divide.
While Blanchett as Schlafly is dominant, the series also paints a wonderful portrait of congresswoman and 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba is wonderful in the role), whose doomed campaign is also, symbolically, the doomed campaign to have the ERA passed in all states. And in the sometimes toxic arguments between Steinem and Friedan, especially as they underestimate Schlafly, one can sense befuddlement of the Hillary Clinton campaign as Trump took over the Republican party. The series is best described as an epic tragedy, and a captivating, nuanced one.
Finally, this column continues with a “Stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s is Tijuana (Netflix, in Spanish with English subtitles), a good political thriller that’s really about the news media and about Mexico as it is now. That is, as a voice-over tells us, a country where 115 journalists have been killed since 2000.
Set mainly among the staff of Frente Tijuana, an independent newspaper, it follows two interlocking storylines. One of the paper’s founders was murdered years before the action starts and his nephew Andy (Ivan Aragon) is making a documentary about his life and death. While he’s doing this, the paper is enthusiastically covering the rise of a local candidate for governor of the state, Eugenio Robles (Roberto Mateos), a former factory worker with a left-wing message. When Robles is assassinated, the story the paper is covering gets murky and dangerous.
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