Watching History TV’s The Kennedys (airing April 10), you might think it’s just another historical miniseries. It features heavy-handed irony (“My husband,” Jackie Kennedy tells a reporter, is “exactly who he appears to be”) and lots of Mad Men-style ’60s nostalgia, including Katie Holmes struggling to hold up under Jackie’s accent and hairdo. But it’s actually the most controversial miniseries since The Reagans. History TV’s U.S. equivalent, the History Channel, commissioned the show and then decided not to air it, declaring it was not accurate enough. Michael Prupas, head of Muse Entertainment in Montreal and one of the executive producers of the show, told Maclean’s ominously that this decision “came from higher places.”
Those “higher places” are rumoured to contain a bunch of Kennedy family members; the Los Angeles Times reported that Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver were “believed to have lodged private protests against the show.” But a lot of the pressure came from writers who feared a smear job against a key dynasty of the Democratic party. Rick Perlstein, author of such books as Nixonland, was one of several historians who denounced the project after reading a draft of the script where Joe Kennedy broke a crucifix: “Every kind of narrative argument being made was that the Kennedys had no redeeming qualities.” It didn’t help that one of the producers was Joel Surnow, the conservative creator of 24; he’s seen as part of what Perlstein calls “an entire infrastructure devoted to calumniating liberalism and the Democratic party,” and liberals feared the show was an attempt to validate Surnow’s world view.
Prupas denies this, arguing that there are many positive moments, like showing “how great a job Jack Kennedy did in managing the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs.” He adds that the writer, Stephen Kronish, “has been a Democrat all his life,” but is “fully aware of some of the not-so-nice things that the Kennedy family may have done.” Before the show was pulled, Barry Pepper, the Canadian actor who plays Robert Kennedy, told Maclean’s to expect “elements that might be disturbing to Kennedy loyalists,” but added that this family was treated with kid gloves for too long: “We’ve put them on a pedestal. Giving anyone that kind of status is wrong. They were politicians.”
Sure enough, the show is watered down from that early draft, and deals mostly with uncontroversial facts like JFK’s affairs and Joe’s attempt to keep the U.S. out of the Second World War. Prupas says it’s not a hatchet job but “a Shakespearian story with some tragic elements to it,” with a message that “people who reach for greatness sometimes have great flaws as well.” Even Perlstein says that, “as a Shakespeare fan, I’d be hard-pressed to argue that you cannot take liberties with people’s stories. The King’s Speech was full of historical mistakes.”
But while The King’s Speech achieved what Perlstein calls “a poetic truth,” The Kennedys seems to get bogged down in the clichés of historical TV, like a scene where Joe predicts what will happen in the future (“He’s going to run for president in 1960 and he’s going to win”), while Holmes replies by reviving her Dawson’s Creek sense of self-pity and moaning, “What difference does that make if he doesn’t respect me?” The producers of the show may be able to thank the controversy for distracting attention from lines like that, or the moment when someone says Sammy Davis Jr. “will help us with the Negro vote and the Jewish vote.”
The biggest winner in all this, ironically, may be the Kennedy family. In recent years, John Kennedy has become a favourite Democrat of conservatives, who, Perlstein says, “rehabilitated him as ‘the good Democrat,’ the guy who stood up to the Soviet Union.” Now liberal filmmakers like Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed) are defending the Kennedys against “smears,” and Perlstein is criticizing the show for minimizing JFK’s achievements and “the courageous decisions that he did make regarding social justice.” It could turn out that all JFK needed to restore his standing with liberals was one miniseries that doesn’t like him a lot.