MRS. AMERICA (Dahvi Waller). Premieres Wednesday (April 15) at 10 pm on FX Canada, and streaming on the FXNOW app. Rating: NNNN
Every time I think I’ve had it with that peak-TV thing where the stars of today impersonate the icons of yesteryear, FX goes and makes it work again: The People V. O.J. Simpson, Fosse/Verdon and now Mrs. America.
The latest in the cable channel’s apparently never-ending line of cultural history dramatizations, Mrs. America boils down the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s to a battle of wills between conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and liberal populist Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne).
Creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller – who came up on series like Desperate Housewives and Mad Men – plays the two women’s stories out as parallel narratives with their own aesthetic schemes. Schlafly’s story unfolds in a crisp style that reflects its subject’s precise, exacting manner, with Blanchett turning her expressive face into a tight, unflappable mask, while Steinem’s is a whirlwind of handheld cameras and frantic movement, the better to convey the conflicting goals and still-coalescing message of the women’s lib movement.
Waller waits until the very end of the premiere to introduce Steinem and her comrades, and it’s awfully clever: suddenly, this barbed cocktail party of a show is overrun by angry anarchists. The next two episodes focus respectively on Steinem – who has to be her own person while dealing with the conflicting demands of movement leaders Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) – and Shirley Chisolm (Uzo Aduba), the first Black woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Chisolm’s episode is directed by Amma Asante, who made Belle and A United Kingdom, while the first two episodes are helmed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, of Half Nelson and Captain Marvel. (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who made last year’s prison drama The Mustang and the true-crime thriller The Act, has episodes coming up.)
Waller and her writers do a fine job of shaping their very 70s story as a prequel to America’s present-day politics. Schlafly’s fraudulent pitch for an America where women (and minorities) know their place laid the groundwork for the coded retro platform launched by Ronald Reagan and ultimately revived by Donald Trump, while the feminist movement – furious, organized, strong enough to take down the system but also easily distracted by petty internal politics – sure looks like the modern Democratic party.
Blanchett and Byrne go above and beyond simple impersonation, finding the humanity in their respective public figures. Byrne’s Steinem is overwhelmed but prepared to push through it, trying to make peace between warring factions while still preserving her own mission, while Blanchett manages to show us all the self-defeating compromises Schlafly has internalized in order to survive in a culture that sees her as ultimately ornamental. She’s made herself a Judas goat for all conservative women in order to claim some status for herself the question is whether she even understands she’s done it.
The supporting cast is gargantuan, with John Slattery, Elizabeth Banks, Melanie Lynskey, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Sarah Paulson and Ari Graynor all popping up for a few minutes here and there. They don’t have much to do just yet, but it feels like Waller is pacing herself. I’m happy to see where this goes.