Anyone who has taught in a secondary school or seen an episode of Boardwalk Empire knows that banning something usually only makes it even more popular than it was before. As such, History UK must have been rubbing its hands in glee when it learned that The Kennedys had been pulled by their American counterparts and confined to the TV hinterland. After watching the first scene in which JFK gives a stirring speech on the eve of his election before rummaging in the bathroom cabinet for pills, its easy to see why the remnants of the Kennedy clan decried it before shooting had even begun. Dead Presidents are almost as sacrosanct as dead family members.
While this is certainly a rough-edged and bold portrayal of the Kennedy family, it certainly isn’t the round of character assassinations that we might have expected.. (no pun intended). But detractors will argue that many of the details which would seem utterly trivial in a fictional drama is very actionable in a series connected to the closest thing America has to Royal family.
After being offered to half the broadcasters on the schedule, the show has finally found a home on Reelz (no, us neither..) which has subsequently reported a spike in subscriptions. It’s good that The Kennedys did eventually get a premier in America because the first episode of this lavish and well-drawn series lays out a range of characters that are flawed but extremely tangible. They make mistakes, have arguments and lose their tempers, but none of these real-life American icons are tarnished in any serious way. Greg Kinnear puts in a fine performance as JFK and is a perfect fit for the doomed President – from his roaming Boston accent to his perfectly matched hairline – but Tom Wilkinson steals the show as the mendacious patriarch Joe Kennedy. John may have made it to the Oval Office, but it was his father’s burning desire to see the Kennedy family achieve greatness that will form the drive to this series and they have wisely chosen not to gloss over some of his his finer points.
When his assistant comments on young John’s charisma, he replies: “Yes, but Joe’s the one who’s going places..” The scene in which he switches the burden to a previously unfavoured John after his rather boorish older brother’s death citing ‘the family’ is prescient and almost mafia-like. But he is not a remorseless or heartless character and shows touches of compassion as a father. Despite what many would have you believe, Joe senior certainly wasn’t alone in believing that the US should stay out of war on the continent and the writers certainly don’t demonise him for it here.
Through a series of flashbacks we see how he had rubbed shoulders with Franklin Roosevelt during the 30s and had designs upon the White House himself. Designs that were foiled by the emergence of war in Europe and his stance against American involvement. The scene in which he gives a speech asking for appeasement with Hitler must have been one of the flash-points for the spoilsports who pulled the series in the US. With the benefit of hindsight, anything less than cold-eyed hatred of the Nazis is unacceptable. HISTORY editing history?