Watching even a minute of “Mrs. America” makes it obvious which network it belongs to. It follows, to the letter, in the grand tradition of FX dramas that have long cultivated a brand of meticulous precision and prestige. From its stacked cast, to its impressive production design and array of wigs, to casting Sarah Paulson in a part seemingly tailored to her, “Mrs. America” is truly the über FX drama — a slightly ironic designation now that it’s one of the network’s first productions to instead premiere on Hulu.
What sets “Mrs. America” apart, then, is its didactic mission and unabashedly bleeding heart. Each of its nine episodes feature several moments that try, with palpable urgency, to make its audience feel some pang of recognition, resentment, regret at how history hasn’t just shaken out, but repeated. Tracing the rise and fall of the Equal Rights Amendment’s momentum through the 1970’s, Dahvi Waller’s new limited series centers both the feminists fighting for the amendment’s passage, the conservative women pushing back, and the enduring fissures within both movements. In order to do this, the series casts several key players with equally impressive actors to match, most notably Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, Steinem’s conservative and increasingly powerful inverse. It’s a hugely ambitious series, especially with only nine episodes with which to examine such an expansive and crucial moment in American history. With such titanic characters at its center, “Mrs. America” strives hard to balance the significance of its story with personal touches that might make it more powerful and nuanced. Sometimes, it even achieves that balance. But that’s rarely the case with its biggest figures like Steinem and especially, to the show’s ultimate detriment, Schlafly. Even with Blanchett helming her portrayal, the Phyllis Schlafly of “Mrs. America” remains a frustratingly remote figure whose motivation and overall aptitude are never quite as clear as the show’s narrative requires.
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As “Mrs. America” does convincingly argue, Phyllis Schlafly’s canny ability to spread her message was underestimated most of her life, much to her opponents’ detriment. A conservative force who weaponized her connection with Republican housewives across the country into serious political action, Schlafly shifted the course of history as we now know it. Getting inside her head, and enlisting one of the greatest acting chameleons of her generation to do so with a chilling Cheshire Cat smile, is an undeniably intriguing premise. But whether thanks to the scripts’ conscientious efforts to avoid overt condemnation of her views or Blanchett’s deliberately icy remove, the Phyllis Schlafly of “Mrs. America” remains something of a mystifying figure. It’s unclear, even by the time the final weighty credits roll, what exactly the series is trying to say about her or how she thinks, beyond wanting powerful men to take her seriously. Even as “Mrs. America” successfully proves Schlafly’s significance within history, it less often finds the kind of clarity about her inner life that such an intensive biopic seeks to land.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, “Mrs. America” does far better by its relatively lesser-known historical figures — or more accurately in some cases, those who haven’t gotten as much recognition as their work should otherwise demand — than those like Steinem and Schlafly, who simply carry far more cultural baggage. Uzo Aduba, long overdue a juicy role after her consistently sharp work on “Orange is the New Black,” gets one in the role of Shirley Chisholm, whose brief run for president deserves an FX miniseries all its own. Margo Martindale embraces the blunt “battle axe” that was Bella Abzug, with an accent that swerves in and out but always injects her scenes with a welcome shot of brassy energy. Tracey Ullman, already known for her spookily accurate impressions, turns in an impressive performance of “Feminine Mystique” author Betty Freidan that avoids parody in favor of portraying her brittle humanity. Ari Graynor, a perpetually underrated and underused actor, gets a particularly good spotlight episode in which she plays “Ms.” co-founder Brenda Feigen with equal parts vulnerability and steely resolve.
Maybe most telling is the fact that Paulson gets far more narrative nuance with her conservative character than does Blanchett’s Schlafly — and her role is, unlike most everyone else in the series, a fictional composite. “Alice” is a housewife and (scripted) friend of Schlafly’s who devotes herself to the cause of stopping the Equal Rights Amendment despite never fully understanding what it means or would do. Over the course of “Mrs. America,” Alice becomes more frightened by Schlafly’s naked ambition and confused about her own feelings on their cause. Her arc peaks in the penultimate episode, in which she goes to 1977’s National Women’s Convention in Houston and actually meets the women she’s been fighting so hard against for years. Paulson, one of television’s most reliably magnetic actors, twists Alice inherent timidity with a blossoming self-awareness that’s more revealing than nine episodes of following Schlafly around.
It also doesn’t seem like a coincidence that this character of a woman coming to learn that she perhaps isn’t as firm in her beliefs as she once assumed ends up being the series’ most three-dimensional conservative character by a long shot. Despite being careful to balance the screen time between factions, “Mrs. America” isn’t nearly as convincing, or even half as energetic, in its depiction of the Republican grassroots movement than it is in its liberal counterparts. The series may be fascinated by Schlafly and her various arms of power, but it never quite proves that it understands them.
The first three episodes of “Mrs. America” premiere April 12 on Hulu.
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