First Ladies, episode 1 review: Michelle Obama has a great story – but it's old news

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Anita Singh
·2 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Michelle and Barack Obama in 2008 - SHAWN THEW/EPA
Michelle and Barack Obama in 2008 - SHAWN THEW/EPA

The documentary series First Ladies (Sky Documentaries), about the wives of US presidents, was billed as a “bold revision of each woman’s traditional portrayal”. What fun – was it about to reveal Melania Trump to be a barrel of laughs who adores her husband? Sadly not. This is a CNN production, after all. So the series coolly pretends that Melania doesn’t exist, and instead kicked off with Michelle Obama.

Future episodes will cover Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson and Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure what the others have done to offend the producers. The programme looks at the lives of “remarkable women who transformed the role of First Lady”, and surely Betty Ford qualifies easily. And starting with Obama was a mistake. She’s too fresh in the memory and we already know everything there is to know about her, courtesy of her best-selling memoir and the accompanying rock star tour.

Still, the qualities that made Obama such a striking First Lady transfer easily to television. She is a brilliant public speaker, with charisma and comic timing. She knows how to deliver a message. Her story is an undeniably good one: a girl from a humble background rising through hard work and determination to Princeton and Harvard and a stellar career. The programme included a speech that her husband made in 2017, in which he told her: “You took on a role you didn’t ask for with grace, with grit and with style. You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody.”

All true and all laudable, but this is not the stuff of which good documentaries are made. Everyone who appeared here was a friend, a fan or formerly on the payroll. The only detractor was Sarah Palin, in old footage, objecting to Obama’s healthy eating campaign for children. “This strikes me as a non-controversial thing, and yet you would have thought she was ushering in Stalinism through the lunch room,” said one observer. It seems absurd, having lived through the age of Trump, to look back on the things that were considered outrageous in the Obama era. People were upset that Obama wore a sleeveless shift dress to Congress, although why wouldn’t you if you had arms as toned as that?

For fans of Michelle Obama it was a neat compilation of her achievements. In years to come, this will be a decent documentary for students of US history. But here it just felt like yesterday’s news.