Why Viola Davis’ Portrayal of Michelle Obama Was Doomed From the Start

“The First Lady” was canceled by Showtime this week. It’s the latest casualty of an ongoing identity crisis at the channel.
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viola davis as michelle obama in the first lady
Photo by Jackson Lee Davis/Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME

This week, Showtime announced that The First Lady, a series they’d once boasted was “a revelatory reframing” of the lives of Betty Ford, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Michelle Obama, would not be returning to the network for a second season. I watched for the same reason many viewers watched: Viola Davis. When she was cast as Michelle Obama, I was skeptical, but thought if anyone could pull off the allure of the former First Lady, it would be her, an actress equally capable of playing tough-as-nails (as How to Get Away With Murder’s lead, Annalise Keating) and tender (as Rose Maxson, on her way to winning an Oscar for Fences)


On the surface, The First Lady technically ticked all the boxes: It had the backing of a legacy network, a star-studded cast, and a figure as beloved as Michelle Obama as one of its central characters. Political shows like The West Wing, House of Cards, and Scandal have long drawn on America’s fascination with the White House—this show would mix that with real-life drama. Perhaps the idea could really scale: Earlier this year, showrunner Cathy Schulman and director Susan Bier revealed that they thought the series could be used to tell the stories of even more First Ladies, like Hillary Clinton, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Melania Trump.

There were some problems with the production itself. To my surprise, I had to restart the first episode three times before I could follow it. The show’s premise—that these women’s lives were similar because they married men with the same job—felt one-dimensional. As much as I admire Michelle Obama’s work, five years felt a little premature to be revisiting her tenure in the White House. 

The question that plagued me the most, however, was why, in Davis’ portrayal of Obama, she was committed to pouting like she just finished a bag of Warheads. The internet also hated the facial expressions, which made Obama’s plotline, and thus the show, feel satirical. 


But there’s also the issue of the broader climate. A June Pew Research Center study found that trust in the public government is dangerously low, with only two out of 10 Americans declaring that they trust officials. Even centering Michelle Obama, who is arguably one of the most popular and beloved First Ladies—particularly among Black communities—did not move the needle on how well The First Lady was received by audiences. 

There is a reason people refer to Michelle Obama as our “forever First Lady.” For many of us, she symbolized the other side of the American Dream—the “twice as hard” narrative personified. That also meant that, as a Black woman living at the most coveted address in the country, she was subjected to verbal attacks simply for existing. (Davis has often been scrutinized and mistreated for racist reasons, too, even as she’s celebrated; she’s been deemed the “Black Meryl Streep” while struggling to be paid anywhere near what Meryl Streep is paid.) 


But even though her time in the White House is over, Michelle Obama’s story is far from finished. Especially in light of the deeply personal nature of Becoming, Obama’s lengthy memoir published in 2018, the prospect of truncating her life to her time spent in her husband’s shadow in The First Lady feels like an ill-timed eulogy. 

Davis told BBC’s Today that playing Obama was “almost impossible.” Admitting that she had no insight into the role from Michelle Obama herself, Davis added that the way she portrayed the former First Lady was a pointed choice. “Ultimately, I feel like it is my job as a leader to make bold choices,” she said. “Win or fail, it is my duty to do that.”

The criticism of The First Lady was a sore spot for Davis, who told Today, “[Critics] serve absolutely no purpose.” But the reviews captured viewers’ collective confusion: The show was called a “bad wig costume drama,” “tenuous, awkward, and sometimes nonsensical,” and its acting was “parody-level”. If the show were renewed despite these critiques, Davis’s point might stand up a little better. But it would be fair to say that the general distaste for the show, from fans and critics, accurately captured how out of touch the show was with the cultural moment it aired in. 

A large part of television’s changing of the guard is that prestige TV no longer solely exists on harder-to-access cable—each streaming service has its own version of what prestige TV looks like. At first, Showtime’s promotion of The First Lady seemed to center around Davis’s portrayal of Obama—but our love for Michelle Obama doesn’t mean that we wanted a slapstick reenactment of her mannerisms, further weighed down by sleepy portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford. 

The fact that the show has joined Black Monday and Desus & Mero on the list of recently concluded Showtime shows suggests that perhaps there’s a slight brand identity crisis for the channel. “[Showtime] has good brand awareness, but I feel that the network has recently lost some pizzazz,” a former employee at the network told The Streamable last year. “It doesn’t have the same cultural weight it had five to 10 years ago.” Jana Winograde, president of the network, thinks otherwise. “A big part of [recent coming-of-age hit Yellowjackets’ success] was because the show became part of the cultural conversation,” Winograde told Screen Daily, also citing Dexter: New Blood as another reason for a quadrupled spike in ratings since November. “It was water-cooler television, which we all talk about, but is really hard to achieve.” It’s true that people talked about The First Lady, too. The problem with that discussion was that they only seemed to be talking about how much they hated it.

Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer for VICE.