From the women’s movement in 1970s America, to World War II in Poland and England, television is coming to the entertainment rescue this week and next with a couple of big, new, sprawling productions capable of transporting viewers to other times and places. And who isn’t looking for some of that mental and emotional TV travel during these stay-at-home days and nights?
While such programs are often thought of in a negative way as escapist fare, both of these dramas, “Mrs. America" and "World on Fire,” are relevant and connect powerfully with American life today. They also have the potential to leave some viewers smarter about the past. They certainly raise serious questions about the relationship between TV and history, especially “Mrs. America,” a nine-episode look at the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment. On one side, the women’s movement and such leaders as U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug. On the other, Phyllis Schlafly, author and founder of the conservative Eagle Forum group that fought ratification state by state.
Productions like “Mrs. America” used to be labeled docudramas until the TV industry got tired of being slammed by critics like me for taking liberties with history. They wanted the credibility of documentary film without its commitment to facts.
I hated that our shared, national past was being reimagined in some network, cable and streamed productions to fit the entertainment imperatives of prime-time TV. I spent decades arguing with producers about it. I think it’s time to admit I’ve probably lost that battle.
But I feel the need to note some of that tilt toward Hollywood rather than pure history in the very storytelling structure of “Mrs. America” with eight of the nine episodes named for and featuring historical figures. Episode 1 is titled “Phyllis,” for Schlafly. Episode 2 is “Gloria” for “Ms.” magazine editor Gloria Steinem. Episode 3 is “Shirley,” for U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972, and so on.
From a show business and box office standpoint, the structure makes perfect sense. In Hollywood thinking, you write for and to the stars. They are the ones who will draw an audience.
The most impressive thing about “Mrs. America," the thing that will make it a hit with viewers in my estimation, is the cast: Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, Margo Martindale as Abzug, Uzo Aduba as Chisholm, Rose Byrne as Steinem and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, author of the landmark “The Feminine Mystique." Even the supporting roles are populated by outstanding actors, John Slattery as Schlafly’s husband, and Sarah Paulson, as one of Schlafly’s foot soldiers in the state-by-state campaign to block ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
And it is not just their credentials; all of these actors turn in outstanding performances. Blanchett, who is also an executive producer, is in a league by herself both in star power and performance in this series. She can suggest more with a sideways glance or tightening of the muscles around her mouth than some actors can with a page of dialogue. The genius of her performance is in the way she shows Schlafly as both an oppressor and victim, utterly unwilling to acknowledge her sense of racial and class entitlement in dealing with persons of color who work in her home, while simultaneously feeling the chains of patriarchy keeping her in a submissive role to her husband and Republican leaders like Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose favor she courts.
Two scenes sure to be much discussed: Schlafly’s husband forcing himself sexually on her after she’s had a long and frustrating day, and Schlafly thinking she has made it to the inner circle of Republican political power as part of a meeting with Sen. Barry Goldwater and other men in Washington, only to be asked to serve as note taker for the meeting. Her anger, outrage and humiliation are palpable in both scenes without a word being said .
And here’s a scene you might miss because it goes by so quickly, but should pay attention to: Schlafly having to go to her husband’s office to ask him to sign for a credit card. That’s the kind of hold patriarchy still had even on upper middle class women in 1972.
And, yet, don’t feel too sad for Schlafly, because she really is not a nice person. More than anything, she’s an opportunist who saw opposition to ratification of the ERA as a way to finally get the political attention she believed she deserved. She was perfectly willing to back stab other women and say things she knew were not true, like ratification will mean women will no longer get alimony in a divorce, just to get media attention.
Through her performance, Blanchett makes viewers see both those sides of Schlafly ― and then five or six others. It is as fine-tuned a performance as you will see anywhere on any screen this year.
If you need any more reasons to watch, consider this: The effects of the women’s movement in the 1970s still resonate thunderously through American life today, whether it’s #MeToo and patriarchy’s last stand or the right’s drive to get Roe vs. Wade before the Supreme Court with Trump appointees Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
“Mrs. America” premieres April 15 at FX on Hulu, and I am expecting much debate about its historical accuracy. I hope some of the women who fought in the struggle will weigh in.
“World on Fire,” A BBC production premiering on Apr. 5 on PBS, also speaks to American life today despite its European and U.K. setting some 80 years ago. It opens at a rally in Manchester in 1939 for fascist leader Oswald Mosley. As rallygoers chant, “Blackshirts, Blackshirts,” in support of Mosley’s fascist movement, a young couple in the middle of the hall starts singing “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” with the lyrics, “bye, bye, Blackshirts.” The man is kicked and beaten, while the woman is pushed and jeered by rallygoers.
As the scene plays out, it is hard not to think of the violence and jeering toward the press and others in the crowds at President Donald Trump’s rallies ― violence to which he himself has given support.
Yes, fascism is a problem here in 2020 in ways that are similar to what it was in the U.K. and Europe in the 1930s.
There is further resonance to today in the way that Europe and the U.K. changed with the invasion of Poland in 1939 by Germany. Lives were horribly disrupted, survival became the order of the day and everything was suddenly a matter of life and death for many people in places like Warsaw. In Britain, it was fear of the unknown that lay ahead.
“World on Fire” will transport you. It has that kind of power and historical heft. But it definitely is not going to let you escape what you are feeling today in the wake of the invasion of COVID-19.
I think that’s a good thing. I have heard several analysts compare what’s happening to us today with COVID-19 to what our parents and grandparents felt in World War II. “World on Fire” is a powerful enough production to make us feel some of that in our bones.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.