“The Kennedys”

(Nick Schcolnik)– I’m struggling to decide if I think “The Kennedys” is a must watch, or must not watch show because I could make an argument for both. I’d say “The Kennedys” is somewhere in-between. If you’re looking for a realistic depiction of the lives of the members of the Kennedy family, this is probably not the right place to look. But, if you’re looking for some entertainment with only a small investment, then this definitely is the right place.

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As I casually browsed Netflix looking for some inspiration on a dull Saturday afternoon, I stumbled upon “The Kennedys,” a mini-series about the powerful American family of that name. Intrigued, I thought briefly about what I knew of the family: I knew that JFK was assassinated during his presidency and that his brother, Bobby, had also been killed while running for office. I knew that the family was immensely wealthy and incredibly powerful, and that Jacqueline Kennedy had been an inspiring and prominent First Lady. In my mind, the Kennedy’s were a symbol of America—a symbol of hard work, perseverance, and success. Not knowing exactly what it was they stood for, I thought the show would be educational. If nothing else, watching the series would be a good way to tie together a few loose historical strings that I figured I ought to know more about.

That line of thinking took place a mere 24 hours and 8 episodes ago.

The show begins with John F. Kennedy’s election day, and ends with Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, a period from 1960 to 1968. The years in-between are remarkable for the family’s misfortune and sorrow, and while the politics of the era function as a background for the show (multiple episodes are dedicated to the pertinent issue of the day—the Cold War—including the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis) its primary focus is the relationships amongst the Kennedy family members.

In “The Kennedys,” the people are attractive, the clothes expensive, and the scenery (particularly on “the Cape”) beautiful. Watching the 8 episodes made me admire John F. Kennedy’s relationship and friendship with his brother, Bobby. I loved watching Katie Holmes act as Jacqueline, if only because I felt as if I were in the 60s and understood perfectly why the press fell in love with her. The episodes are television’s equivalent of a page-turner, as I was consistently left hanging from one episode to the next, always wanting to watch just one more. The opportunity to “experience” these people I’d heard so much about, I think, was what was truly engaging.

That said, one of the fascinating aspects of “The Kennedys” is its focus on family patriarch Joseph Kennedy—a man obsessed by power and in love with money—and his dream that one of his sons be President of the United States. The driving force behind the show, surprisingly, is not President JFK, but his father. Desperate to put a Kennedy in the White House, the show flashes back to Joseph’s own political failings, depicting them as the impetus behind his steadfast willingness to negotiate (including with mafia liaison Frank Sinatra) and manipulate whomever in order to accomplish his goals, and therefore making it only natural when Joseph tabs his eldest son, Joe Jr., as the one through whom he will live vicariously. However, when Joe Jr. dies in combat World War II, Joseph quickly focuses his energy on his next son, John, seemingly for little reason other than because he is the next best option. Viewers then see John climbing through the political ranks as his father spends absurd amounts of money to ensure his success, leaving them wondering if the famous JFK would ever have been President of the United States had his father not coerced him into politics.

But the show’s story line as it pertains to Joseph is much deeper than his struggle for power; not only is Joseph power hungry, but he is also miserably inattentive to his family. He refuses to allow his younger son, Bobby, to pursue his own career outside of John’s political agenda; he, orders that his daughter, Rosemary, undergo a lobotomy without the knowledge of her mother (a procedure which permanently alters her brain); and lastly, he ferociously cheats on his wife to the point where it is acceptable for him to kiss other women in front of her.

But the theme of infidelity runs further in the family than with just Joseph, for it reaches the President. A consistent theme throughout the show, extramarital affairs, the show suggests, seem to be a particularly dominant trait in the genes of male Kennedy’s. In one episode, viewers see John “entertaining” a prostitute in the White House while Jacqueline is away; in a different episode, John frets over how to get Marilyn Monroe to stop bothering him after their affair. Similarly, Joseph is shown kissing one of his secretary’s in his office in the middle of a meeting with his sons (naturally they just laugh it off).

The show’s “tell-all” approach makes it all the more fascinating to watch, but seems to lend itself to questions of credibility. My main critique of “The Kennedys,” then, is that I feel it takes advantage of its creative license. As explored in this article in the New York Times, the balance between being creative and being accurate is a thin one. I find that the manner in which the show portrays the faithfulness of the Kennedy men to their wives (besides Bobby) is borderline slanderous because it not only shows that they were unfaithful, but also that they were brutally obvious about their digressions and unable to control themselves.

While these accusations could be true, the fact that none of the Kennedy family implicated in the show can defend themselves (they’ve passed away) makes the focus on the cheating feel a bit disingenuous. This is important because the reckless, selfish, and blatant infidelity is liable to significantly negatively alter public perception of the members of the family. It paints the family (particularly Jacqueline and Rose) in a poor light because they accept whatever whims the men choose to act upon. In short, it just makes people look bad, and I can’t help but think that such reputable people had more self-control than the show seems to suggest they do.

That said, the show absolutely tied together the loose strands of history that I wanted to better grasp. I can now feel (at least as much as somebody born after the Cold War) the tension that JFK must have felt deciding what to do with Soviet ships advancing to Cuba; I can understand what people talk about when they reference the Bay of Pigs incident. Altogether, I’ve become slightly infatuated with the Kennedy family, not because I particularly agree with the way they conduct themselves (based solely off of what the show suggests), but because of the tremendous history and influence their family has had on the United States. Would I recommend “The Kennedys” for somebody who wants a completely accurate representation of history? Probably not, but, if nothing else, I’ve spent the last hour looking for JFK, RFK, and Jackie O. posters to put up in my room for next year.

Image from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1567215/