“The Kennedys,” an eight-episode miniseries that premières April 3rd, is being promoted by the channel airing it as “the most controversial TV-movie event of the year”—a phrase, you’ll notice, that doesn’t express pride in the quality of the show or speak to its degree of importance. It’s a fairly empty boast, but a useful one for ReelzChannel, where “The Kennedys” landed after being rejected, in January, by the History Channel, where the project originated. Acquiring a “controversial” show has given this widely available but little watched and ineptly named channel an identity—and a small superhero cape to go with it—that it never would have had if the History Channel (and then Showtime and a couple of other outlets) hadn’t declined to run the series. Reelz is half movie-industry fanzine—with programs devoted to movie trailers and top-ten car-chase scenes or Bond girls; a review show with Leonard Maltin; and a few actual movies—and half grab bag of chestnuts, some of them a little wormy at this point, such as “Cheers,” “Becker,” “3rd Rock from the Sun,” and “Ally McBeal.” And now along comes “The Kennedys,” cannonballing into the pool.
Objections to the series, which was developed by Joel Surnow, the bluntly conservative co-creator of “24,” started appearing more than a year ago, when several Kennedy historians and insiders protested its existence—before it actually did exist, or had even been cast. As reported in the Times, Theodore Sorensen, John F. Kennedy’s adviser and speechwriter, and the crusading filmmaker Robert Greenwald—whose documentaries shine a light on, for example, the ugliness of Rupert Murdoch, Wal-Mart, and the American contractors who capitalized on the war in Iraq—complained about the scripts-in-progress. Greenwald referred to the work as “political character assassination,” and Sorensen, on a Web site that Greenwald set up, called StopKennedySmears.com, argued that “this one-sided, right-wing script” suffers from “a vindictive, malicious approach.” Visitors to the site were encouraged to sign a petition stating, “Until The History Channel stops running politically motivated fiction as historical ‘fact,’ I will refuse to watch their programming.”
In the end, the History Channel executives gave up the project, releasing a statement that said, “After viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” Lest anyone fear that the channel had suddenly gone mad and was pretending to be something it isn’t—a straight-up history channel that doesn’t allow artistic license—they offered sugary reassurance: “We recognize historical fiction is an important medium for storytelling and commend all the hard work and passion that has gone into the making of the series.” Right: here’s a commendation for you, and don’t let the door hit you on your way out.
Viewers who never worked for the Kennedys or wrote books about them (or for them: Sorensen helped out, shall we say, with John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Profiles in Courage”) may not be experts, but “The Kennedys” doesn’t actually come across to the semi-knowledgeable, Kennedy-steeped American adult as having a political agenda. It has a dramatic agenda, and, in service of that, its creators—Stephen Kronish, who worked with Surnow on “24,” is his writing partner here—made certain choices that were bound to upset interested parties. Among those reportedly in that camp are Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver, who are said to have put pressure on the History Channel’s parent network, A&E, with which they share a web of personal and professional connections, to pull the plug on the show. I suspect that their objections amounted to matters of taste and style: snobbery about the compromises and fakery of docudramas (which I share), a desire not to dwell on the unsavory aspects of their family’s legacy (which I understand), and an intense irritation at not being able to control the narrative as it plays out in public (which anyone can understand). Surely there was also a desire to protect their remaining elders: the miniseries was developed at a time when the last of the parents and aunts and uncles were beginning to die—five of them have gone in the past six years. (Of that older generation only one Kennedy sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and one spouse, Ethel Kennedy, are still alive.)