FX and Hulu both make terrific shows in their own right. Now, a partnership has formed where viewers get FX series exclusively on the streaming platform. One of the first of those is MRS. AMERICA, a new miniseries based on the true story of the push for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. It completely lives up to the best programming from both sides.
Setting aside the politics, MRS. AMERICA is an extremely well-made, well-acted, compelling history lesson. It’s fantastic as a story, brilliantly directed and executed, with terrific production design. As a piece of television, it’s wonderful.
MRS. AMERICA begins with Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett, Carol), a housewife who has run for Congress twice. When the opportunity comes up for her to run again, her husband, Fred (John Slattery, Mad Men), balks because she might actually win. So to satisfy her own political ambitions and keep the peace in a marriage where she is subservient, she pours her attentions into organizing a national effort to stop the newly-passed Equal Rights Amendment, which must be ratified by thirty-eight states to become law.
It’s a good thing MRS. AMERICA shows us Phyllis before she embarks down this path. It doesn’t stop her from being a villain, but it does make her sympathetic at first, which viewers can hold in their minds as the rest of the story plays out. We get to see what motivates her, and why she makes some of the choices she makes. She is trapped in a patriarchal world and tries to grab power playing by the mens’ rules, even though her desire for power is antithetical to the system in the first place. This does allow for some sympathy, even when she’s being heartless.
Along for the ride with Phyllis are, most notably, Alice (Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story), Rosemary (Melanie Lynskey, Togetherness), and Phyllis’ sister, Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Alice and Rosemary want the movement to succeed, and struggle with Phyllis’ leadership. But Eleanor’s story is the most tragic, as Phyllis describes the enemy to be pretty similar to her own sibling, while acting totally ignorant to how it sounds to Eleanor.
Lest you think MRS. AMERICA is just a liberal fantasy version of reality, the women on the other side are far from perfect. Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne, Spy) finds it hard to fit in with the organized opposition, preferring to chart her own course without oversight. Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba, Orange Is the New Black) risks wrecking party unity by staying in the presidential race too long. Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) is opinionated and has the tendency to rub just about everyone the wrong way. Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale, The Americans) is willing to compromise far beyond what some of her compatriots are willing to accept. And hell, Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks, The Hunger Games) is somehow still a Republican! They can’t get on message together to actually accomplish anything, and they fail to take the threat Phyllis poses seriously until it’s too late, blind to people whose opinions are so different from their own.
Each of the leads could support their own miniseries. One might argue they’re lumped together because of their gender, rather than just because of the cause. I still like the format. Each hour includes all the leads, but the episode title reveals with woman will get a little more focus for that offering. Phyllis and Gloria are probably the two biggest characters overall, and that shows.
I’ll admit, that it’s impossible to judge MRS. AMERICA without political views creeping in. At least it is for me. So the next portion is written from the perspective of a liberal, straight, white man, which comes with much bias and unearned privilege.
It would be hard for many conservatives to enjoy a show, even one featuring flawed liberal women, when their own position is so blatantly misguided. But I hope they watch anyway. The liberal in me wants to say, if you have a problem with MRS. AMERICA, then don’t have such evil viewpoints. But here’s the thing: this is an inspiring underdog story of the rise of feminism, made all the more tragic by the lack of progress of the heroes’ central goals nearly fifty years later. Though, now it’s common for both parents to be forced to work outside the home to make ends meet and the classic family dynamic has eroded by necessity, not choice, so really, we all lost.
The real take-away, in my opinion, is the reflection on modern society. We see the misinformation and twisting of facts to serve an agenda, and how masses of people buy into it. We also see what happens when good people fighting for a just cause fail to unite in their mission. There are plenty of strong reasons for individuals to draw the line in different places, but speaking with one voice can prove very effective, even when that voice is wrong.
Will this story have a happy ending? That remains to be seen, and it certainly won’t within the span of nine episodes, as the battle still rages on in 2020, reignited by the last presidential election in ways it hasn’t been since the events depicted in MRS. AMERICA. Hopefully, those that want to finish what was started learn a few lessons and draw inspiration from this story.
The first three episodes of MRS. AMERICA are available now on Hulu, with new installments weekly.