You look at the episode list and you think to yourself, “Do I really want to spend nine hours digging into ten years of the political life of anti-Equal Rights Amendment crusader Phyllis Schlafly?”
It’s a valid question. In this, the golden age of bingeable short-term series TV, every narrative idea is stretched to the point of breaking to lure the viewer in, hook you and drag the damned thing out into eternity as it slowly ambles from point A to point B.
But “Mrs. America” (April 15, on Hulu) is, for the most part, worth the short-made-long journey of Schlafly’s life and her key role in the rise of Reagan and the end of the FDR/Kennedy age of progressivism, social progress and long march toward gender, race and income equality.
The first episode, introducing us to “Phyllis,” her allies and foes, sets the series up beautifully. And the finale, “Reagan,” is strong enough to be a stand-alone film all its own.
Credit the casting, sharp dialogue and an insightful script that picks up on both Schlafly’s methods and the fundamental hypocrisy (and blunt dishonesty) of her stance, as well as the back-biting bitchiness that doomed “libber” enemies.
Cate Blanchett gives us the shrewd, smiling, June Cleaver-with-a-switchblade persona that made Schlafly famous — “talking points” (often exaggerations, sometimes flat-out lies) hammered home on every “Phil Donahue Show” appearance. And we see her struggle to hide the disappointment or bitter fury whenever powerful men (Barry Goldwater among them) she is lobbying take her self-owning use of “we homemakers” literally, and ask her to take notes for their meeting.
Just like the second-class citizen status that she made her cause.
We see the idea of fighting the ERA handed to her by a friend (Sarah Paulson), watch her run with this into the spotlight, writing a newsletter and holding her coveted “mailing list” of committed conservatives close to her as everybody from womanizing Congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden) to Ronald Reagan himself leans on her to share it.
In a pre-Fox News/Rush Limbaugh era, TV news was expected to be impartial, but conservatives used the “Fairness Doctrine” to demand equal time to contest the facts of any debate via opinion. Of course, when they took control of Washington, they killed the Fairness Doctrine so that Limbaugh and Hannity et al and the stations that carried their programming wouldn’t face the same “give the other side equal time” requirements that they’d gamed.
Then there’s the infighting between the various factions of “feminism” as it was known in the 1970s — with pioneer Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman) bitterly sniping at Ms. Magazine “cover-girl” Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), and Congresswomen Bella Abzug (Margot Martindale, dialing down the drawl to play New York Jewish) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Abuba, who has no trace of Chisholm’s distinctive lisp) unable to keep the peace.
Schlafly mobilized after the ERA passed in Congress with the idea that “It’s not too late to stop it.” She and her team fought the battle, one state legislature ratification vote at a time.
The feminists are slow to pick up on how “the men finally found the perfect smokescreen for their chauvinism — women.” Declining to debate Schlafly, they let her spread her fear — often via deliberate misreadings of the amendment — and hers became the only version widely disseminated.
It’s a fascinating political history that creator Davhi Waller and her team take us into, built on the idea that just enough women could be radicalized and mobilized to fight against women’s rights to amplify the voices of extremism. And once in power, the Reagan/Jesse Helms/Jerry Falwell and Co. (a very young Paul Manafort is glimpsed, at one point) carve the “culture wars” lines out in stone, leading to smearing of liberal ideals, destruction of unions, rapid income inequality and the manufactured “fears” of a vast, unrestrained and over-financed right wing hype machine.
And Blanchett makes the heroic villainness of the piece something you least expect her to be — a self-martyred victim, an ambitious and cunning Lady Macbeth without the self-reflection to see her advocacy as hypocrisy at its most naked, but smart enough to see how small she really is after a decade of gnawing her own and her gender’s legs off.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, profanity
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Margot Martindale, John Slattery, James Marsden, Tracy Ullman
Credits: Created by Davhi Waller. An FX/Hulu series
Running time: 9 episodes @ 1 hour each.