Supporters of former President Ronald Reagan are celebrating their victory at getting CBS to drop its planned airing of the unflattering miniseries The Reagans. But maybe they should think again. The American public is not nearly as stupid as network executives (and perhaps some conservatives) believe, and early previews of the docudrama suggest that it is so dreadful that it would do more damage to the credibility and reputation of CBS than to the Reagans. Rather than threatening to boycott the show, conservatives should probably be lobbying to have CBS broadcast it during sweeps week—several times.
Controversy over The Reagans erupted when details of the script leaked out, and it became clear that the production was taking liberties with the truth. In the production Reagan appears heartless toward AIDS suffers and calls himself “the Antichrist.” His wife Nancy is portrayed as a domineering witch who controls the complacent president. The characterizations, and the movie’s penchant for putting words into Reagan’s mouth that he never spoke, sparked an outcry from conservatives that ultimately prompted CBS to cancel the broadcast and opt instead for an airing on Showtime, the much smaller cable channel owned by CBS’s parent company.
The cancellation has prompted a new round of indignation, this time from liberals. The Nation termed Republican demands that CBS submit the docudrama to a review by historians “creepy.” The New York Times editorialized that calls to yank the show represented a “Soviet-style chill” against “critical portrayals” of our leaders. (That the paper that gave us the Jayson Blair affair thinks that distorting the facts and making up quotes in a docudrama is merely a “critical” portrayal tells us much about the Times today.)
Much as I hate to admit it, I am on the side of the Left here when it comes to lamenting the cancellation, but for different reasons. Everything we have learned so far about the miniseries—from the hamhandness of the script to the actors chosen for key roles to the previews already circulating—suggests that The Reagans is an artistic fiasco of epic proportions, possibly among the worst TV miniseries ever produced, in the words of one critic. Rather than protect the American public from this latest Hollywood debacle, we should make it required viewing, not for its lessons about the Reagans but about our entertainment industry.
For one thing, it’s difficult to take seriously a movie with stars like these. In the role of Reagan, CBS has cast celebrity-spouse James Brolin. Much has been made over the fact that Brolin is the husband of Hollywood liberal icon Barbara Streisand, but what’s more telling about CBS’s intentions with The Reagans is that Brolin can’t act. Since achieving a modicum of fame in the 1960s as the impossibly good looking Dr. Steve Kiley on the TV show Marcus Welby, MD, Brolin has created a list of forgettable roles in unremarkable films with titles like The Sands of Time, Nightmare on the 13th Floor, and Visions of Murder. What says everything about Brolin’s career is that the most well-known movie in which he has appeared during the last 30 years is Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure—and he had a minor part. That CBS would tap an actor with Brolin’s unremarkable reputation and stiff acting style to portray one of the most recognizable figures of the second half of the twentieth century tells you how little store the network has put in the artistic quality of the miniseries.
The network’s selection of Judy Davis to play Nancy Reagan is perhaps even more inept. Although Davis is a better actor than Brolin, her obvious relish at playing bitchy women guaranteed that her Nancy would be more caricature than characterization. Davis is perhaps best known for her portrayal, in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, of the high-strung, grating Sally, a woman in the midst of a marital breakup, who storms through the movie upsetting just about everyone and everything in her path. She seems to have taken a similarly over-the-top approach in The Reagans. More than one critic who has seen previews says that Davis’s take on Nancy is reminiscent of Faye Dunaway camping up the wicked Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. It’s hard to believe that the American public is ready to swallow that portrait of Nancy Reagan, whom they have seen so steadfastly watching over her ailing husband for years. But this kind of clueless casting is typical of Hollywood, which believes that the rest of the country sees the Reagans in the same cartoonish way as it does and can’t believe that anyone except men with Confederate flags on their bumpers—and their blowzy wives—would admire the couple.
Much has been made over the fact that CBS’s cancellation of the show is evidence of the power of conservative voices in the media today, and especially of the influence of the Right on the Internet. And certainly the so-called blogosphere had much to do with bringing the details of The Reagans to the public’s attention. But the American public doesn’t need to be protected from the kind of partisan caricature that CBS has wrought in The Reagans. After all, Americans in droves have deserted the networks’ ideologically driven nightly newscasts over the last decade, in favor of cable outlets and radio talk shows offering different points of view. Which is why I say that, rather than chasing The Reagans off the air, we ought to be chanting: “Bring it on.”