The Kennedys, BBC2, Friday
James May's Things You Need to Know, BBC2, Monday

Bobby's the best of a pretty grim bunch in this disappointing depiction of an American dynasty

The chequered history of The Kennedys – the TV mini-series, rather than just the family – is already well known.

Originally commissioned by the History Channel, it was dropped by the station in January this year. The producers and director argued indignantly that every episode had been vetted for accuracy, and approved, by the top brass at History TV; they hinted darkly that its banishment was due to the disgust of influential family friends at its unflattering portrayal of the Irish-American dynasty as a corrupt, bribe-dispensing, complacent gang of priapic and amoral upstarts.

Seeing its first episodes, one wonders if the objections might be simpler than that. Maybe they just couldn't stomach such a rich chronicle being given such cheap production values and such a tacky script.

Early episodes showed the transformation of JFK from a mumbling dweeb to a master rhetorician simply by his spotting an army widow weeping in the third row and talking to her. ("They liked him because he spoke from the heart.") His chronic priapism was signalled by the subtle advances of a blond Monroe-esque PR. ("And if there's anything else you need, I'm Cynthia ...") Despite Jackie's mother's warnings ("He'll never be faithful, not for a single day") they are married, off-screen ("They're calling it the wedding of the century" grates her new father-in-law), and soon Jack is roused from his slumbers to be told by the kids, "Wake up, Mister President".

Friday's episode offered more of this risibly clichéd gallop through American history with JFK facing his first challenge: the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Contrasting the doomed offensive (in brief, all-purpose war footage) with the President's glitzy schmoozing at a White House reception, it balanced Kennedy's liberal worries against a gung-ho general ("Sir, we have a Communist bastard not 90 miles from our shore") who failed to factor into his invasion plans the foreseeable obstacle of a full moon. But Jack humbly informed the nation he'd screwed up, and soon was looking at an 80 per cent approval rating.

This is comic-strip, sub-Wikipedia history with a side order of boys-will-be-boys hagiography. Equally troubling is the production design: now that we're used to Mad Men, The Kennedys, like its hero's girlfriends, looks cheaply mounted. Even the Oval Office boardroom seems to have been bought from Ikea in the sales.

Greg Kinnear is physically well cast as the golden boy of Camelot without ever hinting at either the charm or the moral depth of JFK: the same toothachey grimace of irritable concern creases his boyish face whether he's pondering the fate of US troops on a Cuban beach or phoning an available horizontale when he can't sleep. The wardrobe department have kitted out Katie Holmes, as the famously stylish Jackie, in unflattering frocks before and after her ascension to First Lady. After an initial burst of sophomoric sassiness, she's settled into a one-note performance of sulky gloom as though rehearsing for the funeral. Tom Wilkinson (born in Leeds) is excellent as Joe Kennedy Snr, radiating hard-won political nous and 18-carat unscrupulousness. The one to watch, however, is Barry Pepper, who played the ace sniper in Saving Private Ryan. His Bobby is a family man, bullied by his dad into playing a part in government. Once there, he grows convincingly into a hard-ass when confronted by generals and J Edgar Hoover, following a similar moral trajectory to Al Pacino's in The Godfather. The show won't impress anyone keen on historic subtlety, but I'll be back to see how they portray Frank Sinatra in Part Four.

If The Kennedys was history-lite, James May's Things You Need to Know was biology-ultralite. The Top Gear presenter with the hairstyle and clothing sense (the floral shirts! the cable-knit jumpers!) of my lesbian Aunt Madge used graphics, Victorian cut-outs and similar comical accessories to take his audience through procreation (the competitive racing sperm were very Top Gear-ish,) genetics, digestion, excretion, human bugs ("The human body is a walking zoo of bacteria and parasites"), tapeworm, the common cold, teenagers ("80 per cent of teen skin is like pizza"), hangovers, ageing and death – all in half an hour. May is a reassuring cove, and delivered his talk from the depths of a leather armchair, like a family doctor. But who was it meant for? Adults would have found it banal, teenagers a bit condescending – and would the 11-year-olds who were its natural audience have been around to watch it at 10pm?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style