The Weekend's TV: The Kennedys, Fri, BBC2
Mildred Pierce, Sat, Sky Atlantic

A family portrait that's out of focus

Let's get the History history out of the way first.

The Kennedys (currently airing on BBC2 after a History channel premiere) was originally commissioned by the History channel in the US, but never actually shown by the company that made it. Instead it was fostered out to a station called ReelzChannel, whose commitment to the highest standardz of drama and writing can only be guessed at from itz spelling. This was hardly a dignified end to an enterprise launched in a spirit of earnest and patriotic endeavour, but, if the epigraph of Friday night's episode is anything to go by, the producers of The Kennedys know how to cope. "Defeat is not bitter unless you swallow it", it ran – a statement intended to apply to an equally disappointing undertaking, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which gave John F Kennedy his first real challenge as President.

The critical consensus on The Kennedys is that a dynastic story of Shakespearean complexity has been turned into a strip cartoon. And the consensus isn't entirely wrong. Tom Wilkinson plays Joe Sr., the manipulative patriarch of the Kennedy gang, as a B-movie villain, which isn't his fault really, since the script offers him no other options. It's his job to represent Crushing Paternal Expectation. Katie Holmes has been cast, with unrewarded optimism, as Jacqueline – and every long mile between the East Coast, bone-china breeding of the character and the West Coast cheerleader ordinariness of the performer is apparent every time she comes on screen. As the President, Greg Kinnear is pretty good, getting the accent, but repeatedly let down by the lines it colours. And throughout crudity is the real problem – an insistence on spelling out every bullet-point detail of the familiar story.

But The Kennedys has a West Wing problem too. That is, most of the likely audience for an American political series of this kind already have a template for Oval Office drama – and the endless battle between the ideal and the achievable. If you were looking to cast a real American President as Josiah Bartlet then you could hardly do better than Kennedy; good-looking, charming and – barring a few awkward historical facts – a knightly exemplar of American idealism. Unfortunately, because he's real he can't be anything like as compelling as Aaron Sorkin's fictional President. The screenwriters for The Kennedys find themselves shackled to history – and while the chain will stretch long enough to allow for the odd flourish ("We thought it would be useful for him to get some experience before going into private practice," Kennedy joked to the press after appointing Bobby as Attorney General), mostly they're in lockstep with the known events.

It's quite an achievement to make those events dull when you think about it. Entering office, Kennedy found himself inheriting a risky scheme to overthrow the Castro government while his brother Bobby immediately clashed with J. Edgar Hoover, a dangerously well-informed enemy. But to have a scene in which Hoover bellows about his intention to dig up the sexual dirt on Kennedy while actually standing in the lobby of the Justice Department doesn't amplify his menace, but defuses it. And Kennedy's clashes with his military advisers as the Bay of Pigs attack disastrously unwinds are similarly simplistic affairs, a couple of barked exchanges in which Top Brass Conservatism finds itself up against Youthful Integrity. If you want a really good fictional account of this fascinating period in American history I'd suggest you read Norman Mailer's terrific novel Harlot's Ghost. As for The Kennedys, those involved would do best to emulate what the President did in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs. Apologise and hope to get some credit for unexpected candour.

Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes's meticulous reworking of the James L. Cain novel (not the Michael Curtiz film which will be in most people's minds) is a very different affair. This is unmistakably mission accomplished and unmistakably a work of controlled quality at every level. Whether that means you'll actually find it watchable is another question, because Haynes has a passion for domestic minutiae and highly charged drabness which is not a universal taste. His series starts not with a gunshot – as the Curtiz film did – but with a scene of apple-pie ordinariness. Mildred is baking and her husband, Bert, is mowing the lawn in a California suburb. But there's a hidden crack in the golden bowl; he's cheating on her and she's finally had enough. When Bert goes, Mildred is left with the task of maintaining a decent life for herself and a more than decent one for Veda, her lethally spoiled teenager.

The conditions are right for a kind of martyrdom by petty humiliation – and Kate Winslet is rather wonderful at conveying the stop-start business of swallowing her pride. She thinks it'll be easy to get down, chokes on the realities, stops and tries again, until she's working in a diner and on her way to the apotheosis the story has planned. She also lets a beer-gutted friend of her husband have his way with her, a sudden capitulation which neither Haynes's script nor Winslet's performance offered any explanation for. Moments like that feel numb, not patiently attentive, and call into question the somewhat self-regarding pace of the whole thing, which takes it as read that you have nothing better to do. You might very well not, given how meticulous and loving Haynes's sense of period is, but it's equally possible that you'll feel he summons up the Great Depression in ways he wouldn't have wanted.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
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
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.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    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?