Those concerned that the controversial Kennedys miniseries, dumped by History Channel in January, and airing on the heretofore unheard of cable network ReelzChannel starting on Sunday, would paint the Kennedys as a bunch of lecherous fornicators in the White House—as based on the original script by Steve Kornish (who worked with executive producer Joel Surnow on Fox’s 24), which played up the debauchery angle—might be surprised by what has made its way onto the screen. The result is a tedious and glacial miniseries that arrives with a leaden thud. It is no wonder that Starz, Showtime, FX, and DirecTV’s The 101 Network passed on picking up the project after History jettisoned it.
While there were cries of character assassination from Kennedy scholars, the clan itself, and critics, The Kennedys is itself a fairly surface-level whitewashing, as Kornish and director Jon Cassar seem to go out of their way to present a more balanced portrayal of JFK and the wealthy family than the original script did. Instances of jaw-dropping dramatic license seem to have fallen by the wayside, to be replaced by equally fictional swelling patriotic music, shots of the American flag waving (and falling to the ground, as it does in the opening title sequence), and faux newsreel images that seek to give this tired production some historical “weight.”
Yes, Jack ( Greg Kinnear) does have multiple infidelities (including with doomed-to-be murdered painter Mary Meyer), Jackie ( Katie Holmes) does take amphetamines, and Joe Sr. ( Tom Wilkinson) does have daughter Rosemary ( Laura Schutt) lobotomized without consulting his wife Rose ( Diana Hardcastle), but the result is largely a neutered version of the Kennedys’ saga that has already been portrayed multiple times in film and television adaptations of the 20th century’s most storied family. In fact, it’s Wilkinson’s Joe Kennedy, Sr., a Machiavellian flesh-eating shark of a father, who gives the project a glimmer of tension and malice; his shrewd puppet master seems to be pulling everyone’s strings, until his devastating stroke in 1961.
So what are the biggest changes from that salacious original script? Let’s take a look.
One: Sexual Politics
How it was: Joe Sr. fondled his secretary as his sons looked on. Criticized for his appalling clothing, Jack says he dresses poorly because, “Girls figure I need help dressing. Once I get ‘em in the closet…” (Ick.)
How it is now: Joe Jr. ( Gabriel Hogan) still goes to see his father—the then-ambassador to England—at his office in London, but Joe Sr. (Wilkinson) seems to maintain a strictly professional relationship with his gal Friday (at least for right now). Gone as well: Joe’s criticism and Jack’s sleazy retort. However, the scene still does keep Joe’s belief that concessions should be made to Hitler, lest the United States get dragged into the war, and Joe Jr. still agrees with his father.
Two: Lovers’ Lane
How it was: Joe Sr. canoodles outside his bedroom with his secretary, when they cross paths with his wife, who locks her bedroom door behind her as her husband and his not-so-secret lover enter his.
How it is now: Joe Sr. and secretary Michelle ( Rachel Wilson) are caught kissing in the foyer of the house he shares with Rose (Hardcastle). Michelle is sent on her way—conveniently, they’re standing right at the front door!—as Rose asks if her rival needs a sweater as it’s “chilly outside.” Joe Sr. then offers his wife a “Shall we go to bed, Rosie girl?” as though nothing had happened. It’s in keeping with Joe’s belief, which he shares with Jack on his wedding day, that men’s infidelities are inevitable, but that they should try to be discreet when it comes to their wives finding out. (“Wives don’t expect fidelity, but they don’t want infidelity thrown in their faces.”) Later, after Joe’s stroke, Rose sends Michelle away. A traumatized Joe Sr. scrawls the word revenge on his writing slate, leading Rose to say haughtily, “Not mine. God’s.”
Three: Inga Binga
How it was: Joe Sr. has Jack shipped off to war—after he refuses to break up with a woman the FBI believes is a foreign spy—by calling the Naval secretary.
How it is now: Joe Sr. still does come to discover that Jack is dating Inga Arvad, a married Danish national whom J. Edgar Hoover suspects of being a German spy. Jack still refers to her as “Inga Binga” and doesn’t seem perturbed at all about the allegations of counterintelligence on her part. But while Joe Sr. lashes out at Jack in a punitive fashion in an effort to split the two of them up, Jack’s deployment (seen in the very next scene) seems to happen on its own, rather than through Joe Sr.’s backroom maneuvers. (Later, when Jack is injured during the PT-109 incident, in which his ship was torn in half by a Japanese ship, Joe Jr. rails against the injustice that he has been given a medal of honor, claiming that Jack was rewarded for being asleep at his post.)
Four: Like a Prayer
How it was: Joe Sr., grief-stricken and angry about golden boy Joe Jr.’s death, goes to his bedroom alone and breaks a wooden crucifix across his knee in an act of religious rebellion.
How it is now: When Joe Jr., the eldest Kennedy son and Joe Sr.’s best hope for the White House, dies during the war, the family receives the news from two cardinals who arrive at the house bearing the bad news. Joe Sr.’s reaction now plays out in front of Rose, who turns to her faith. Rather than smashing the crucifix, Joe Sr. grabs one off of the living room wall and waves it about. As he denounces her belief in divine will (“You can pray to this thing if you want, Rose, but not me. Never again!”), the children come in. As Joe rushes out, Rose kisses the crucifix, cradling it in her hands.
Five: “Strange Ass”
How it was: Jack and Bobby have an entire conversation about horniness, including Jack’s utterly bizarre and seemingly anachronistic line, “I love lobster, but not every night. If I don’t have some strange ass every couple of days, I get migraines.” Meanwhile, Ethel ( Kristin Booth) releases live frogs at a party in McLean, a sign of how impulsive she is.
How it is now: The entire “strange ass” conversation has been excised altogether, and Ethel no longer releases any amphibious wildlife into a backyard pool at a party. She is drawn as a dutiful and loving wife to Bobby ( Barry Pepper). She’s a carefree and impulsive mother, as seen in a scene of domestic bliss, a sharp contrast to Jackie’s distant role in her own household, given her numerous duties as first lady.
Six: Campaign Aide
How it was: Jack (Kinnear) told his brother that he had sex with a sultry campaign worker in the offices the night before Election Day 1960 (“She volunteered to work overtime last night. We discussed the ins and outs of politics.”).
How it is now: While there’s obvious sexual tension between Jack and Cynthia ( Kristin Adams), as seen in the scene where she shows him a book of press clippings she’s assembled for Jackie (“We’re just talking,” says Jack, to which Bobby replies, “I think it would be much safer if you just talked to me”), the conversation is instead translated into a scene where Bobby spies Jack and Cynthia in close conversation outside the house. When Bobby chides Jack, saying that he should have some “sensitivity” and that Jackie is just upstairs, Jack tiredly replies that he knows exactly where Jackie is.
Seven: STD Payment
How it was: At Hyannisport in 1954, Joe Sr. tells Jackie (Holmes) that he knows her grandfather was a Jew and that he changed his name from Levy to Lee so that he “could get a job on Wall Street.” Jackie confides that she wants to divorce Jack and that isn’t happy in their marriage or her husband’s unfaithfulness. Joe Sr. does makes Jackie a Faustian bargain, offering Jackie $1 million, which he would place in a trust for her. If Jack doesn’t win the presidency in 1960, she can divorce him and keep the money; if he does, she will be the first lady at 31. She silently takes him up on his offer (“A beat as they lock eyes. Then she nods.”), then asks what would happen if Jack contracted an STD, to which Joe Sr. tells her she can name her price.
How it is now: Gone is the anti-Semitic banter and history lesson from Joe Sr. Jackie still confides in him about her desire for a divorce from Jack, but not her fears about Jack contracting an STD and infecting her. As before, Jackie states that Joe Sr. “believes everyone can be bought.” Here, however, Jackie is disgusted by Joe Sr.’s offer. She refuses to be bought, and she sees her father-in-law truly for the first time. It’s a change that paints Jackie in a much more favorable light, as compared to the mercenary attitude she took in the script.
Eight: Old Blue Eyes
How it was: Joe Sr. goes to see Sam Giancana, a Chicago mobster who controls the unions and precincts, to purchase votes for Jackie’s 1960 presidential election (“get names off of tombstones for all I give a damn”), in exchange for protection from the IRS and the Justice Department, should Jack get elected to the White House.
How it is now: While Joe Sr. still goes to see Sam Giancana ( Serge Houde), no mention is made of purchasing votes or making a deal for protection. Instead, it’s actually go-between Frank Sinatra ( Chris Diamantopoulos) who convinces Giancana to support Jack’s presidential run, promising Giancana that he’ll get the feds to leave him alone after Jack is elected… without Joe Sr.’s knowledge. Later, when Bobby launches the Organized Crime Division and makes plans to go after Giancana among others, Sinatra pleads with Joe to get Bobby to leave Giancana alone, revealing that he promised the mobster that the administration would look the other way. Joe Sr. is furious, telling Sinatra that his relationship with the Kennedys is over and that no deal exists.
Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.