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Television Review

Deflating an American dynasty

‘The Kennedys’ has controversy, but not much else

Greg Kinnear is John F. Kennedy and Katie Holmes is Jacqueline Kennedy in the eight-part miniseries. Greg Kinnear is John F. Kennedy and Katie Holmes is Jacqueline Kennedy in the eight-part miniseries. (Reelzchannel)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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Can we have The Accent Conversation?

Yes, one more time, please, just as catharsis. I mean, too many of the characters in the miniseries “The Kennedys’’ sound like overcaffeinated auctioneers recovering from root canal surgery.

Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy whispers like a 5-year-old Southie girl with amnesia who thinks she was born in a British castle, while Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy and Barry Pepper as Robert F. Kennedy squawk like Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har Har. Tom Wilkinson as Joseph P. Kennedy, meanwhile, uses his native British accent, which, you know, makes a lot of sense.

But of course the Brahminesque cacophony is old news in American entertainment. And, in the new miniseries “The Kennedys,’’ premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. on ReelzChannel, the accent problem doesn’t really undermine anything worthwhile, as it did in “The Departed.’’ Indeed, the accent problem is the least of the defects in this eight-part, $25 million wax museum. “The Kennedys’’ is a draggy waste of time, as it transforms America’s mythic dynasty into turgid, repetitive mush.

The only reason to watch “The Kennedys’’? To find out how to flatten a few of the 20th century’s most dramatic historical moments and best-known figures into a slow week of “One Life to Live.’’ The extraordinary qualities that made JFK, RFK, and Jackie into international political and cultural lightning rods have been completely stripped from the Kennedy mythology. These characters are just melodramatic ciphers in period costumes and, in the case of Jackie, a bad wig.

It’s hard to believe that the Kennedy family would have tried to squash the miniseries, as was rumored, if they’d known it would be quite this fangless and dull. The characters in “The Kennedys’’ — particularly Kinnear’s dopey, sincere Jack and Holmes’s pouty Jackie — are too vaguely realized to be convincingly negative. They’ve all been reduced to two or three obvious traits — traits that have been alive for decades in the entertainment world, through TV movies and Vanity Fair articles. JFK: pill addict, chick magnet. RFK: family man, naïve. Jackie: fragile, polite. Rose: matriarchal, Catholic. These cliched qualities are reiterated in every scene, in every look, in every line, with almost no character development as the episodes move forward through superficially sketched historical events.

Only Joseph Kennedy is clearly a scoundrel, but so much so that you can’t forget he’s a caricature, the snarling villain that haunts all daytime soaps. Every line out of Joe’s mouth before his stroke in 1961 is nefarious, from his maniacal assertion to Jack and Joe Jr. that “this country is ours for the taking’’ to his dismissive attitude toward Rose’s love of God and church. Wilkinson is a powerhouse actor who can also be remarkably subtle, as he was in “Michael Clayton,’’ “In the Bedroom,’’ and HBO’s “Normal.’’ Here, he’s just a rickety hate machine with tortoiseshell glasses.

Despite passing glimpses of the oddly spunky Ethel (Kristin Booth), a few of Jack and Joe’s mistresses, Cabinet members, and uninspired replicas of Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, and Sam Giancana, the miniseries feels oddly underpopulated. By episode five, I’d had quite enough of Jack, Jackie, Joe, and Bobby, who is played by Pepper with an oddly inhibited upper lip that, in one scene, makes eating rather challenging. Ted, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the foreground of the action, at least in the first five episodes.

You probably would have ignored “The Kennedys’’ but for both the casting of Holmes, who stirs tabloid curiosity wherever she goes, and The Controversy. “The Kennedys,’’ executive produced by the openly conservative Joel Surnow of “24,’’ has surfed media waves in the past year or so — first, when historians, including the late Theodore Sorensen, attacked early drafts of the script as malicious and inaccurate, and then when the History Channel, which commissioned the project, rejected it as “not a fit for the History brand.’’

Now, as the miniseries airs on the small Reelz, which bought it at a sharp discount for a reported $7 million after other channels turned it down, you are probably paying attention. But if you watch “The Kennedys,’’ you may end up cursing the controversy-as-publicity factor that grabbed you in the first place. Surnow may have had a political agenda as he and his team assembled “The Kennedys,’’ but it seems to have been buried under the narrative shapelessness of the final product. There’s nothing dishy, or infuriating, or entertaining about the miniseries. It’s enervating and unnecessary.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE KENNEDYS Starring: Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Katie Holmes, Tom Wilkinson, Kristin Booth, Diana Hardcastle

On: ReelzChannel

Time: Sunday, 8-10