If you’ve set a goal to better yourself and learn new things during this period of social distancing, then I can’t think of a more entertaining way to do so than by watching Mrs. America.
The nine-episode series, now streaming on FX on Hulu (yes, “FX on Hulu” is apparently its own thing!), tells the story of the second-wave feminists who tried to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s—and the anti-feminist women who were ultimately successful in stopping them. The ERA campaign hinged on the novel idea that equality among genders ought to be written into the United States Constitution, and after watching the first three episodes, it strikes me just how little American politics have changed in the last 50 years.
But first, the fun stuff: This series has everything you want in a period piece. A brilliant 70s color palette—those shades that are so close to earth tones, yet so far from what is found in nature. Dynamic montages and intermediary scenes that hum as vibrantly as the era-defining soundtrack. Sharp writing that perfect straddles that tricky line of being true to the time it’s set in, yet aware of its present-day audience. I wasn't surprised to learn that Mrs. America showrunner Dahvi Waller also wrote for Mad Men, the last truly great TV period piece.
Oh, and the acting! I need social distancing to be over by September for the very selfish reason that I want to see every damn actress in this show deliver an acceptance speech at the Emmys. Cate Blanchett plays toxic conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly with equal parts humanity and honesty, without veering into tired sympathetic antihero territory. Margo Martindale and Tracey Ullman are hilarious and barbed as the feminist politician Bella Azbug and the Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan, respectively.
Rose Byrne is criminally fun to watch in Gloria Steinem drag (the iconic middle-part and aviator glasses front and center), and Uzo Aduba sinks her teeth into the tension of being first female presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, caught between the Black rights and women’s liberation movements—and ultimately screwed by both. Sarah Paulson plays Schlafly’s fictionalized sidekick, a part that might’ve otherwise been forgettable. But of course, no role can be forgettable when embodied by Paulson, whose characters always brim with a rich undercurrent of emotion.
Beyond being enjoyable as hell to watch (I burned through the first three episodes after they dropped on Wednesday), Mrs. America also serves as an edifying lesson in 1970s American politics. It says something truly shameful about our society that I learned more about the dynamics of Chisholm’s campaign in an hour of television than I did in any K-12 or college class, but oh well, at least I spent an entire school year learning about the Oregon Trail!
The plot twists and dialogue of the show also hit several parallels with the political tropes of 2020: The misguided fear that social equality will somehow lead to women being unsafe in public restrooms; the ease with which Democratic white men can dangle VP slots as consolation prizes for women and people of color; the way otherwise progressive candidates treat abortion as ultimately expendable to their bottom line. It’s almost as if those who don’t remember history will be doomed to repeat it, or something like that.
The remaining episodes of Mrs. America will drop weekly on Wednesdays—but the first free are already right there on Hulu, waiting to be streamed. You may as well binge it this weekend, because let’s face it: It’s the closest you’ll get to a decade theme party for a long time. And for the few hours you’re watching this smart, fun show, that won’t feel so bad.