Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hail to the Chiefess

Who remembers Geraldine Ferarro? She was Walter Mondale's Vice Presidential running mate, the product of a desperate attempt to vitalize a campaign against an exceptionally popular sitting president, the theory being that having someone who pees sitting down as matter of biological necessity on the ticket would automatically mean that women would vote for the ticket en mass because women always like it when one of their own gets the next to top job. It was a gimmick. It certainly couldn't have been idealism; idealism would have put an African-American on the ticket since blacks have had the vote since 1865 - fifty years longer than women in many states - and have never even had one of their own considered worthy of even occupying the post described by one of its occupants as "not worth a pitcher of warm spit" (although the man who said it, John Nance Garner may have actually specified another bodily fluid and the quote modified by newspapermen of the time). There's a bit of a hint of that in the new ABC series Commander In Chief, both on the part of the politicians on the show and the network itself. It's a gimmick, but in a way it works.

I've been waiting for a while to write this post, not because I wanted to let the series settle into a groove but simply because there hasn't bee the time before. That said the show has had time to develop and seems to be settling into a particular groove. Geena Davis plays Mackenzie Allen, former Vice President of the United States until the death of the man who got her nominated her to the post. The logic was apparently that since she was a woman and an independent she'd attract women and independents. Trouble was she was a bit too independent for President Theodore Roosevelt Bridges and once he had his stroke he, and all of his advisors begged and pleaded that she resign to allow Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (played with a marvelously slimy villainy by the versatile Donald Sutherland) to replace him. And she was ready to, until she met with Templeton and he said some stuff that made him seem to the right or Attilla the Hun. This is a key point since it sets up the principal conflict in the series Mackenzie Allen versus Nathan Templeton. He wants the power of the presidency for his own agenda while she is prepared to move heaven and earth to keep him from getting it. This desire to keep Templeton from power informs Allen's own selection for Vice-President - ironically he opponent in the previous election General Warren Keaton (Peter Coyote, being distinctly less sinister than he was as one of the lead characters in this summer's The Inside) who is about as different from Templeton as she is. This is the business side of the Mackenzie Allen presidency, in which she is aided by her reluctant Chief of Staff Jim Gardner (played by Harry Lennix as a man who wishes Mac wasn't in the top job but for now at least seems to be working diligently with her), and her press secretary Kelly Ludlow (Ever Carradine).

Of course this isn't the only area of potential drama for the new female President. She has a home life to contend with, in the form of a husband, the new First Gentleman, a teenaged son and daughter (twins) and a ten year old daughter, not to mention an unwelcome lodger in the form of the previous First Lady and her son who don't seem to have anywhere else to go. The big problem is the President's husband Rod Allen (played with a certain amount of style by Kyle Secor). He had been her Chief of Staff when she was Vice President but she's worried about the image it would present if he is appointed as Presidential Chief of Staff. This leaves him with nothing but "First Lady" stuff to do, like endorsing menus and giving speeches to organizations with little or no importance. He hates this and his chief of staff, a woman who thinks that all presidential spouses should do "First Lady things" and that anything Hillary Clinton did "didn't go over well", doesn't exactly help. He wants to be a player and in the third episode he seems to have found his niche by preparing the Vice-President for his confirmation hearings. The other aspect is the kids. The twins have their own issues and personalities - son Horace is outgoing and totally supportive of his mother while daughter Rebecca doesn't get have many friends at the public school they both go to (she wants to go to private school with the kids of senators and "people like us"). For the youngest daughter there's the realization that her mother isn't always available to her and the fear - expressed by the son of the former president - that she'll never see her mother now that she's president.

Commander In Chief is not The West Wing. The comparisons have been made but in all respects even a bad episode of The West Wing is better than the best episode of Commander In Chief so far. There are lots of reasons but a big one is that despite what conservatives have said The West Wing never resorted to villains. There is no figure like Nathan Templeton in The West Wing. There are good politicians of both stripes as well as annoying and obstructionist ones - admittedly more on the right than on the left. More to the point The West Wing has always tended to focus on the workings of the White House and on the people who made it work. There was a reason why in the initial conception of the series President Bartlett wasn't meant to be seen or only seen briefly; the centre of our attention was always meant to be on the staff. By contrast, President Allen seems to have two staff members, her Chief of Staff and her Press Secretary. At the same time the show spends an inordinate amount of attention on the President's family, and while finding Rod Allen a role that will please everyone is an intriguing task, paying so much attention to the President's children and particularly the youngest (a typical cute kid played by Jasmine Jessica Anthony) isn't doing much for the show. I would suggest that finding occasionally episodes where the children - well mostly the teenagers - are the central point would work better than injecting them into each episode.

The question remains as to whether Commander In Chief is any good. I give it an extremely tentative thumbs up. Setting aside the political bullcrap which seems to pop up when you have a political drama in the United States and which seems to assert itself in comment on the IMDB and in newsgroups with the most superficial and sometimes ridiculous comments from both sides, there are problems with the show. The actors in the lead roles are some of the best around but they have to work with what they're given by the writers. Sometimes what they give them is good but frequently it seems trite, and it suffers by comparison with something superior such as The West Wing (or shows in other areas like NYPD Blue to take it out of the political arena). President Allen seems to resolve problems in an hour (minus commercials) with little or no consultation with others and she's always right. The idea that you have to have a villain like Templeton - no matter how well Donald Sutherland plays him - is a weak way to develop conflict. The result is competent but not particularly compelling entertainment even if it is drawing big ratings and is the only new series to crack the top 10 (not having to go up against House may be affecting this however). And yet I have hope for the show, in part because of the recent replacement of Rod Lurie as showrunner with Stephen Bochco. While it is difficult to see this as a Bochco show right now, my hope is that given time he'll put his stamp on the show, making it harder hitting and tackle tougher topics. People like Commander In Chief and maybe with a gradual renovation of the concept there'll be a better reason to like it.

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