Monday, October 17, 2005

President Mom Saves the World
Even though I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the new ABC series Commander in Chief is going to be unfairly compared to The West Wing, I'm going to go ahead and do it anyhow.

The West Wing's producers rely on several former White House staffers to provide technical advice on how things work. Although Commander in Chief employs Hillary Clinton's former deputy communications director as head writer, three episodes in, the verdict seems to be that it's getting much of its technical advice from seventh-grade civics textbooks, seasoned with handfuls of Hollywood nonsense. The two major crises Mackenzie Allen has already faced--the execution of a high-profile dissident in Africa and the murder of several DEA agents in South America--have both been solved mostly by making her serious face and then sending in the troops. In other words, steely resolve and American firepower will make everything right.

And conservatives think President Allen is a plot to warm us up for President Hillary? Christ, she's Bush.

An independent president would never choose another political novice as her vice president, and if she tried to, that person would have no chance to be confirmed. And the writers seem to be setting us up for an attempt by the Speaker of the House (who, if he had a mustache, would twirl it like Snidely Whiplash) to force Allen from office. This, too, simply wouldn't happen. Assume, correctly, that with no political base in Congress, she will be nothing more than a caretaker until the next election, yes. Manipulate the system to screw her over politically, yes. Connive with her chief of staff to replace her with somebody else, no. Even Tom Delay would shrink from that.

Politics aside, the writers have some more fundamental problems. On two separate occasions, characters have delivered lines so precious that I was certain they were setups for jokes--only to have them be meant in earnest. The writers also seem to have a tin ear for the family dynamics of such a high-profile family--Allen has supposedly been vice president for two years, and her husband has been her chief of staff, and in that time, the family would certainly have discussed A) the possibility of Mom becoming president and B) how to live in a fishbowl. Yet the writers present the First Family, especially the kids, as if they'd been plucked off the street and installed in the White House out of the blue. From her first second on-screen, it was clear that the eldest daughter was going to be a problem, and three episodes in, she's already locked up the Kim Bauer Prize, named after superagent Jack Bauer's daughter on 24, whose main tasks in the first two seasons of that series were to look pouty, act stupid, and take up airtime better spent on more interesting characters. (Digression: Just once, can't somebody on TV write a family in which it's Older Brother who's maladjusted, Middle Child who's likable and popular, and in which Youngest Child isn't so cute she makes your teeth hurt?)

We know already that the entire first season of this show is going to be about Allen's adjustment to her office. However, a more interesting series would involve the adjustment of Kyle Secor's "first gentleman" to his position, trying to sublimate his take-charge instincts to a lower-profile role, and dealing with the former first lady's chief of staff, a chirpy protocol fanatic. Ultimately, Secor is a lot more believable in his role than Geena Davis is in hers. His advantage is that his character is a blank slate. Viewers have no expectations for him. Davis' disadvantage is that she has to be The First Female President, and carry all the baggage the audience--and the writers--associate with that role. She has a lot less space in which to maneuver, and so far, she's stayed in the box.

But: The Mrs. likes the show, and the third episode was far better than the second, so we're not giving up on it yet. Yet. (Am I being too hard it? Click "comments" and tell me, one way or the other.)

Later this week: I catch up on my backlog of West Wing episodes.

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