Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Go Fish
In announcing its fall schedule for 2006, ABC has also announced the official cancellation of Commander in Chief, its highly-touted series starring Geena Davis as the President of the United States. There are lessons in this for aspiring television producers everywhere.

First of all, there's a difference between an intriguing concept and an intriguing show. Commander in Chief was the most intriguing concept of the past several TV seasons, but the producers never had a clue about what to do with it. Instead, they merely grafted generic plots on top of it. And not even generic TV plots--plots that were generic long before the invention of television: the powerful enemy lying in wait for the eager young hero to stumble, and the fish out of water tale. While it may be true that all stories are a variation on two plots ("you go on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town"), stories worth hearing generally dig a little deeper.

Second of all, if your goal is to craft intelligent, thoughtful adult drama, do not focus attention on children. As soon as Commander in Chief did its first episode about the kids having trouble adjusting to President Mom, I was off the bus. Even when otherwise intelligent and thoughtful adult dramas try to morph into family drama, it never works. Take the story arc on The West Wing in which Bartlet temporarily resigns the presidency when his daughter is kidnapped, and the episode where C.J. goes home to bond with her distant and ailing father, which represent the worst story arc and single episode of the series. Take the melodramatic storyline in the next-to-last season of NYPD Blue, in which Andy and Connie nearly lose the baby they're trying to adopt. Take the monumentally stupid Kim Bauer on 24. Someday, somebody's going to prove me wrong about this--but it isn't going to be a show where the youngest daughter is wide-eyed and precocious beyond her years, the middle daughter is sullen and maladjusted, and the oldest son is an amiable overachiever trying not to seem like one.

However, the simplistic family dynamic of Commander in Chief was in keeping with the general simplicity of the show. The conflict between Davis and her nemesis, Donald Sutherland, was so broad that the only thing missing was the hero's white hat and the villain's black one. And while The West Wing, even at its lowest point, always presented the mechanics of governing as they really work, Commander in Chief presented the back-of-the-cereal-box version, in which problems are simple and so are the solutions. The irony of this is that it's a vision of politics that conservatives should love--especially the part where President Mom sends American troops stomping all over the globe to prove she's got balls enough to lead--but they were so spooked by imaginary visions of Hillary Clinton in Davis' character that they didn't notice.

My guess is that between the standard set by The West Wing and the high-profile failure of Commander in Chief, it will be a long while before anybody tries a president series again. Unless somebody figures out that a much more interesting idea has been under their noses all this while: a series about the husband of the first female president. Now that's a fish-out-of-water tale worth the effort.

Quote of the Day: From Daily Kos contributor WorldCan'tWait, who reported on a Christian youth rally called BattleCry, recently held in Philadelphia. In response to a comment made on the report, WorldCan'tWait provides an interesting take on the culture war:
At its most basic level it's a lot of lazy fucking parents who need the government to bring up their kids for them. Too bad they don't get a clue and take personal responsibility for it. Hint. If you don't want your kids being "manipulated" by junk mass culture, take them to a museum, buy them copies of Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare, take them camping. You don't need a theocracy because American Idol sucks.
Very well put.

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