Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Command Performances

[[T U B E]] * From the Life Imitates Art File: The New York Post reports that George W. Bush, confronted with the right-wing mutiny over Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination, skyrocketing gas prices, Plamegate and other worsening scandals that threaten his presidency and the Republican Party’s future, and the ongoing disaster in Iraq (which, as of this writing, has left 1,981 U.S. soldiers dead) has lately been watching reruns of The West Wing. That might not be the worst idea in the world.

Certainly, the Democratic administration portrayed in that Emmy Award-winning NBC-TV drama, now in its seventh year (and relocated to Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT), has weathered its full share--and then some--of hurdles, self-inflicted wounds, and partisan imbroglios. Vice President John Hoynes (played by Tim Matheson) resigned after leaking classified information to his socialite mistress. President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was censured by the U.S. Senate for concealing the fact that he suffers from relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis. Chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) was hauled before a GOP-dominated Congress to answer questions about his history of drug and alcohol abuse. And (spoiler alert!) in last Sunday’s episode, “Mr. Frost,” White House communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) admitted that it was he who, in the cause of rescuing astronauts trapped on board the International Space Station, leaked top-secret information about a military space shuttle to The Washington Post. Even Karl Rove hasn’t been accused of anything that perfidious.

Yet Dubya doesn’t possess so much as half of Jed Bartlet’s smarts or compassion, so he isn’t likely to come up with a strategy to revitalize his beleaguered and unpopular administration, no matter how many episodes he watches. Besides, The West Wing is all about nuance, and as Bush once famously told Senator Joe Biden, “I don’t do nuance.”

The prez would probably be happier tuning in to the earnest but nonetheless insipid new ABC-TV drama Commander in Chief (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Starring the pillowy-lipped Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, a onetime congresswoman and former Virginia university administrator who was elected as the first female vice president in U.S. history--only to ascend to the Oval Office following the expiration of Republican Teddy Roosevelt Bridges (Will Lyman)--Commander in Chief is, as political dramas go, a single shrimp puff in comparison with the multicourse, alternately comic and tragic meal that is The West Wing. Wing has built surprisingly engrossing stories around the tactics involved in confirming a thoughful, liberal chief justice to the U.S. Supreme Court and the ultimately ridiculous notion of repackaging the brainy Bartlet to look more “just folks” in his re-election battle against an opponent known for slogan-based policymaking; Commander finds its stories in the continuing and painfully predictable rivalry between Allen and Republican Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland). While The West Wing this season gives viewers a behind-the-scenes, warts-and-all plot line about how presidential campaigns are engineered (and so easily fouled up), Commander spends its time dealing with the obvious fact that a president’s children don’t see enough of their elected parent, and with international crises that can apparently be solved simply through the exercise of a president’s will. (Yeah, tell that to Bush.) Commander “never gets much beyond its gimmicky premise, and that results in a good deal of wasted time,” writes Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. “Can you imagine?! A woman as president of the United States?! Well, yes, we can imagine it, so let’s get on with some good stories and knotty controversies and horns of dilemmas.” (In fact, the idea of a female head of state isn’t even new on television; the 1985 sitcom Hail to the Chief had Patty Duke as U.S. President Julia Mansfield.)

After its loss in 2003 of creator/writer Aaron Sorkin, followed by an uneven fifth season, The West Wing has largely regained its footing and continues to elevate what could be parched political debate into the stuff of brilliant drama. By comparison, Commander in Chief is American Politics for Dummies, bereft of a crucial understanding that legislating is mostly about small steps and compromise, not big leaps and confrontation.

Of course, neither of these series is perfect. Both dwell in fantasy. West Wing, for instance, is currently embroiled in a campaign to find a successor for two-termer Bartlet. The contenders are Democrat Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits), a third-term Hispanic congressman from Texas, and Republican U.S. Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) of California, a fiscal conservative but social liberal. Considering the GOP’s dominance by ultra-right religious activists, there seems no way in hell that a maverick like Vinick--who hasn’t attended church since his wife passed away prematurely, and may actually be an atheist--could win his party’s presidential nomination, especially with so little bloodletting and so few repercussions. Meanwhile, Commander in Chief asks us to believe: (1) that Allen, a political independent, would be chosen by a right-winger like Bridges as his vice-presidential running mate; and (2) that having moved into the Oval, she would, in turn, struggle to fill her second-fiddle seat with Warren Keaton (Peter Coyote), a former U.S. Army general who’d previously campaigned against her as the VP candidate on the Democratic ticket. That represents some wide-eyed screenwriter’s delusion that Commander can appeal to Republicans, who will like the idea that it’s about an ostensibly GOP-led White House, without forsaking the possibility of this show someday being able to capture West Wing’s well-educated and well-off viewership. In the interim, though, Commander just looks desperate for attention. And Republicans apparently remain suspicious of its intent, thinking that it might be softening up the ground for a White House run by Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.

Wing makes no bones about its Democratic basis. Most of the Republicans on the show who have even halfway substantive roles usually come off as gun-loving, narrow-visioned stand-ins for humans. And yet, Vinick has been given three dimensions and a heart, to boot. Maybe it’s just because I remember actor Alda so fondly from M*A*S*H, but I enjoy watching his performance on West Wing, especially his struggle to steer between the competing poles (conservative vs. moderate) of his own party. If he lacks Santos’ more youthful vigor and activist impulses, he nonetheless demonstrates something better than the me-first, destroy-government attitude with which Republicans are so often (and justly) associated. It will be interesting to watch the upcoming “live debate” between Santos and Vinick, scheduled for Sunday, November 6, and to be moderated by real-life ABC anchorman Forrest Sawyer. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I’d stick around if Vinick was actually elected to fill President Bartlet’s leather seat. Adding to the attractions of The West Wing over the last five years has been the conspicuous contrast between Bartlet and Bush; saddling us with a GOP ideologue in the actual White House and then placing a conservative chorus member in its fictional counterpart might be too discouraging to bear. The country deserves better on both counts.

Political drama is damnably hard to make interesting on television--just ask the folks who gave us Mister Sterling and K Street. The West Wing has set a high standard for storytelling, which Commander in Chief shows no signs of measuring up to. News that NYPD Blue producer Steven Bochco is being brought in to replace Commander series creator-executive producer Rod Lurie, plus rumors that Bochco might impeach Geena Davis in favor of a male replacement, don’t give me much hope for the show’s longevity. Like Bush, this nominee for TV renown may well go down in history as a failure.

READ MORE:Sorkin Back at NBC With ‘Studio’ Deal, “ by Andrew Wallenstein (The Hollywood Reporter); “Smell the History: ABC’s Commander in Chief is Cheesy Good Fun,” by Dana Stevens (Slate).

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