Friday, May 12, 2006

Bartlet v. Allen

Several weeks ago, there were tales of the possible demise of Commander In Chief, which I have no doubt ABC executives hoped would be the answer to NBC's The West Wing. With NBC's award-winning drama drawing to a close (the series finale is this Sunday, May 14 -- check your local listings for showtimes) and no other dominant political show on the horizon, ABC probably believed it could swoop in and capture West Wing's market share with nary a fight.

Even a hasty review of Commander In Chief's ratings over the course of its first season of existence shows that this sort of thinking on ABC's part was woefully naive. The show has taken a beating, going from receiving stellar ratings in its opening weeks to barely staying afloat with Mr. and Mrs. Nielsen -- so much so that ABC has removed the show from its May "sweeps" lineup. Rumors continue to abound about the show's fate, with the most pessimistic saying that you might as well stick a fork in President Mackenzie Allen, because the show is done.

As someone who both likes political television drama and has suffered through a few episodes of ABC's feeble attempt at powerhouse politics, I can tell you why the show is sinking.

President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) plays a bland vice president who is thrust into the presidential spotlight by the untimely stroke and death of the (considerably more conservative) elected president. After fighting off calls from the deceased president's former staffers and the Republican Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), that she resign, President Allen endured hardship after hardship, ranging from ongoing sabotage by Speaker Templeton to the restless stirrings of the "First Gentlemen" (played by Kyle Secor, whom many of you, if any of you actually watched the show, would recognize from his tenure on NBC's mothballed police drama, Homicide: Life on the Street) to the challenges of being a president and a mother to her two teenage children.

To be blunt, Commander In Chief lacks most of what made The West Wing a hit, at least in the latter show's earlier years. I was able to put aside my conservative credentials once a week every Wednesday night to watch the trials and tribulations of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), Leo McGarry (John Spencer) (may he rest in peace), C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), and the rest of that amazing staff, and root for them. While The West Wing had its preachy moments, they were mild and easily disregarded. The trade-off for said preachiness was that you were guaranteed a unique blend of drama and comedy, a tightly interwoven storyline (due in large part to the writing talents of Aaron Sorkin), artistic cinematography, and characters with whom it was easy to identify. Depending on what you happened to catch it, The West Wing could be light-hearted or somber, comical or thought-provoking; it was, for much of its run, rarely predictable. For me, The West Wing was the best television had to offer because it brought a lot of elements of good television together.

People who tuned in to Commander in Chief after loving The West Wing for almost seven years were destined to be disappointed, since Commander In Chief (in my opinion) lacks all of the admirable qualities that make you want to watch, and keep watching, The West Wing. While The West Wing focused on the starry-eyed staff of an idealistic president and their myriad hurdles in workaday Washington, D.C., Commander In Chief has a decidedly different tone. It concentrates less on character development and the rich relationships among those characters, instead opting to create an overwhelming sense of hostility between the president and her husband, the president and the speaker, the president and her children -- detect a pattern?

Yes, The West Wing had tension; but it made that tension a by-product of the storyline rather than the storyline, and it counterbalanced that tension with light moments. The few episodes of Commander In Chief that I have seen were drearily heavy and laced with paranoia. It was as if Julius Caesar and Richard Nixon sat down to write a screenplay and it got picked up by ABC.

It is, however, the show's preachiness that made it unbearable to watch. Every episode (that I saw, anyway) guaranteed that two themes were hammered home repeatedly: (1) America likes moderate-to-liberal presidents like Mackenzie Allen (putting aside, of course, (a) the fact that the United States historically shies away from left-leaning leadership, and (b) Americans on the show did not even vote for someone of Mackenzie's bent, and it took a stroke to make her president); and (2) Republicans (which are represented in microcosmic form by Sutherland's character) are evil incarnate. Enough, already! If I want preachy bloviation, I will watch the Today Show or a Senate confirmation hearing. This not to say that a show cannot carry deeper messages, because many good ones do, but you need to take into account that audiences do not like being dictated to during the few hours they have each week to escape and relax. Indeed, Commander In Chief failed to learn the primary lesson of The West Wing in this regard, which is that you can get away with a certain degree of preachy provided that you can provide balance with a solid storyline and great characters.

Commander In Chief's attempts to score points with West Wing viewers continues to fail because the latter misses the mark in so many crucial ways, as its ever-dwindling audience demonstrates (although I wonder if Hillary watches). If you haven't seen Commander In Chief yet, I encourage you to do so -- but do it quickly. I have a feeling this one might not result in a DVD box set.


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