Commander in Chief: Inaugural Edition, Part 1
July 25, 2006
Rod Lurie, Vince Misiano, Jeremy Podeswa, Daniel Minahan,
Starring: Geena Davis, Donald Sutherland, Kyle Secor, Harry Lennix, Ever Carradine, Matt Lanter, Caitlin Wachs, Jasmine Anthony, Natasha Henstridge, Peter Coyote, Mark-Paul Gosselaar,
With the demise of The West Wing, Commander in Chief had hoped to pick up the slack with the same kind of touchy feely liberalism albeit with a novel twist – the President of the United States of America is a woman. The show came with the Hollywood pedigree of being created by Rod Lurie (who wrote and directed the political thriller, The Contender) and starring Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland.
Chief of Staff James Gardener, Jr. (Lennix) informs Vice President Mackenzie Allen (Davis) that the President is suffering from a bleeding aneurysm in his brain that caused a massive stroke. Gardener wants her to resign so that Republican Nathan Templeton (Sutherland) can take over because he would maintain the President’s conservative agenda better than Allen. After talking it over with her family and then consulting with the incapacitated Commander in Chief, Allen is pressured to resign.
However, the President dies before Allen can resign and so she decides to take the oath of office, spurred on by Templeton’s bullying, pompous rhetoric. The irony is that he inadvertently convinced her because she couldn’t stand the thought of an ultra-conservative Republican like him with all that power. This sets up a bitter, antagonistic relationship between the two. Her first act as President is to forcibly extradite a Nigerian woman from her country because she is facing the death penalty for an unjust crime. Allen is now faced with juggling her family with running the country.
The purpose of the pilot episode is to introduce us to the characters and the world that they inhabit in a compelling way. The problem with Commander in Chief is that it doesn’t do this. The dialogue is often bland and uninvolving with the overall pacing and tone oddly lackluster. The West Wing was rarely dull because it applied the ER aesthetic with a brisk pace and engrossing storylines filled with dramatic tension that were relevant to what was going on in the world.
In contrast, Commander in Chief introduces a political situation in Nigeria without really exploring the ramifications of Allen’s actions. On the family side of things, Allen is faced with her youngest child spilling juice on her dress before a big speech and in another episode her teenage daughter loses her diary filled with potentially embarrassing details about her mother. The show doesn’t balance or deal with these things effectively. Now, that doesn’t mean that this show has to be a carbon copy of The West Wing but a dramatic program about politics is a tough sell. Most people look to T.V. to escape from the real world and not to be reminded of it. It was a miracle that The West Wing lasted as long as it did and this was because it presented a vision of the White House that people would have liked to have seen in real life.
It’s a shame because the show has a strong cast. Geena Davis has a decent track record of playing strong, smart characters and as a result she is believable as someone in a position of great power. She comes across as confident, charismatic and very likable. Donald Sutherland’s character is her polar opposite and the veteran actor relishes his role of a political shark who enjoys swimming in dangerous waters, taking choice bites out of Allen whenever the opportunity presents itself. Alas, they are let down time and time again by the weak material.
The premise of the show isn’t that far-fetched. After all, Canada had a female Prime Minister for a short while and during a large part of the 1980s, England was ruled with iron fist by Margaret Thatcher. Obviously, the United States has its own unique social and political climate. However, the show’s creators fail to capitalize on the unique premise and the result is a wasted opportunity because it doesn’t show how our government works, instead shoving an agenda down our throats with an excess of preachy dialogue.
The show started off with very strong ratings and then ABC put it on a long hiatus in February of 2006 which caused its ratings to go down dramatically when it came back. There were problems behind the scenes when the show’s creator Rod Lurie was fired because he had trouble meeting deadlines. A new showrunner Steven Bochco was brought on board and he took the show in a new direction, softening Templeton’s character somewhat. Bochco soon left after a disagreement with ABC and was replaced by yet another showrunner. The ratings improved somewhat but the network had lost faith in the show and put it up against popular shows like Without a Trace and ER. Commander in Chief was officially cancelled on May 16, 2006 but it has been announced that a two-hour T.V. movie with the same cast will be made.
Inexplicably, this set has no extras and features only the first ten episodes with the rest to be released later this year. This reeks of an indifferent studio dumping the show unceremoniously onto the market.