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September 27, 2005

Commander in Chief
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Yep, so I watched it.  If you want a snapshot of how much America has changed, consider this:  West Wing was on the air for years before the show featured a national security adviser or much intimation that a president deals with issues outside the US.  In 2005, what's VP Geena Davis's first move when the president is incapacitated by a stroke?  She moves carrier groups around.  In fact, there was scarcely a domestic policy issue mentioned the entire hour.  We got "would Islamic leaders respect a woman president?" and "would a woman president allow the sharia-law based execution of a woman convicted of adultery" as issues. 

The teaser for next week promises a wholly domestic agenda, don't worry.  But the underlying frame here is interesting, and not reassuring.  One entire segment was a long joke at Hillary Clinton's expense ("Mrs. Clinton did X.  It didn't work out...")  And what does ABC think a woman president would do first?  Send in the Marines to rescue said Nigerian woman convicted of adultery under sharia law.  A weird scene in which a male American general (and the audience) gets way too much pleasure out of telling the Nigerian ambassador how effectively we can violate his sovereignty.

So we alternate the "Presidency-as-naked-exercise-of-power" fantasy with tender family scenes in which the new prez deals with a recalcitrant daughter and demotes her husband from chief of staff to first lady.  I'd say this show qualifies as the stuff of moderate Republican fantasy.  Yeah, like Governor Huckabee is gonna pick a woman university chancellor (Condi??) as his VP, run, win and die, clearing the way for slightly "hormonal" yet reassuringly tough moderation.

Oh, this is funny.  ABC has built a website which is kind of a fake medialog following Mackenzie/Geena's presidency.

As tv goes, not bad.  But couldn't they do a better job on the West Wing sets?


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Well, based on this first episode alone, one gathers that the writers and producers plan to limit the exploration of political ideas and issues to a bare minimum, and stay only very loosely grounded in political reality, while dwelling instead on the personal relationships among the characters.

A few observations:

The new president's speech to the nation, which concluded the episode, would seem ridiculously and outrageously out of place in any real-world circumstances. The theme was: "the president was a good guy, but we're here to continue the legacy of the nation, not the legacy of the man, etc., etc." This just isn't the way these things have gone in the past, and completely ignores the intense emotions and political pressures that would prevail during a real transition like that depicted in the show. Unless the old president was a despised blackguard, the early message would always be "I will work tirelessly to carry on the work of the president you elected." Over a good deal of time, certainly, the new president would find a new personal course. But the initial national mood would probably be one of mourning, and of extreme and pious deference to the departed leader.

Geena Davis's performance seemed strangely blank, dispassionate and unnatural - none of the grief, anxiety, confusion, anger, excitement or denial that might be expected from a real vice president in those circumstances. Perhaps in an overboard effort to portray a strong woman character, one who is not overly emotional, her character seemed lacking in normal human emotions. It wasn't just her - the whole episode was played in a otherworldly, emotionally flat, Partridge Family tone. When arguments did arise, there was no real passion behind them.

Several people close to the dying president are portrayed as knowing that he has asked the VP to resign. She then goes ahead and assumes office. In the real world, the president's declared wishes would be immediately leaked by his and the speaker's allies, and once out, the assumption of power by the VP would have been the start of a tempestuous national crisis. Can you imagine what would happen if Bush were done in, and it were widely reported that before dying he had personally asked Dick Cheney to resign, and then Cheney had gone ahead and assumed the presidency anyway?! Although constitutionally proper, there would be a sense of something approaching a coup, and possibly blood in the streets.

The role of the ultraconservative daughter just seems beyond belief. It is hard to believe that any halfway normal teenager would be such an ideological fanatic that she wouldn't at least have mixed feelings of pride, wonder, vanity and excitement fighting against her dislike of her mother's politics.

The time frame was much too compressed, with way too much happening in one-hour, and no interesting debate along the way. The overly brisk pace drained the presentation of drama and suspense. Surely there would be more angst, panic and confusion in such a situation. The writers seemed bored and impatient with the whole politics thing, and seem eager to get the death and transition over as soon as possible, so they can move on to the relationship and gender role themes they want to explore.

In their zeal to present the new president as decisive, the writers created a Washington and White House in which there is a disconcerting absence of probing conversation, consultation, strategizing, argument and advice-taking. Geena Davis and the script-writers portray the new president as robotically self-contained. Surely any vice president in those circumstances would be surrounded by various people engaged in a running conversation and argument about what to do next, about political and communications strategy etc. The key decision to work to free the Nigerian activist is taken without any meaningful debate. The viewers aren't even treated to a compressed, West Wing-style, bullet-point airing of the complex issues that would be involved.

The show had a very soap opera feel to it. In soaps, the world of work is viewed in a detached manner from the outside. People disappear to medical school, and come back three months later as doctors. The work world serves only for background characterization, and the real business of the characters consists in discussing their personal relationships in drawing rooms. When soaps do deign to present work, it usually consists in doctors running around yelling "stat", and such. It looks like this show will be filled with a similarly superficial treatment of the President's job, so the focus can stay on the President's domestic life.

Finally, with all the casual stereotypes thrown into the script about Islamic sexism, it might have been interesting if someone had mentioned that at least one Islamic country, Pakistan, has actually had a female leader, while the United States has not.

Didn't watch it, so can't comment.

However, I will say...if people are muttering bout the WW sets, this show will not last.


Because if anybody is even noticing the sets, then there's really nothing to say about the show itself.

W/ that said, I must say...

We're now seeing a show about the guts of the Pentagon (E-Ring). Having watched it, it seems decent. At least, it'll not be a bad way to spend an hour midweek.

However, how much longer til we see a show focused on the White House Situation Room?

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