Hail (and farewell) to the Chief
Blame Aaron Sorkin.
Not only did he raise the benchmark for hour-long dramatic television, but he clearly raised our expectations for political discourse. As a result, Commander in Chief has paled by comparison to his once brilliant West Wing. Rod Lurie, who created the series, got it off to a nice, taut start but then floundered by trying to replicate the Sorkin formula of writing every episode and then trying to top Sorkin by directing most of them, too.
As a result, he fell further and further behind, prompting ABC to dump him from his own creation, and hand the reins over to a proven showrunner in Steven Bochco. Bochco came in, rushed two shows to make November sweeps and then shut things down for three weeks to rethink the series.
His thinking may not be in line with audience expectations plus the hiatus through the holidays led audiences to get loyal to other programs, which benefited House. When the show returned this month, it was not as engaging and the main plots were sensationalistic and a far cry from the character driven stuff Lurie tried to introduce.
Then came American Idol which has managed the unheard of feat of actually posting 25% audience gains for its fifth season. So, it has come as no surprise that once the February sweeps are over, ABC is shelving the series, promising it’ll be back this season but not committing to when or where on the schedule.
This is quite a tumble from the most watched new series of the season. There are many reasons for this, most of them the show’s own fault. Early on, they wasted the wonderful Donald Sutherland by making him a Snidely Whiplash of a villain as House Speaker Templeton. The one good thing Bochco did was round the character and given Sutherland something to work with.
The other characters need similar rounding. The whole Mr. First Gentlemen problem for Kyle Secor was ham-handed but the most necessary character arc worthy of study. (And not the lame Commissioner of Baseball sub-plot.) The kids were all over the map. The eldest daughter hated that Mom was president, in the pilot, because they had differing political ideologies. And then they dropped the friggin’ plot point so the daughter is a whiny teen. The son is cheating, irresponsible moron whose only redeeming feature is that he’s good in a crisis and takes care of his youngest sibling, who is herself, in need of a personality.
Of the staff, the press secretary could use a focus, the chief of staff could be something other than supportive, and Natasha Henstridge would have been interesting as a lobbyist than Sutherland’s yes woman.
The stories have been interesting but never brilliant and of late have been downright bad. Last week’s story about the attempted kidnapping of Air Force One had Deb declare at its end, “I have lost all respect for Bochco.” (And that doesn’t even address the farcical teens run freely through the White House. Un uh, not remotely possible.) It wasn’t dramatic, it wasn’t realistic and it smacked of desperation. The two–parter prior to that, involving the sub sunk near the North Korean coast, was a potentially interesting story that rushed along from point A to point B without any convincing dramatic twists. The conventional resolution was a disappointment.
While Lurie and ABC stressed the series was not attempting to be The West Wing, but the examination of trials a woman experiences when she’s thrust into the presidency while still trying to raise a family. Great premise. However, they’ve ignored it entirely with her motherhood being a series of apologies to the kids for not being there for them. OK, we’ve had half a season of that, let’s move on.
The show has suffered greatly from creative changes and a lack of strong point of view, not just for the series, but the individual characters inhabiting it. It’s mildly pleasant and diverting television, but doesn’t make you stop and think like the other political drama that is winding down its seven years.