Here in Britain, abc1, the satellite television offshoot of Disney's ABC network, has been strongly pushing their new US drama success Commander in Chief for over a month. Though intrigued by a new show set in the White House, I couldn't help feeling that the trailers gave the impression that Geena Davis's principal source of conflict was that the Washington establishment was entirely made up of antediluvian chauvinist pigs. In the actual show, fortunately, it seems that the writers have actually worked a little harder than that, and provided sound-ish political reasons for the Vice President to step down just at the point where she might be called upon to step up, and not just the fact that she's a woman.
The style of this drama can perhaps be deduced from the rather implausible political situation depicted. Mackenzie Allen is an Independent (because there have been too many Democrat Presidents in the Hollywood White House, but heaven forbid we ever show a Republican to be heroic, or even a normal human being), but from references by Democrats to her being in a position to "help the Party" seems to indicate that she was a former Democrat, who had rejected party politics and then accepted the role of Veep to a Republican president. In the real world, the problem with allowing Allen to become the Chief Executive would not be that she would be unwilling to further the late President's radical conservative agenda, but that as an evident turncoat she'd be politically dead to both sides, a total pariah. Unlike The West Wing (comparisons are inevitable, I'm afraid) this kind of realpolitik simply doesn't come into the equation in Commander In Chief. But that is no bad thing, I hasten to point out. There is certainly no need for every show set in the White House to wallow in the dregs of real-world American politics at the expense of good character-driven drama. It is no secret that The West Wing has more or less lost its way in its final two seasons, with excessive dwelling on the appalling process of the typical US political campaign, a process likely to leave everybody looking less than a fully rounded moral human being.
Commander in Chief looks at things as more black and white and slightly larger than life, and certainly nobody could be larger than life than Donald Sutherland's Nathan Templeton, chief Nemesis to President Allen, the Republican Speaker of the House and former heir apparent. Sutherland plays one of those villains that almost makes you feel any time without him on screen is time wasted, but this feeling is certainly alleviated by Geena Davis herself as the eponymous C-in-C. One or other of these two is on screen nearly all the time, along with sterling support from the Matrix's Harry Lennix as Chief of Staff Jim Gardner, and Ever Carradine as the interesting new Press Secretary Kelly Ludlow, shown nervously finding her feet in front of the White House Press Corps wolf pack. Exec Producer Davis and creator Rod Lurie have done a great job of writing and casting the political characters, though less good a job with the First Family, who are the absolutely standard "perfect and beautiful family plays second fiddle to main character's career". Kyle Secor's characterisation of husband Rob Calloway (inevitably Ms. Allen kept her surname) fatally undermines his character's position of having been his wife's Chief of Staff when she was Vice President. So far Secor is playing the part as a total Washington naïf, as if he'd been told Rob was an advertising executive with an "interesting" wife, like Darrin Stephens from Bewitched.
It is perhaps a little early in the series run to criticise the plotting for being maybe a little bit too glib and easy. The first episode storyline concerned the rescue of a Nigerian adulteress condemned to stoning under Sharia law, to which the new President's reaction was to prepare military forces for a rescue mission. So far so impossible, but plausibly entertaining and heroic. But then she was shown bringing the Nigerian ambassador right into the Situation Room, and getting the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to tell him every detail of their plan to invade their country and kidnap one of their citizens. The next thing we saw was the terrified girl (plus baby - right there in the cell with her) being dragged along the prison corridor - presumably to her precipitate execution - as the third act cliffhanger. As it transpired, of course, the Nigerian soldiers were simply handing the girl off to the Marines who had flown in to get her, but that didn't really excuse the script from having set up the impossible situation of any American leader breaking every security protocol there is, instantly demonstrating why such a thing would never happen, and then have the situation resolve inexplicably "happily" with the girl looking down at her forever-lost native land from an American helicopter.
It isn't all glib flagwaving, however. In fact, the pilot episode managed to be very bitingly witty about Hillary Clinton via the tart comments of the PA to the new First, uh, Spouse. On the other hand, it strikes me that concentrating on the youthful indiscretions of the First Family (teenage twins of each sex and a ten-year-old girl) almost made it seem natural that these would only be additional travails of a woman President, which of course is not the case. Scenes of conflict and resolution with the family including an all-too-brief argument with the passed-over for promotion husband, can draw unfortunate parallels with The Geena Davis Show, her recent short-lived sitcom. However, though she is once again playing a high-powered career woman - about as high powered as it is possible to get! - Davis thus far seems to have mercifully reined in the "kook", and is capable of bringing genuine power to the rôle.