I believe a secret world exists behind Washington, D.C.’s closed doors, but not the obvious secret world of midnight parking-garage rendezvous, undisclosed locations, and fiercely clean-cut G-men types whirling around town in black sedans, frequently employing the phrase “the plan” in conversation. No. I believe that once a day powerful congressmen, high-level appointees and staffers all–completely unbeknownst to each other–slip into their stained mahogany offices, lock their doors behind them, and take out a hidden set of dolls (maybe puppets). Then, for about a half an hour, in multiple cartoony voices and jerky motions, they act out their deepest frustrations and desires.
I do not, as yet, have the photos I need to prove that this world exists. But after watching the premiere of ABC’s new champion drama, Commander in Chief, getting them doesn’t seem all that urgent. Commander delivers Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen, America’s first female president. Even as novel as the show’s premise is (which isn’t as novel as its marketers probably hoped it would be), Commander displays a remarkable lack of imagination: The travails of the first woman in the Oval Office are exactly what you would guess they would be. But Commander in Chief is interesting; interesting as a liberal fantasy (the New York Times’s description, not mine). An almost Freudian bomb is buried beneath its cliché shots of D.C. monuments lit up at night: Deep down, liberals like the ones who wrote Commander harbor a repressed desire to be like George W. Bush.
Commander is an archetypal liberal tale: A hero is challenged by blind prejudice but rises to show us that when we embrace equality and diversity, it all works out. While on a state visit to Paris, Vice President Allen learns her boss has had an aneurysm. The ensuing dialogue sounds like something that’s been translated into a foreign language and then translated back to English in a hurry (“So what happens now? Do I take the oath?” “Can you smell the history?”). Top aides urge her to resign. The world is too unstable, damn it; Americans need to see strength, not a woman. Allen agonizes, supported only by her dopey-but-redeemable husband Rod (Kyle Secor, who apparently didn’t fall off the face of the earth after Homicide: Life on the Street). Her potential Cabinet starts falling apart in a perfunctory sort of way. Her nemesis, the glowering Speaker of the House (played as well as the circumstances allow by Donald Sutherland), gives cynical, sexist diatribes, makes veiled threats–and smirks. Allen agonizes some more.
In all this Commander tries to capture something of The West Wing. But it never builds up the necessary speed or suspense. Once viewers wrap their minds around the fact that a woman could be president, the only thing left to be surprised by is Kyle Secor’s performance as he tries to get used to everyone referring to him as First Lady.
Along the way, the producers weave in a president-as-working-mom storyline. President-in-waiting Allen gathers her three kids in the kitchen to ask them how they think she should handle the political crisis. The little girl asks if they’ll put her picture on money. Later she spills juice on mommy’s blouse before her big speech to Congress. Despite Davis’s remoteness, it has a distinctly awkward, sitcomic feel. This does not augur well. Davis’s last balancing-the-career-and-kids role, on The Geena Davis Show, lasted a season and is about as widely remembered as Millard Fillmore’s first 100 days in office.
Just like that dream you keep having, the one where you marry an orangutan that’s dressed in your mother’s clothes, it’s the details are the most revealing and disturbing part of this fantasy. In their dreamy Shangri-La, Democrats don’t have any messy baggage. The word “Democrat” does not appear even a single time in the pilot script. “Republican” does. The Iago-like Speaker is clearly identified as a creationism-teaching GOP member. Mackenzie Allen, on the other hand, is a plucky independent, and the audience is firmly reminded of it. Every time a character remarks how she would be the first female president, another shoots back “and the first independent.” In the glorious future, with the issues so perfectly framed, “Democrat” and “liberal” have withered away, and everyone presumably knows that their choice is between upright, sincere independents (like Allen) and icy, extremist Republicans. Ah, to dream.
Liberals are serious about human rights in this world too. Working out a subplot, Allen’s aides keep reminding her about the Nigeria situation: In accordance with sharia, Nigeria is about to put a woman to death for committing adultery. Allen is concerned.
Throughout, Allen is shown confidently ordering around generals and positioning aircraft carriers (see, this is why stereotypes are bad). And as Commander limps through its 38th minute, she brings the Nigerian ambassador to a Joint Chiefs’ meeting and proceeds to illustrate how the Marines will storm his country if the woman isn’t released immediately.
“I can’t believe the U.S.A. would take such a unilateral action,” the ambassador mumbles.
“If you think I’m going to sit by while a woman is executed, tortured, for having sex, you’re sorely mistaken,” retorts Allen. Dare I think it? You go girl.
But this is not how Bill Clinton likely would have handled the situation, or Jimmy Carter. There’s something about its brusque disregard for other viewpoints, and its recklessness, its black-and-white worldview, that reminds one of a certain Texan. They might not like what he does with it, but Bush’s self-assurance, his nonchalant imperiousness and unimpaired bluntness strike some of them, the ones who wrote and respond to the show, as elemental and seductive. Commander in Chief peeks in on the liberal id playing with its dolls at the very instant it’s holding a G.I. Joe above its head, and in a guileless voice saying to itself, “I’m powerful. My way is better than your way. You’re going to do what I say!” Of course it’s hard to watch, but it’s important to see.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York.