The biggest news in Hollywood this week was ABC’s surprise replacement of Commander In Chief creator Rod Lurie after just two episodes, a remarkable move considering that the liberal fantasy drama–about the first woman president of the United States–is the only new show to crack the Nielson top ten ratings so far this season.
So what happened?
Sympathetic TV writers muttered that Lurie, best known for writing and directing The Contender, the feature film about a woman vice-president starring Joan Allen, wasn’t used to being deluged with notes from meddlesome network executives.
Nikki Finke, the L.A. Weekly’s excitable Hollywood columnist, told the Drudge Report that Lurie was sacked for wanting to show a “rough sex” scene between the president’s daughter and a Secret Service agent in the back of a limo.
The Los Angeles Jewish Journal speculated that “the pro-Israel producer had hoped to create episodes in which the fictional president grapples with the Middle East conflict–episodes that may have been too controversial for the network.” Like his father, the well-known syndicated political cartoonist Ranan Lurie, Rod Lurie was born in Israel. But the family moved to the U.S. when Rod was young, and he grew up in Greenwich, Conn.
By the way, although Ranan Lurie is a Republican, his son Rod is a Democrat, which is obvious from the show. The new woman president’s nemesis is the sexist and Republican Speaker of the House, played by Donald Sutherland channeling Snidely Whiplash.
Stories in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the trades, and other publications (the Los Angeles Times, Hollywood’s hometown paper of record, has so far dropped the ball on this story–but I’ll let that pass for now) suggested that Lurie had spread himself too thin by insisting on directing as well as writing most episodes.
I’d wager this is the most probable explanation. Also, that Rod–whom I’ve known and liked since he moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago–doesn’t exactly have a reputation for hiding his light under a bushel.
I can’t recall, for instance, ever before seeing a “created by” line immediately under a TV show’s name, right there in the same frame onscreen. The opening credits read: “Commander In Chief/Created by Rod Lurie,” almost as if it’s a subtitle. This is followed, in the three shows that have aired so far, by: “Executive producer: Rod Lurie,” “Written by Rod Lurie” (and Dee Johnson), and “Directed by Rod Lurie.” Also, the fictional president’s husband is named Rod.
“I am very involved right now in the politics of making sure that ABC and Touchstone are very happy with this show,” Geena Davis, who plays President Mackenzie Allen, said at the Commander In Chief press conference when asked about her political beliefs. (She is also of course a Democrat, just like most of Hollywood.) Davis seemed to mean this as a joke, and everyone laughed, but now I think that maybe she wasn’t entirely joking.
Certainly she was aware by that point that her show’s creator could be a bit sensitive. “My favorite president movie is Air Force One…” she started to say at the press conference, before being cut off by a mock-aggrieved Lurie.
“Wait a second,” he said. “That’s your favorite president movie?”
“It’s a vice-president movie,” Davis added quickly, remembering Lurie’s Oscar-winning feature film. (Best actress for Joan Allen and best supporting actor for Jeff Bridges in 2001.) “My favorite movie [of] all time is The Contender.”
Lurie also got a little tetchy when a reporter asked if any of the writers or actors on stage with him at the press conference were Republicans. “The community happens to mostly be Democrat,” he responded. “So with due respect, sir, the question is slightly loaded because you had to have known the answer before you even asked it.”
I e-mailed him a few days ago about published reports regarding his departure. “The Nikke Finke [story] is pure bulls**t,” he responded. “First word to last. But I really am not talking to the press about this at all. Although the Washington Post got it the closest.”
The Post’s Lisa De Moraes hadn’t been particularly kind to Commander In Chief in an early review, referring repeatedly to the Geena Davis character as Big Red Lips. But in her story last week she wrote:
According to some sources with knowledge of the situation who did not want to be identified because their jobs are more important, Lurie and the network had “creative” differences about future episodes.
But another knowledgeable, and equally shy, source paints a picture of a guy being stretched too thin trying to handle writing, producing and directing on the series, while juggling those helpful “notes” from 25-year-old studio and network suits that creators of hit series find themselves suddenly enjoying. This, in turn, caused production logjams, producing that network concern.
You’ll begin to see the hand of veteran producer Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue, L.A. Law), who’s replaced Lurie as showrunner, when the seventh Commander In Chief episode airs a few weeks from now. And I’m sure the new version will be smartly crafted, like everything Bochco does.
But I’ve enjoyed the three purely Lurie shows that have aired so far. They’ve been uneven, yes, and occasionally even slightly insane. The new vice-president character, for example, is imagined as an idealized John Kerry, filled with righteous anger when his war hero medals are even questioned. (“Seeing the horror of the battlefield has softened him,” one of the evil Republican naysayers remarked about the Kerry manque this week. “He’s weak on security.”) Played by Peter Coyote, this fictional war hero oozes so much loamy integrity you could fertilize the entire Rose Garden with it.
As for Lurie, he may be a better fit in the auteur world of feature films, where the director/writer is king, than the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts creative atmosphere of network TV. Or maybe he’s just too much like his main character: a loose cannon, a headstrong Independent (although a Democrat), a flibbertijibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown. To borrow from the line repeated in the “previously, on Commander In Chief” opener that’s begun every episode, “Madame Vice-President, we need you to resign.”
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.