Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The West Wing That Wasn't

As Doug and I started putting together the brackets for this little tournament of ours, one thing became quickly apparent — we were going to have to watch a lot of stuff with fictional presidents in it. As luck would have it, I drew the task of watching Commander in Chief, so, with post time approaching, I grabbed a bunch of Chinese take out, plopped down on the couch, and proceeded to burn through five of the show's eighteen episodes, which gave me enough to B.S. my way through some reasons as to why she could conceivably take/be taken by Thomas Jefferson in a fight to the death. However, I had come to another conclusion during that time. In fact, I came to this conclusion by the time I saw the first Commander in Chief title card:

This show desperately wanted to be The West Wing.

Heyyyyyy, wait a minute...

Nothing wrong with that. When Commander in Chief first aired, The West Wing was headed into its seventh and final season, and though its quality wasn't quite the same as it had been during is Aaron Sorkin-fueled heyday, it was still plenty popular. One would not have been out of line in thinking that viewers would still be interested in presidential drama, especially when you decide to take the presidency in a slightly different direction.

Unfortunately, a little more viewing confirmed that:

This show could not really compare to The West Wing.

Let's talk about why. Before we begin, though, let me issue the caveat that since it would be unfair to compare a show that never really got the chance to find its bearings against a multiple Emmy-winning powerhouse, I will restrict my comparison to the first five episodes of each show. Okay, let's do this!


The approach of the two shows is different right off the bat. The West Wing is an ensemble piece that focuses as much on the personnel on the periphery of the presidency as it does the presidency itself (President Bartlett was originally supposed to be only a minor recurring role, in fact). Commander in Chief is much more focused on President Allen; then again, that's probably for the best when you're trying to sell the audience on a president who is a) female, b) a political independent, and c) a ginger.

The result is that in The West Wing, for the most part, you have a cast that is tightly gelled, and characters who all make you believe that they are working together for the common good. The actors, meanwhile, are uniformally excellent, from Martin Sheen, way on down the line to Dulé Hill. There is, however, one exception: Mandy.
Mandy Hampton (played by Moira Kelly) was brought in to be a foil, both professionally and romantically, for Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford). Unfortunately for her, both roles were better filled by Donatella Moss (Janel Moloney), making her time on the show ultimately brief. Unfortunately for the audience, she was annoying as hell, and not particularly sympathetic or likeable, to boot. Mandy disappeared after the first season, and when I say "disappeared," I mean that her character suddenly vanished, and was never seen, heard from, or mentioned again.

The cast of Commander in Chief does not share the same sense of unity. Now, of course, that's in large part due to the fact that most of the adults in the show are actively trying to destroy the lead. Not a lot of chemistry, there. The actors, by and large, range from "excellent" to "okay." Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland are both definitely "excellent," and the show gets a lot of unexpected mileage from Kristen Shaw as Norah Woodruf, Chief of Staff to the First Lady Gentleman. Kyle Secor is mostly solid as Rod Calloway, the aforementioned First Gentleman; he and Davis share an excellent rapport, and its kind of a shame that he gets shunted into the supposedly comedic territory of "lol first Dude."
Lol! His office is pink!!1!
Meanwhile, the kids in the family... eh. The older kids, Caitlin Wachs and Matt Lanter, aren't given all that much to do, outside of being bitchy (Wachs) and bland (Lanter). The younger child, played by Jasmine Jessica Anthony, really brings nothing to the table (as a character, I mean, the actress is fine) other than misplaced attempts at cuteness, and a contrivance to show that the Allen administration has not invested in sippy cups.
I mean, it's not like you're on your way to a very important event, like, say, your first speech as President of the United States.
One nice touch that they added, though, was the hint of some sort of relationship between Allen's Chief of Staff, Jim Gardner (Harry Lenix), and Templeton's Chief of Staff, Jayne Murray (Natasha Henstridge).
Too bad it never went anywhere. But that leads me to...


Okay, look. One of the shows we're talking about was created and written by Aaron Sorkin. The other... was not. So, that's kind of a problem. In addition to bringing the serious drama when the situation called for it, Sorkin added a lighter touch that, in the hands of his rather talented actors, could be incredibly funny. Commander in Chief, on the other hand, has... well, it has a slightly unhinged Norah Woodruf (good), and a small child (yech) providing comic relief.

However, the biggest deficit between the two shows is the pace. Sorkin, as a TV writer, is famous for the "walk and talk," a style of scene in which two or more characters jabber at one another with a very fast pace, while striding through hallways, offices, and corridors, all with the camera zipping around with them. Here's a good, albeit low-quality example:

In fact, that little clip just about summarizes every key aspect of Sorkin's work. It's fast-paced, with a lot of movement, lots of dialogue, and with a few punchlines skewered in there, to boot. There's a big reason that Sorkin can get away with all that: he trusts his audience to be smart enough to follow along.

What about Commander in Chief? Sadly, the question of what it thought about its audience was answered in the opening shots of the pilot. So, let's all play a game. Let's pretend it's 2005, and we're all sitting down to watch the debut of this new Geena Davis show everyone's talking about. The first thing we see is this:
Then this:
Then we cut to a chorus of French school children, who start singing "America the Beautiful" in French. We zoom out to pick up a Secret Service agent walking down the aisle to find then-Vice President Allen, and we get this:
Wait — so they were in Paris this whole time? I never would have known!

Yes, Commander in Chief's biggest sin is that it doesn't trust its audience to follow along. Fittingly enough, they didn't; despite turning out large audiences for its pilot episode, Commander in Chief eventually tanked in the ratings, changed time slots, bombed again, and was cancelled. All in all, it was a decent show, and it probably deserved a slightly longer run, but... c'est la vie.

Those of you who miss Commander in Chief, and President MacKenzie Allen, can vote for her in the previous post. We'll be back on Friday to announce the winner!

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