Thursday, October 06, 2005

TV: Commander in Chief

I didn't really think I'd like Commander in Chief*. I knew there would be things about it that I'd like, primarily actors like Geena Davis, Donald Sutherland, and Ever Carradine (whom I love a ridiculous amount). But I felt like this could very easily slip into clumsy, heavy-handed, "message" television, with an overdose of sappy family melodrama. I've got nothing against the woman-as-President story (hell, I already accept Laura Roslin, one of the best female characters on any TV show anywhere, as President of the entire human race); I just didn't think ABC would handle it very well.

I've watched the first two episodes of Commander in Chief now, and I'm happy to find that so far, my doubts were misplaced. Sure, there are a couple of irritating family moments (generated specifically by Davis' oldest daughter, who is tremendously annoying), and there are some clunky, groaner lines (primarily spouted by Sutherland, who is playing his character as way too cartoonishly evil), but on the whole, I think the show does a fine job of balancing the political and the personal, of dramatizing the general demands of the White House and the specific hurdles for a woman President.

The acting is top-notch. Davis is very good; she certainly looks the part -- if you're going to cast a woman as President, you might as well get one eight feet tall. Although there's something a little off about her face, like Bruce Campbell's character in Escape from L.A. performed her plastic surgery. She does a good job conveying her strengths as well as her doubts, both in her job and with her family. I've always liked her, and I've always liked Sutherland, though here, as I said, he often drifts into Snidely Whiplash territory. Davis needs an opponent, and Sutherland could fill that role perfectly, but his character needs to be more humanized to be effective. And Ever Carradine I will always be fond of for her part in one of my favorite cancelled-too-soon shows ever, Lucky. Here, she's the President's new Press Secretary, inexperienced but sharp and loyal. I like her, but that's hardly a surprise.

There have been some great guest appearances in these first two episodes. I got a kick out of seeing Bruce Boxleitner as Sutherland's choice for Vice President, and Peter Coyote is excellent as Davis' VP pick. And Natasha Henstridge, who appeared in the second episode as an especially devious member of Sutherland's staff, was a pleasant surprise; there's no way to get around this: she is smokin' hot. She almost made me forget about Ever Carradine for a second or two. I hope hers is a recurring character.

I like that Davis instantly asserts her power as she steps into the role of President, although her focusing that power to rescue one woman in Nigeria seems a little far-fetched. Is she going to send the Marines after every single woman in the world she thinks has been wronged? And I like what her husband (played by Kyle Secor) is going through. He was her Chief of Staff while she was VP, but she replaces him when she takes over for the dead President. Now he's relegated to dealing with his new duties as "First Gentleman," complete with a bossy Chief of Staff of his own (who keeps referring to him as "First Lady" in the debut episode). The character walks a fine line between supportive of his wife, and hurt and offended by his reduced duties, and Secor plays it with just the right amount of humor and integrity.

I got burned out on West Wing a long time ago. I suspect I'll get burned out on Commander in Chief as well, probably sooner rather than later. But for now, it's one of my favorite new dramas of the season.

*I believe the proper way to write this is "Commander-in-Chief," but there aren't any hyphens used in the show's opening credits, so I'll skip them here as well.

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