Wednesday, January 18, 2006

at least it's not called "Watching Geena" or "Judging Geena" or "Geena's Reasons Why Not"

Geena Davis picked herself up a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Drama this year (just Monday, in fact) for "Commander in Chief", and I'm happy to see her career gain this momentum. Yes, the Golden Globes are a hack awards ceremony, but you can't deny that with each passing year it seems to gain more clout and thereby cannot be ignored as a major awards precursor (for many years now, even).

"Commander in Chief" is a pretty good show, certainly watchable, albeit on the popcorn-viewing level. It's got a strong cast: Geena Davis (who's reliably good, even in delicious trash like The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)) and Donald Sutherland (with slime-dial turned up to High) are the real acting chops behind the show and are a pleasure to watch each episode. I've heard that some people call the show "The West Wing"-for-Dummies, which is not altogether untrue, but that doesn't change the fact that it has kept my interest for eleven episodes so far. The show's whole gimmick, of course, is about how Geena Davis' character is the first woman to become president, after thrust into ascension of the role from vice president when the previous president croaks. The show has done a good job of balancing a few episodic-type crisis-of-the-week storylines while generating an evolving story of the greater challenges of being the first woman to have the title, affecting both her work and her family. Also, in a nice demonstration of tricky recurring-role casting, Polly Bergen takes the role of Geena Davis' mother: Polly Bergen (to my knowledge) was the first woman to be portrayed as the President of the United States on film or television in the flick Kisses for My President (1964).

So, despite all the good press and ratings and respectability piling up for the show, I fear that "Commander in Chief" might be in trouble. The show was created and originally helmed by Rod Lurie (whose short-lived 2003-2004 TV show "Line of Fire" was a glimmer of creative hope lost in a sea of indistiguishable programming). "Commander in Chief" is much lighter than "Line of Fire", both in subject matter and how it looks on the screen; it's missing much of the grit and spark that the FBI-verus-the-mob story picked up, but does carry a nice signature of Lurie's style (jump cuts and subtitles here and there were a refreshing change to that aforementioned episodic crisis-of-the-week pattern "Commander" has slipped into). Both shows are/were gutsy enough to try something different in terms of storytelling.... and it'd be nice for "Line of Fire" to scrounge its way to DVD in the near future.

But suddenly, after seven episodes, Lurie disappeared off "Commander"'s creative radar. I know little of the details except for the rumor that episodes were being shot without finished scripts. Some articles here and there said that Lurie was putting too much on his plate, so ABC pulled him to lighten the load and brought on Steven Bochco (of "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue" fame) to take the reigns. And boy did he: gone was Lurie's jump cut style, gone was the old opening credits in favor of newer and pompous-soundtracked opening credits (complete with his name added right up front), and here came a whole new creative team. The show isn't dramatically different from the way it started, but it did seem rather conspicuous that suddenly actors who were set up as recurring characters were being written off the show left and right (Leslie Hope, I'm so sorry). That said, there has been a change, and in no matter what small way, I feel it's been a change for the worse.

I'm not convinced that Bochco was the right guy to step in, because it's becoming clear that he's not interested in following Lurie's vision all that much (given how the show started, both in terms of style and story). Lurie is still credited as an executive producer, and they can't ever take away his "created by" credit, but the show is fully in Bochco-land now. It's no surprise that ABC tapped him, being that they were in bed for so long (NYPD Blue was on cruel life support for probably five seasons longer than it needed to be). Now with the mid-season addition of "NYPD Blue" alum and apparent Bochco-buddy Zach Morris (nee Mark-Paul Gosselaar) to the cast, it's evident that this show might follow a similar course to the monotone of "Blue"'s last days.

Now for a bit about the episode titles:
While Lurie was in charge, every episode title seemed to be harkening to the "first" of Geena Davis' character's administration. How about "First Choice" and "First Strike" and "First... Do No Harm" and "First Scandal"? Blehk. What happens at the end of the season when they're all out of first happenings, and then titles start reaching for "First Cat Fight" or "First Bad Hair Day", or an episode concerning Canadian Native Americans called "First Nations"? (probably too advanced for the general American public to catch on to that one). Sorry Mr. Lurie, this titling gimmick sucks.
Bochco came on board and decided to oust the "first" titles, in favor of something much more kitschy. "The Mom Who Came to Dinner", "Sub Enchanted Evening", and "No Nukes is Good Nukes"?!?!?! Mr. Bochco, your titling gimmick sucks more.


J.J. Gittes said...

We must not forget Lurie's "The Contender," perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated movie of the millennium thusfar. He said everything that could be said with that movie, which makes me wonder why he started the "Commander" project.

Long_Division said...

Hi. I don't have a television, so I'm counting on you.