The Western Wingding

Mr. Smith wanders home from Washington.

In view of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the keepers of the American entertainment complex rushed to reschedule, or deep-six, projects that could be seen as callous or unseemly: The Warner Bros. feature Collateral Damage, which stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a fireman avenging the deaths of his wife and child in a bomb blast, had its October release date pushed back a year; an ill-timed network rebroadcast of Independence Day, the alien invasion action film in which skyscrapers, the White House, and numerous world capitals are leveled from the sky, was quietly ditched and replaced with Hope Floats.

So one can only marvel at whatever reasoning CBS suits must be using to justify the airing of Citizen Baines, a soft-filtered and smug portrait of our domestic politics that can only seem to grief-ravaged, war-resigned Americans like a dispatch from a galaxy far, far away.

Even without the astringent background of current events, Citizen Baines is distressingly idea-free schmaltz, an effort to reverse the bitter-wisdom-born-of-experience logic of earlier pop-cult political fables, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Primary Colors, by absurdly recasting a seasoned national political leader as a folksy, guileless (but ever-privileged) Northwestern Starchild. Some measure of its civic heft can be gleaned from its time slot: CBS has plunked it down between the otherworldly bathos of Touched by an Angel and the determinedly placid (and grievously distorted) serial about the municipal life of our nation’s capital, The District. The strategy behind this scheduling move is reportedly to brand the show with affluent elder viewers—the sort of audience that may find the banter on The West Wing (with which it shares executive producer John Wells) too hectic and the lifestyle-liberal phantasmagoria that The West Wing fondly imagines to be morally serious politics just too upsetting.

The plot revolves around Elliot Baines, a U.S. senator from Washington state, who in the pilot episode loses his third re-election campaign in a tight race to a moderate Republican congressman from a Seattle district who happens to be black. (Lest we mistake this contretemps for anything remotely real, we also learn that Baines’ opponent uses his off hours to taxi blind school kids around in a bus.) We are made to understand that Elliot (played, I am sorry to report, by the extremely appealing and extremely tall James Cromwell, of Babe and L.A. Confidential fame) can barely survive outside the political element, and the show seeks to build dramatic tension around his adjustment to civilian life: Freshly exiled to his Seattle manse, Elliot, a longtime widower, now has to reckon with the variously conflicted lives of his three adult daughters: doe-eyed stay-at-home soccer mom Reeva (Jane Adams), slacker/Generation Y wild girl Dori (Jacinda Barrett), and the alpha of the group, power lawyer-cum-campaign manager Ellen (Embeth Davidtz), who is pondering her own run for Congress.

Doubtless the show’s writers conceived of Citizen Baines as a savvy update of King Lear, but it comes off a lot more like Petticoat Junction. This is largely because, even as it erects its characters and plot lines out of political life, it refrains from giving that life anything other than the most cursory substance. The politics of the show revolve, quite explicitly, about nothing more than the appearance of moderation. Venting her frustration over the bankability of her dad’s opponent, campaign manager Ellen says, “The guy’s so young, good-looking—and so young. And he’s so damn moderate it feels like he’s stealing our issues.” Ellen seems so blinded by the youthful inoffensiveness of it all that she cannot ponder that the ready poachability of “our issues” is also a telling indictment of her dad’s term in office (a combined 25 years in the House and Senate, over which one might well imagine he might have managed to compile some sort of political identity or legislative record).

Half-heartedly trying to summon up his own calcified desire to remain in the arena, Elliot himself offers this litany of suburban “quality of life” issues, material that’s as fit for a “Love Is …” cartoon as for a campaign platform: “You know, every day another river gets polluted. Another kid gets hooked on drugs. Our health-care system gets so screwed up, people’s heads are spinning.” Yes, and every day, we have the chance to teach the world to sing …

Such sentimental cant becomes still emptier as Elliot is inadvertently compelled to leave off from his campaign rhapsodizing and actually try his hand at some constituent service. Pressing the flesh on Election Day, he meets a factory worker who complains that he’s called the Baines office 10 times to try to get something done about his wife’s job disability claim. When Elliot is fully restored to civilian life in the show’s second episode, he resolves to get something done about the case, only to find that marshalling a claim through state bureaucracies requires a lot of standing in line and filling out forms! And to make matters worse, all sorts of Seattle’s down-and-out citizens still recognize him and feel obliged to sympathize with his defeat! These woeful, childlike creatures all offer up the same sentiments in largely the same words, leaving Elliot feeling abashed by their awkward, inapt displays of fellow-feeling, so different from the noblesse oblige he stirringly expresses for the fouled-up rivers and the at-risk kids.

More affronts lay in wait. At length he appeals to the earthy, ward-heeling bounty of Seattle’s mayor—a longtime political rival who is apparently a local fixer right out of an Edwin O’Connor novel. After some tetchy grandstanding over Baines’ newly fallen state (“Winning or losing, my jackpots were never as grand as yours”), the mayor gathers up the aggrieved couple with the disability claim, and we learn nothing more about their fate. They are, after all, of no further use as props for the main point of this thuddingly obtuse subplot: dramatizing what one of Baines’ aides calls, in a typically overwritten and dubiously signifying snatch of dialogue “the cold shower of political impotence.” So much, in other words, for nobly trying to repair a system that makes people’s heads spin.

As though to underline this point, we dwell, at excruciating length, on Elliot’s wounded personal vanity: The mayor has not only stolen his political thunder but has hired away his driver, who like any good servant in a post-bellum romance of Southern Reconstruction works through a series of mugging sighs and theatrical rollings of the eyes to convey what a boorish overlord his new master is.

But the show’s worst moment (thus far, anyway) flows from something uglier still. In the show’s second episode, titled “The Whole Thump, Thump, Thump,” we are treated to an extended bohemian metaphor for Elliot’s plight. In his newfound languor, he starts hanging out with Dori’s sometime live-in boyfriend, a musician from Saskatchewan named Claude, who not surprisingly has a lot of time on his hands during the workday. (It’s hard to imagine anyone who presents a grimmer vocational prospect than a world beat impresario from the Canadian interior.) Claude, in a burst of hipster wisdom you only encounter in screenplays, counsels Elliot that “You’ve had a big change in your life. You need to find a whole new rhythm.” He goes on to offer, in apparently dead earnest, an edifying example of the sort of thing he has in mind: the “thump, thump, thump” of drums intended to inculcate work discipline aboard slave ships. Thus the privileged lifestyle bubble of Citizen Baines carelessly excises another whole brutal social world—and viewers are usefully reminded, even in these fraught times, that self-flattering blandness is still capable of giving great offense.