Commander in Chief (premiering tonight at 9 p.m. ET on ABC) is The West Wingwith extra cheese. Rather than a hardheaded, ripped-from-the-headlines political drama, it’s a political fantasy that takes place in a Beltway Neverland, where bipartisanship becomes tripartisanship and the fate of the free world is decided by an ill-placed sexist jibe. It’s less a vision of what a real female presidency might be like than an extended allegory about gender politics in the workplace. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Geena Davis is Mackenzie “Mac” Allen, an Independent vice president on a Republican ticket (my internal logic meter is going berserk already) who’s forced to step up to the plate when the president, Teddy Roosevelt Bridges, suffers a fatal brain aneurysm. Everyone, including the dying president himself, encourages Mac to resign, insisting that her place on the ticket was purely symbolic in the first place and that the country needs a leader who can carry out the incumbent’s conservative mandate.
The show’s real casting coup was landing Donald Sutherland for the role of Nathan Templeton, the right-wing speaker of the House who’s dead set against Allen’s presidency, not least because the chain of command would put him next in line for the office. Mac’s resignation speech is already written when a heated tête-à-tête with Templeton changes her mind. “People who don’t want power have no idea how to use it,” he sneers before questioning her seriousness as a potential leader: “You know your vice-presidency was never, ever intended to be a presidency. It was a stunt, pure theater.” Sutherland is magnificently reptilian, and his too-few moments onscreen with Davis crackle and hiss with potential energy. When he whispers, “I’m right behind you” in Davis’ ear after her first speech to Congress as president, it comes out as equal parts reassurance and threat.
Much domestic comedy is wrung from the emasculation of Mac’s husband Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor), who served as her chief of staff in her Veep days but has now been demoted to “first lady” status (there’s not even any discussion of how to adjust the nomenclature for a male occupant of the office). His officious social secretary shows him into his new, very pink office and introduces him to the White House chef, all the while getting in digs at Hillary Clinton (“Mrs. Clinton had a staff of 20,” she clucks. “That didn’t go over very well”). It’s unclear where the satire is being aimed—at Hillary’s outsized ambition or at the traditional concept of first ladydom that she ignored at her peril. This ambivalence (like President Allen’s Independent Party affiliation) keeps the political investment of Commander in Chief nicely off-balance. However feminist the show may be, it’s no amicus brief filed on Hillary’s behalf.
Mac’s decision to assume office is also complicated by the demands of her three children: Her youngest daughter, Amy (Jasmine Anthony), spills cranberry juice on her mother’s blouse on the way to Mac’s first big speech as president. The other two are teenage twins: Becca (Caitlin Wachs), a budding Republican who’d rather see Pat Buchanan in office than her mother, and Horace (Jack Lanter), a jock who annoys his sister by supporting his mother’s decision. “You be John-John,” she tells him condescendingly. “I’ll be Patti Davis.”
In addition to mollifying the former president’s loyal chief of staff (Harry Lennix) and attempting to hold together his disgruntled Cabinet, President Allen is also given a studiedly benign international human-rights crisis to solve: a Nigerian woman, set to be executed for adultery, is saved in a last-minute helicopter rescue (hmmm … innocent women being stoned to death while holding their babies? Personally, I’m against it).
But the show takes plenty of time out for apolitical gal talk, including a dish session between Mac and the former first lady: “If Moses had been a woman leading the Jews in the desert,” opines the president’s widow, “She’d have stopped and asked for directions. They’d have been in Israel in a week.” As Allen’s idealistic chief of staff exults to her slightly more skeptical speechwriter, “A female president. Can’t you smell the history?”
I can, and it smells kind of cheesy. Another helping, please.