Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Geena Davis, Donald Sutherland, Kyle Secor
Lasting only one season, "Commander In Chief" was a casualty of behind-the-scenes shake-ups and mishandled time slots. Dying a sudden death, the show will go down as an anomaly; it garnered the highest ratings of any new show on the fall schedule, earned a Golden Globe for Best Actress (Geena Davis) and yet, by the end of the season, was in limbo with only half the audience it previously had. Problems started to manifest when Creator/Producer Rod Lurie (Director of the feature film "The Contender") was let go as showrunner when he failed to get episodes done in a timely manner, at which point ABC then hired Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue") to take over. Bochco did some revamping, bringing in new actors and writers. Suddenly, with viewership dwindling (no doubt a result from ratings juggernaut "American Idol" coming back on the air), Bochco soon jumped ship and the sinking continued. After a move to Thursday nights, it soon became apparent that the once-popular show had lost the goodwill of the American people, slipping even further into the abyss. "Commander In Chief: 2-Disc Inaugural Edition, Part 1," collects the first ten episodes of the series. Was the show just a victim of circumstance? Or did its quality diminish as the show "evolved"?
"Commander In Chief" begins by establishing a provocative "what if?" scenario. President Teddy Bridges is in the hospital with a stroke and the first woman Vice President, Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), is in line to take over the position. Against the President's wishes (and the wishes of his various political cronies), Mackenzie decides not to resign, thus disrupting the Republican Party's intention to see Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland) become leader of the free world. Not only does Mackenzie become the first woman President, she also becomes the first Independent candidate to hold the office. As you can imagine, this creates a wealth of political and personal problems. Still reeling from being denied the Presidency, Templeton begins to undermine Mackenzie's power with shady, unscrupulous tactics.
While "Commander In Chief" occasionally displays moments of inspiration and suspense, it has a difficult time binding these elements into a cohesive whole. For every intense backroom meeting, there is an uninvolving domestic drama concerning the President's bratty, photogenic kids. For example, the second episode perfectly captures the confusion and overwhelming pressure of being thrown into the lion's den, as the President's speech writer Kelly (Ever Carradine) is quickly promoted to Press Secretary. Camera's flash on and off blindingly and the media questions her with probing questions. The editing is quick and jumpy, encapsulating her experience through fast cuts. While this nicely brings us into the voracious world of politics, the script unsatisfactorily attempts to ratchet up the tension with an absurd subplot involving President Mackenzie's teenage twin daughter Becca (Caitlin Wachs). During the family's move into the White House, Becca becomes distraught over an item missing from her bedroom dresser drawer. The set-up effectively makes this appear that Becca has lost something incriminating (like drugs?) but the big reveal is that her precious diary is lost. Now, while this would certainly be cause for concern in any teenager's mind, the show treats this as though a cache of nuclear missiles has been misplaced. What volatile information is contained in her diary? We're never told. It's just an excuse to let Becca pout and look even more depressed and distressed than usual.
And therein lays the problem with the show. Whenever the domestic and personal issues of the first family are portrayed, the show tends to falter. The mundane familial plot lines (which include Becca being called a "slut" at school and her brother Horace being caught cheating in his classes) throws the forward thrust of the dramatic political plots way off course. Covering the same ground that shows like "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Degrassi Junior High" exploited time and time again, "Commander In Chief" handles the teen's problems with extremely heavy hands. You know you're in trouble when depressing emo music plays in the background whenever the kids enter a scene, their characters sulking around the White House in fits of unwarranted despair. Somehow, when combined with the President's involvement in terrorist plots and her attempts to instill coups in other countries, these rote, teen-angsty subplots appear even thinner and more innocuous.
While the cumulative effect of these teen storylines certainly adds up to an uneven viewing experience, there are other problems that surface throughout the first ten episodes. Although Donald Sutherland's portrayal of the ethically and morally bankrupt Templeton is a joy to behold, his character eventually begins to lose ground with each successive episode. Two-faced, conniving and continually trying to demoralize the President, Templeton plays everyone in Washington like pawns on a chess board. A broad, Machiavellian-type, Templeton is a one-note character who rarely displays any other facets or dimensions. Having not seen the second half of the season, I'm not sure if Templeton ever becomes more fully-developed, but judging from the first batch of episodes, his antics tend to grow old very quickly. At first, the fun of "Commander In Chief" manifests through Sutherland's character and his ability to manipulate everybody around him. Soon though, this constant barrage of manipulation grows tiresome. With the exception of a brief moment where he tenderly takes care of his wife, Templeton remains in complete yawn-inducing villain mode.
Another annoyance is the insular nature of the show. Whether or not this was addressed in latter episodes, I don't know, but as it is, "Commander In Chief" is so claustrophobically depicted that it never creates a believable world. Everything is confined to the White House, with little attention given to the public's perception or opinions of having a woman President. The closest indication of what people outside the political forum think involves a quick glimpse of Jay Leno cracking jokes about the First Gentleman (Kyle Secor) and Horace's schoolmates referring to his Dad as a "wuss." Also, we momentarily see protestors wielding Mackenzie-bashing signs once the media leaks news of the former President's wishes that she step down from office. It's hard to knock a show for what it doesn't accomplish, as opposed to what it does accomplish, but this glaring omission of dramatic potential is too hard to overlook. Although ambitious from a political and familial perspective, "Commander In Chief" fails to become a well-rounded show, since it doesn't embrace enough intriguing possibilities. It's also problematic that Mackenzie never wavers, sticking to her guns on various issues and always having the right answers to every problem her administration faces. Episodes build to a suspenseful conclusion, only to taper off before the climax arrives. Sometimes it's as though the writers came down to the wire with only minutes left and decided to sum everything up tidily. Unfortunately, this severely drains any momentum that was constructed. When this structure is repeated over several episodes, predictability settles in, robbing the show of any kind of surprise or spontaneity. Quickly, I began having a nagging notion that something was missing and it became clear that the show lacked the voices and viewpoints of the American people. How very un-Democratic of Mr. Lurie. "Commander In Chief" pays little lip service to the unprecedented ascension of the first woman President. Other than a couple of snide comments from politicians and the continual emasculation of Mackenzie's husband, her gender is never really an issue. So, what we're left with is just another political drama with a promising premise that is never suitably exploited.
The show's saving grace revolves around the talents of the core actors. Geena Davis rightfully earned her Golden Globe award, infusing her Presidential role with an authoritative firmness that is both captivating and believable. It's easy to grasp how she worked her way into the hierarchy of politics. While forthright and extremely opinionated, her soft-side is well represented throughout the show, especially in the many telling flashbacks that signal her rise to the Oval Office. Once just a modest housewife, Davis perfectly captures her character's balance between Motherhood and her ethically-driven politics. Likewise, before his character becomes redundant, Donald Sutherland plays Nathan Templeton with an imposing, near-maniacal glee and, although he devolves into pedestrian villainy (which is more of a problem with the writing), Sutherland is always a striking presence onscreen. Whenever he's away, the show lacks the caffeinated punch he brings with his role.
With ten episodes spread over two discs, Disc One contains; "Pilot," "First Choice," "First Strike," "First Dance," "First…Do No Harm." Disc Two contains; "First Disaster," "First Scandal," "Rubie Dubidoux And The Brown Bound Express," "The Mom Who Came To Dinner," "Sub Enchanted Evening."
Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents "Commander In Chief" in an anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. With a broadcast quality-like image, the episodes are nicely transferred, if not spectacular. Colors are warm and realistic, while skin tones appear natural. Overall, the images are crisp and clear, although there were a couple of instances of softness. Shadow delineation is nicely rendered and black levels are rich and deep, adding a suitable amount of depth. Not exactly a home run, but still an above average transfer.
Audio arrives via a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Nice and aggressive, all channels are adequately utilized, with most of the dialogue coming from the front speakers. Effects are well integrated in the rear speakers, especially during crowd scenes and the hyper-intensive press meetings. Vocals appear natural and there were no indications of hiss or distortion. While not giving your system a monstrous workout, the mix is definitely better than I thought it would be. Good job all around. Included are English Captions for the Hearing Impaired.
If you're looking for Extras, look elsewhere. Yep, there's nothing here. Zilch. Nada. Maybe they're coming with the second set? One could only hope, since this series is rife with behind-the-scenes intrigue.
"Commander In Chief" is a mildly entertaining show that gets by on the impressive acting talent of Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland. While not digging deeper into its interesting premise, the show often falters due to boring subplots, redundant characterizations and anticlimactic storylines. Despite these imperfections, "Commander In Chief: 2-Disc Inaugural Edition, Part 1" contains fast-paced episodes that will nonetheless hold your attention. It's unfortunate that the show was killed off so quickly, since it likely would have grown into a viable series. With the 2-Disc set devoid of extras, chances are this will only appeal to die-hard fans of the show. Hovering on the verge of impeachment, I'd recommend renting "Commander In Chief" for all the bipartisan viewers out there.