`Chief' Davis commands our respect

Fall TV Preview

September 27, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Hail to the chief -- Commander in Chief that is, the new ABC series starring Academy Award-winner Geena Davis as the first female president of the United States.

As drama, tonight's pilot has its flaws, but it is, nevertheless, one of those electrifying TV productions that instead of simply seeking to divert or amuse, challenges viewers to imagine a reality other than the one they have been conditioned to accept. For all the talk of television "dumbing down" its audience, such programs have the capacity to do exactly the opposite as they create a different vision of American life and invite millions of viewers to spend an hour exploring that new reality each week.

Of course, a series first has to engage viewers before it can expand their imaginations -- and Commander in Chief has more than enough dramatic firepower to hold an audience. Davis is at the top of her game, and that means she's working in the same highly focused and intense range of performance that she did in the 1991 feature film Thelma and Louise.

The pilot's dynamism is generated by the transformation that Davis' character, 45-year- old Mackenzie Allen, undergoes. At the start of the hour, she is an Independent vice president in a Republican administration. But the administration is suddenly in crisis as the president dies during emergency surgery.

Backstage at the White House, it's a stormy transition, with Allen, who had been brought on the ticket only to get female votes being asked by the dying president and his party to step aside in favor of the Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), a Machiavellian good-old-boy.

Allen declines to follow the script written by male party leaders and seizes power with a steady hand. Davis is superb in the pilot's climactic scene as Allen addresses the nation for the first time as president.

Comparisons to NBC's The West Wing are inevitable, starting with Davis and Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlet. As commanding as Sheen has been in The West Wing, Davis is better -- at least in the pilot.

The ensemble cast for Commander In Chief isn't the equal of The West Wing in terms of depth, but Sutherland, Kyle Secor and Harry Lennix are playing in the same league as Bradley Whitford, John Spencer and Richard Schiff. Secor, as Allen's husband and vice presidential chief of staff, hasn't been this good since NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street.

There comes a moment in the pilot when Allen tells her husband that he is not going to be her presidential chief of staff -- despite his expectations. The look of surprise, hurt and anger that passes from Secor to Davis as the news registers on his character's face captures the complex nature of relationships among working couples. The journey taken by Secor's character in the pilot is not as dramatic as that of Allen's, but he makes it every bit as compelling -- without trying to upstage the star.

The writing is not on a par with that of West Wing, but what is? The level of excellence achieved by creator Aaron Sorkin during the first three years of West Wing, when he was writing every script, will probably never again be equaled.

Creator Rod Lurie's biggest problem in the pilot is in trying to strike a balance between Allen's professional and personal lives. The ratio among scenes set in the Oval Office, Situation Room and East Wing feels as if it needs to be rethought -- or, at least, refined. The scenes featuring Allen interacting with her three children tend to threaten the verisimilitude of the series itself.

But, maybe, that is not so much a fault of Lurie's writing as it is our cultural conditioning; perhaps, it seems unrealistic for the president to function as a mother, because we have been taught to think of the two roles as mutually exclusive. If that is true, here's hoping that Commander in Chief has a long enough run to help change such thinking.

Commander in Chief airs at 9 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

UPN already has one winner in Everybody Hates Chris, the Chris Rock sitcom that set a new network audience record of 7.8 million viewers in its debut last week. Tonight, another strong newcomer arrives with Sex, Love & Secrets, an ensemble drama about six friends in their 20s living in the urban Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake.

Think Melrose Place with more edge and fewer one-dimensional soap-opera characterizations. While not likely to set audience records, Sex, Love & Secrets is another promising addition to a network clearly on the rise. The series premieres at 9 tonight on WUTB (Channel 24).

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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