Geena Davis as Commander in Chief (2005-6)
Oh America, we have a lot of reflecting to do. We’re in the vortex of A LOT of change – political, social and economic. It’s why we’re a little crabby and on edge.
This segment of Advanced TV Herstory reminds you if you look hard enough there’s a TV show or moment, which features a woman, which makes it all better. Or at least eases your transition. Or gives you strength to stand tall and manage others through change.
This segment is about superheroes, short-lived TV shows with a strong female lead and the 2005-2006 groundbreaker, Commander in Chief. What, you don’t recall the 19 episodes that ran, with a mid-winter break, in 2005 and 2006 starring Geena Davis as the first woman president? The role of President Mackenzie Allen, you remember? Don’t you?
Herstorians, let’s revisit 2005 for a minute and learn a bit about how a man, Rod Lurie, cut through the icy waters of Hollywood to sell a network on the importance and relevance of a show about America’s first woman president.
Lurie had produced a critically acclaimed movie, The Contender, in 2000. Commander in Chief’s 18 episodes are available on Hulu, but if you want a richer look, buy the DVDs and enjoy the bonus features of Lurie as well as Geena Davis providing insight into the show. Buy the DVDs, pass them along.
So yeah, creators worked this show around the time of the George Bush re-election.
In his commentary about the show’s pilot, Lurie gives his backstory of Commander in Chief’s origin.
Lurie says time and again that in the early 2000s, his aim was not to project this show as partisan. The writers, with the help of Capitol Hill veterans who served as consultants, presented a series of plotlines aimed at the nation’s international and domestic affairs. They are conflicts, points of law, discussion of priorities. Dialogue harkens back to a time when progressive and conservative perspectives could come together with a goal of compromise.
If anything, this show is a mind grinder. In some ways it feels like the last grasp of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – the ideals and energy that compel and propel a woman or man to serve in elected office. Geena Davis and the show’s writers DO NOT DISAPPOINT. We’ll talk more about this in a minute.
But there’s also a sense, in viewing up close the personal ploys for power, the importance of loyalty and trust, the doers versus the talkers, that with a date stamp as 2005, things have only gotten worse.
I’m doing all I can to steer clear of spoilers. The 19 episodes contain continued plot lines that are very engaging. In fact, the first few episodes pulled in 17 million viewers, dropping to 10 million. It was 2005 and 2006. The economy was coursing along at a breakneck speed which we learned a few years later was a bit hollow.
George W. Bush had been re-elected in 2004 – so Americans knew that the 2008 election would bring a new president. And really, it was only 10 years ago that presidential campaigns lasted for about 18 months instead of 2 years. The landmark Supreme Court decision of Citizens United occurred many years after this show aired. So if it was made today, the power money in presidential politics changes the show entirely. That’s sad… and that’s why this show, sort of like a reset to default settings, is a good thing.
But, let’s get back to Lurie’s intent and the goodness that comes from seeing good looking characters on screen – women and men with backbones and ideals, who are prone to giving lofty, well-written speeches about the character of our people and the potential of our future.
Stay with me as I try to string together a few thoughts. In the 10 years since this series aired, Geena Davis has built the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. It’s housed at Mount St. Mary University in Los Angeles. Her work and the work of the Institute and its grantees is to raise awareness of representation of women in TV, film and entertainment. By representation, we’re talking quantitative and qualitative presence of women in front of the camera as well as behind it. The number of roles, large and small, speaking and non-speaking, that are written for women characters or could be gender neutral but cast as men. And, the quality of those roles – what kind of characters are depicted? Do they represent something that we want our daughters to see, learn more about and aspire to? Are they relevant to our experience as American women of all races, education and status?
This podcast’s origins lay in the sad state of representation of women in TV today – both roles we see as well as opportunities behind the camera to produce, direct, write. The Geena Davis Institute’s tag line is If She Can See It, She Can Be It. Learn more at www.seejane.org.
We’re all in this together, right? Are you? At Advanced TV Herstory we do our best to mine moments when women made TV herstory, celebrate creative genius and tell stories of diligence. You can make a difference by
- becoming more aware of the great gap of representation,
- support organizations like the Geena Davis Institute – they’re helping fund the research that shows how much or how little progress we’re making and
- become more vocal by sharing on Facebook and Twitter, writing reviews at websites for women-oriented series and films and commenting on reviews written by men that reveal privilege or a singular point of view. That’s how we can all be in this together.
Okay, back to Rod Lurie, Geena Davis and a woman in the White House.
So 10 years following Lurie’s Iron Man intentions to depict superhero-like goodness of President Mackenzie Allen, I feel the effort might be mistaken for PollyAnna-ishness. Audiences and critics today aren’t necessarily privy to Lurie’s intention to create a superhero. Browse through the credits, there are a few women writers. Browse through the cast list and President Allen is largely alone, professionally, in a sea of men. And alone as a political independent.
So while it was Lurie’s goal to put President Allen on the screen and not turn the dramas that surround her presidency into battles of the sexes, the 2016 viewer knows better. Is that good or bad or just necessary, given the historic nature of trying to feature a political figure America had never known or seen.
What I know about what needs to happen for a breakthrough show to gain permanent foothold comes from stories told about the 70s and 80s - the amount of work and salesmanship it took to get Cagney and Lacey on the air. Two installments of Advanced TV Herstory tell those stories, with the help of an audio book by the show’s creator Barney Rosenzweig. He lived the long, hard slog that was filled with a lot of men in powerful positions who didn’t want the show to air or succeed.
He’s candid in his storytelling, yet the show went on to an incredibly successful run and its stars, Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless, bagged as many Emmys as were available during the series’ run.
Second, writers and producers Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday took great pains to create characters from a woman’s point of view. Daly and Gless had the experience and confidence to bring Lacey and Cagney to life. Was it just that the 80s were a different time?
In the talent department, Geena Davis brought serious screen cred to Commander in Chief, and was thrilled for the opportunity.
At 6 feet tall, she had the look and voice we envisioned our first woman president to have. America or at least American women, had enjoyed Davis’ independent spirit in Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own. For her 19 episodes on Commander in Chief, Davis earned an Emmy and a Golden Globe.
President Allen, who we might guess would have been about 45 years old, tends to wear fitted pant suits with a traditional button up blouse under it. Not many scarves. Few dresses. Occasionally we see Allen wearing a skirt suit with a fully buttoned jacket. This would have been in keeping with her fashion preferences that fit the president’s professional experiences leading up to the show. She had been a prosecutor, Member of Congress and university chancellor.
Davis’ hair doesn’t really change and to keep the show real, they have plot lines that show her with little or no make up.
Why is this important? Because now that we have lived through the first woman candidate for president endorsed by a major party, we see how much strength, skill and smarts (and inordinate attention paid to hair and apparel) it took to navigate the waters.
So maybe a statuesque, young-ish president is our aspiration. Commander in Chief’s family scenes foreshadowed what we would come to experience when the Obama family moved into the White House, complete with a grandmother in tow.
But I wonder if, given how under-represented women have always been on TV, and how much work it takes to get a show with a strong female character on the air, whether Lurie’s goal of creating a superhero was just too much nuance. It sounded good on paper.
For while Lurie can recall the impressions of Superman, Spiderman and other comic book heroes that shaped his character and values, girls have only a fraction of that exposure – in women or other girls. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Powerpuff Girls. The Bionic Woman. They didn’t come to the screen from comic books, but they have used super human powers to inspire us. And they were and remain our role models.
It likely didn’t occur to Lurie that women watch TV differently than men do. We don’t have the countless hours of affirmation and adoration that comes with televised sports. We’re used to the disparity, to the vast gap in representation. Because of that, we pay attention differently. Writing matters more. Wardrobe matters more. Character development… details.
Women – in their heads - can turn a regular TV character into a superhero – Julia Sugarbaker or Alicia Florrick or Olivia Benson.
I’m going to leave it at that. I go back to how much work it took to get Cagney and Lacey launched and then I look at the big kick off of Commander in Chief. The road of hiccups it took before never even completing its first season was likely seen as predictable by those who had been associated with quality, short-run series.
After a few episodes, Steven Bochco and team briefly, came on board to smooth out characters and create some momentum. There was a gap of many months between the fall episodes and the ones promoted in Spring 2006. In 2005 and 2006, there was no must-see TV in my life. Our two kids were in middle school. I had a two hour round trip commute and a mother with a heart condition.
Having just viewed all 19 episodes, the seriousness of the plot lines – again – it feels like they were trying to accomplish an awful lot.
I love that they devoted plot bandwidth to international affairs. American TV as a whole has drifted away from the notion that our business and government are leaders of the world stage. Davis as President Allen is credible and measured – the consummate professional.
Commander in Chief overlapped with the last season of the critically acclaimed political drama The West Wing. It’s easy to understand that the bar had been set high for Commander in Chief creator Lurie and a cast led by Davis and another accomplished actor from film, Donald Sutherland.
One big difference between the two was Commander in Chief’s dedication of each episode to the president’s family. By the time the Bushes left in 2008, they were empty-nesters. President Allen has three children – two teens and a 6 year old. If you watch closely, you’ll see that it’s the family scenes that bring out the subtle conversations about feminism, gender roles, gender-biased media scrutiny and the historical experience that this family is living. These were real conversations heard at American dining room tables!
Adding colorful, straight-talking Polly Bergen to the family cast was a stroke of genius. Early in the series run, we see family needs take a toll on President Allen and her husband Rod. This is something all working families feel. Because President Allen is from Connecticut, her mother is on the east coast as well. She comes for Thanksgiving and Mackenzie, with Rod’s encouragement, asks her to stay.
It’s Bergen’s character, Mrs. Allen, who voices the awe and admiration women feel about the advancement of a woman to the presidency. The writers chose to depict teenage daughter Rebecca as self-centered and struggling with the significance and sacrifice that comes with being a member of the First Family. Bergen projects just the right balance of broad shoulders, street smarts and compassion to help you better understand how her daughter, superhero Mackenzie Allen could even exist.
Maybe Mackenzie should have brought her on the scene sooner to handle daughter Rebecca…
Without spoiling anything further, I will tell you that they position Rebecca as Republican leaning, though there’s little dialogue written to explain why. That might make for easy family plot conflict, but it gives short shrift to the characters of Mrs. Allen and Mackenzie. By the 21st century, family conversations about economics, justice, education and feminism would like have made Rebecca more aware of the world around her.
Rebecca shifts a bit, maybe finally coming to a maturity to understand the middle ground positions and successes her mother is leading. However, for reasons not fully probed, she’s the footdragger on sacrificing anything more, particularly when the family starts talking about whether President Allen is going to run for the office, following her succession to the seat.
Rebecca’s evolving. I wonder what she’d be doing today.
We’ll never know whether President Allen, as a sitting president without a party ever got elected to a four year term. But the writers delivered the appropriate dose of earnestness with competitive confidence to make you want to root for good, support the one who wants to work hard and compromise, yet who draws the line at shady dealing.
Advanced TV Herstory is indeed fascinated by critically acclaimed series that lasts only a season. We see it time and again. One need only look back on My So-Called Life – covered in an earlier podcast installment, for proof.
Clips taken for this installment come from the DVDs – the 19 episodes as well as bonus features. I recommend buying them and passing them along to girls and women of all ages. But yes, you can also find them on Hulu.
Follow THIS podcast on Twitter – our handle is@TVHerstory. Find this script and those from past installments – perfect reading for when you’re in the doctor’s office waiting room – at cynthiabemisabrams.com.
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Because if we don’t, who will? Stay tuned for more glimpses into the stories and achievements of women in and of TV. It’s all here at Advanced TV Herstory. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.