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Commander-in-Chief – Washington politics, gender politics or just not very good politics (or television) at all? November 13, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Film and Television, Television Shows, US Politics.

Watching Commander-in-Chief on Sunday night was a dispiriting experience.

Dispiriting for a number of reasons. Firstly the knowledge that it was already cancelled, although there is some talk of TV movies based around it. Secondly because it despite having a strong lead in Geena Davis (and a strong counterfoil in Donald Sutherland) there is something threadbare about the enterprise – we’ve seen much of it before and we’ve seen it better (the actual production values look oddly slipshod compared to the West Wing). But finally because it’s comes across as untrue and it reduces everything down to sexual politics in a way which is entirely unconvincing.

Let’s take the last point first. Here we have a television series ostensibly based on the first female President of the United States. So far so good. However, in every show Davis is met by a thinly disguised sexism from many (not all) of those who nominally serve her. This is played out to a ludicrous degree in an episode where her Press Secretary is drunkenly harangued by her (male) deputy simply because she is a woman. The deputy asserts that she is a nobody who only got her job due to her connection to the Presidents campaign – to which the riposte is ‘actually I went to Princeton… etc… etc…’. Somehow rather than empowering this comes away as trite. Another example. The President has a young(ish) family, with a daughter of eight or nine, another in her mid teens and a son of about 16. Not an episode is allowed to pass without this motley crew stomping across the White House in their own inimitable (for which read irritating) way. Youngest daughter interrupts President in the Oval Office while the latter is on a call regarding national security. Like they don’t have security details at the doors? Somewhat older daughter is a closet conservative Republican who disapproves of her mothers more liberal outlook and appears to be entirely unaware of the exigencies of living a life in the public eye. Son appears in one episode as a level-headed conciliator – in another as an absurd clown who is unable to deal with his father being First Husband because he’s a ‘national joke’.

The husband is depicted as being ‘conflicted’ as to his role particularly since policy has been taken away from him. But none of this is remotely credible. It’s as if they’ve all suffered from a sort of collective amnesia about who or what they are – despite the fact the President was the Vice President for the previous two or three years, a life not entirely dissimilar to that they’re meant to be leading.

And the biggest untruth is the one at the heart of the plot. The script has deliberately contrived a situation that in reality would be most implausible, simply to put Davis on the back foot in relation to those who she has worked with for the previous years. Davis is meant to be an Independent brought in by the President in order to shore up his ticket. He wants her to resign when he falls ill so that the White House remains true to his policies – and implicitly because she’s a woman. Hence all his aides run around at the beginning of the series attempting to get her to withdraw. Sure, this sets up the tension with the Speaker of the House who sees his Presidential ambitions go south as she remains. But it also seems incredible. Surely this whole process would have been considered in detail prior to this point. Surely any President would be cognisant of the possibility that s/he might die in situ, in perhaps the most prominent job in the world. And consequently the selection of a running mate would not be something that would be taken lightly and would be done in such a way as to ensure philosophical and political continuity. The President could die at any moment, not just in the process of a rapidly developing illness as occurs here. Either it’s accounted for or not. Worse again, under the US Constitution his aides simply should not be doing what they do i.e. pressurising Davis. And although I’m well aware of the bias against women within many social structures there is something a little exaggerated about how this plays out in Commander-in-Chief. Yes, undoubtedly there would be many who would find a female President difficult to accept, but after two or three years of a female VP, and again presumably having seen all these issues thrashed out in the media, it’s hard to believe she would have quite such a rough time of it – particularly considering the respect that is afforded the office, if not always the person. But because this is implausible it renders everything else implausible.

West Wing had it’s faults. Appallingly saccharine speeches and a tendency toward the twee more often than was good for it to name but two. But it also had one great strength in that it was rooted firmly in the politics, sometimes to an almost baffling degree. It somehow made that sort of discourse look exciting, certainly more exciting than the tedious and predictable familial woes of C-in-C that far from normalising the First Family simply make them seem shallow and glib.

Yes, there is a series to be made about a woman as President, but in some ways this one by attempting to place her gender at the centre of the drama seems to me to produce an artefact that is more rather than less grounded in sexism and exacerbates and exaggerates the very real problems that the first woman President will face in the US. The result is a show which can please no one, not liberals who want a positive role model but are presented with an individual who appears almost shackled by her gender, not social conservatives who seeing exactly the same projection of identity will see their worst fears confirmed but are smart enough no doubt to see through the glum pacing.

So I’m doubtful I’ll keep watching it much longer… and clearly I’m not the only one to come to that conclusion. That’s a pity. Davis is a good actor, to my mind. The idea was intriguing. In the post-WW world there is still a niche for a smart show about US politic, perhaps one rooted in another branch of government. Perhaps the Congress…perhaps…


1. Pidge - November 13, 2006

I just thought it was shit.

You said it better, but I still think it was just shit.


2. smiffy - November 14, 2006

As always, Pidge is right. It’s just shit.

It’s not that dispiriting though. Certainly if you compare it to the West Wing, it’s appalling. But the West Wing was one of the few halfway decent US television exports (especially if you exclude the HBO stuff, which isn’t constrained by the same concerns as network programmes). However, if you compare it to the rest of the dross that’s produced (remembering, of course, that we tend to get the cream of the crop and that the dregs are generally cancelled before RTE or Channel 4 buys the rights) it’s about average.

It’s true that there’s a rather insidious sexism in the way that each episode (at least, each one I’ve seen) has to have the travails of family life front-and-centre (that’s what the chicks go for, right?). But, you know, welcome to safe, commercial, audience-tested television.

BTW, that film ‘The Contender’ from a few years ago wasn’t bad, and covered similar ground (although it was about a prospective Vice-President). Well, it wasn’t bad until the last 15 minutes, which really were unmitigated shit.


3. Dick OBrien - November 14, 2006

Surely this whole process would have been considered in detail prior to this point. Surely any President would be cognisant of the possibility that s/he might die in situ, in perhaps the most prominent job in the world.

I have two words for you: Dan Quayle


4. Donagh - November 14, 2006

I haven’t seen it but I thought this was interesting in regards to what, potentially the series could have grappled with: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/10/AR2006111001387.html
It talks about Obama and Hillary, but it hints that the Republicans when faced with an African American and a woman could come out all guns firing with an amalgam of both: Condoleezza Rice, but as Vice President. I didn’t know this but last year the Washington Post published rumours that in the midst of the Plamegate affair there were plans for Cheney to resign and be replaced by Rice


5. WorldbyStorm - November 15, 2006

Yep, Dan Quayle is problematic to my argument above, no doubt about it. However, it’s interesting to see that he was the best Republican vote getter in his previous political life prior to being made VP. Generally though the tendency has been to safe and steady VPs.

Thats’s a great article Donagh. Damn them that they didn’t use something more like that dressed in fiction as the premise behind C-n-C.

Haven’t seen The Contender and am now fairly sure I only 75% want to 🙂


6. smiffy - November 15, 2006

Or 100% sure you want to see 75% of it?


7. WorldbyStorm - November 15, 2006

Something like that. I’m guessing you don’t have it on DVD? Or perhaps you do with a slice taken out…


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