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'Commander in Chief': A Woman's White House


I'm Madeleine Brand, and this is DAY TO DAY.

Recent polls show that President Bush's job approval rating is at its lowest point since he took office four years ago. Well, if you're one of those voters who's unhappy with the president, a new ABC drama called "Commander-in-Chief" starting tonight offers a fictional alternative. Here's DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with this review.


With rumors of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2008, it's not so far-fetched for a show to feature a female president. Realism is a necessary quantity when you cast veteran actress Geena Davis in the role of the president. She's well into her 40s, but every bit the bombshell she was when still the ingenue from the 1982 classic "Tootsie." I mean, to say Davis has bee-stung lips is an understatement. It seems like an entire hive worked on her mouth. Swooning aside, she's still quite good as Mackenzie Allen, a married mother of two, who just happens to be the vice president. She's thrust into the top job when the nation's president suffers a brain aneurysm. But her succession to the throne gets rough in this scene, in which the White House chief of staff and attorney general urge her to step aside.

(Soundbite of "Commander-in-Chief")

Mr. HARRY LENNIX (Actor): We need you to resign, Mac.

Ms. LESLIE HOPE (Actress): See, if you resign, Nathan Templeton could move into office.

Ms. GEENA DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) Oh, I know it would move Nathan Templeton into office. The question is why on earth would I want to move this speaker of the House into office?

Mr. LENNIX: Mac, you are an Independent. We need a Republican head of the administration.

Mr. KYLE SECOR (Actor): Well, hold on now, Bridges picked Mac to succeed him if something went wrong.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) Just--this is coming from the president?

Mr. LENNIX: This is the president's intent.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) Jim...

WALLENSTEIN: If the subject of "Commander-in-Chief" feels a little familiar, that's probably because executive producer Rod Lurie also directed the 2000 film "The Contender," which also features a female president. Lurie helps Davis by transplanting "The Contender's" savvy dialogue and brisk pacing. He also has a good eye for casting, particularly in the role of the speaker of the House, played with wolfish verve by veteran actor Donald Sutherland. If Newt Gingrich seemed bold, he's got nothing on Sutherland's Nathan Templeton.

(Soundbite of "Commander-in-Chief")

Mr. DONALD SUTHERLAND: (As Nathan Templeton) Why do you want to be president?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) For the same reason Teddy Bridges did, because I believe the people of America deserve to have a president...

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Nathan Templeton) No, no. In this room, where it's just you and me, just the two of us, the answer that you should be giving me is that you want to be president because you want the power. You want the power to control the universe.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) That's not me.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Nathan Templeton) Well, that's the problem!

WALLENSTEIN: Sutherland and Davis will make great foes in "Commander-in-Chief," but I'm not sure where this show is really headed. Judging from the first episode, I don't know what there is to explore beyond the novelty of a female president. Mackenzie Allen turned out to be just as fair-minded, intelligent and decisive as any male leader. So where's the dramatic tension in that premise? They're all laudable images, but we've already seen this show. It's called "The West Wing." I hope "Commander-in-Chief" finds story lines in the next episodes that do not rely on the president's gender.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for the Hollywood Reporter, and he's TV critic for us here at DAY TO DAY.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.