Like so many of this season’s prime-time newbies, Citizen Baines gathers outstanding actors, scatters them across time-faded sets and well-shot locations, bathes them in the not-always-flattering naturalistic light that requires a cinematographer’s skill and imagination, then abandons them to lightweight stories and Sunday School life lessons. Citizen Baines held out the promise of intellectual challenge longer than most. But in its fourth episode (27 October), the first since Elliot Baines’ brutal kiss-off by the administration in Washington, the series’ central focus on how a lifetime politician copes when he realizes that “after” is going to last a long, long time, vanishes into a mishmash of family saga staples—the repercussions of adultery, unexpected pregnancy, the getting of wisdom, and backyard psychotherapy.
The show’s premise unfolded during an unusually thoughtful first episode. Widowed Washington State Senator Elliot Baines (James Cromwell) and his three daughters kick into the well-oiled ritual of election day, with the added tension that the eldest, Ellen (Embeth Davidtz), has managed her father’s re-election campaign. However, as the day wears on and exit polls accumulate, defeat, for the first time in 25 years, strides ever closer to Elliot. Subtly, James Cromwell shows Elliot’s almost Olympian calm succumbing to a barely suppressed terror, held at bay only by his daughters’ need for reassurance and his own obligation to graceful public concession.
The daughters are deftly sketched as appealingly imperfect women, even if they conform to traditional fictional sibling types. The eldest, over-achiever Ellen, is an apparently happily married hot-shot lawyer and Congressional wannabe. The (inevitably) dreamy middle child, Reeva (Jane Adams), has subsumed both her professional ambitions and her political heritage in marriage and children with a crumpled, self-interested geology professor, Shel (Arye Gross). The spoiled Dori (Jacinda Barrett) likes to live off her father’s money and in his house, but sulks like a chagrined eighth grader when she discovers that his political clout, not her photographic portfolio, captured the interest of the photo editor who has hired her as a stringer for the local Seattle paper.
As all three daughters wait out election day, sharp, brief scenes crack open shifting family tensions, the day-to-day negotiations of intimacy. Ellen berates Reeva for not bringing her children to the family photo op and Reeva counters that their education is more important than politics. Dori turns up late and outre, speedily reuniting her elder sisters in concerted disapproval. Dori and Ellen bemoan Reeva’s aimless drifting and wasted potential. During the episode’s final minutes, though, as children, grandchildren, and sons-in-law gather in the campaign hotel, the desperation of the daughters’ hopes for victory reveal more than their love for their father. In Reeva’s passionate hopes for new voting figures, in Ellen’s icy practicality, the audience sees how much their own identities depend upon their father’s continued power. In one man’s defeat looms a seismic family loss.
The complexity inherent in the negotiation of this loss established Citizen Baines, at least in prospect, as something other than a less glossy, less sentimentalized Sisters, its obvious prime-time antecedent. Episode by episode, though, the ongoing minutiae of residual family life have overpowered the creative challenge of showing the restructuring of lives in the aftermath of loss.
Reeva’s conventional coping with an unexpected pregnancy and her separation from philandering Shel replaces her handling her loss of status as the Senator’s daughter, a status that allowed her to drift through her 30s. Dori, constantly adorned in underwear-revealing off-the-shoulder tops (has this woman never carried a couple of camera bags and suffered those elegantly drooping straps biting relentlessly into her upper arms?) forgets her anger at her father’s influence, and captures coup after coup at the paper, despite the fact that she’s a rookie. Even Elliot, his last ambitions dashed as the administration secretaries up without him, goes from bathrobed depression to suit-and-tie aplomb in less than half an hour of TV time.
The show’s handling of this “depression” marks how limited its horizons have become in four short weeks. The episode establishes, quite wittily, Elliot’s initial grief (he doesn’t leave the house for four days, mending domestic appliances for recreation) and his daughter’s concern. But that concern rapidly degenerates into me-generation self-obsessed reaction. Ellen is hurt because her father doesn’t jump with joy when she announces publicly her intention to run for Congress, and Reeva marches defiantly off to her new job as a cosmetic sales clerk when her father deplores the paucity of her ambition. This first half of the episode launches enough rich storylines to keep the characters developing compellingly for several weeks.
And then the second half kills every single one of them, through the most hokey device seen on prime-time in some weeks—the fate of an oil lamp (belonging to Elliot’s powerhouse aunt who died on the Titanic) on an Antiques Roadshow look-alike. The lamp, of course, symbolizes Elliot. When the producer, who first burnishes Elliot’s vanity by recording him for the show, then dismisses the lamp as being worth “maybe $150 on a good day,” Elliot cracks, claiming that the lamp has value precisely because of his aunt’s history as a political activist and educator, because it, and by analogy, he, possess a significant past still vital to the present. But the TV producers are unmoved: he’s served his purpose, as a touch of celebrity for their show, and is no use to them anymore.
At this point, Elliot’s nascent depression might have deepened (who, after all, could be cheered to discover himself a has-been celebrity on an ageing PBS program), allowing Citizen Baines to explore not only the long-term course of post-retirement melancholy, but also its impact on a vulnerable family. But, having faced his apparent worthlessness, Elliot inexplicably perks up. He apologizes to Reeva for his prejudice, and she reassures him that she’s only working as a sales clerk until she “finds a new dream.” (Goodbye to a storyline that might actually allow a woman to choose pleasure over status in a career). He turns up at Ellen’s first speech as a potential candidate, and his very presence infuses passion into her voice. (Goodbye to a storyline that might allow a mature woman to explore the rationale for her career choices and the dictatorship exerted by her father’s approval.) Finally, he plugs in the newly electrified oil lamp, and tells his youngest daughter, with all the subtlety of a hammer blow, that even if it’s only worth $150, it still works. (Goodbye to a storyline that might actually treat depression seriously as an illness instead of as a quick route to wry self-knowledge).
In its first few episodes, Citizen Baines showed genuine signs of bucking the CBS feel-good Saturday night orthodoxy, by assuming the complex task of creating family-friendly entertainment without soaking in sentiment the raw textures of domestic life. In theory, there’s no reason at all why the elimination of “adult” elements (explicit sex, strong language, violent storylines) should limit the emotional and intellectual range of a TV drama and the sophisticated satisfactions it might offer its audiences. But Citizen Baines symbolizes the lack of imagination driving so much of prime-time, whether drama or sitcom, cable or network. With honorable exceptions, like the underrated Third Watch, TV life between 8 and 11pm is either R-rated racy or Disney-utopian, where, no matter the problem, no more than 50 minutes will solve it. And always, always, check your intelligence at the door.