If you want out, you tell me now.
— President Mackenzie S. Allen (Geena Davis), Commander in Chief
I really want it to be the kind of show a man will watch with his wife. It’s a “You go, girl!” show.
— Rod Lurie, L.A. Times (4 September 2005)
If recent political dramas are any reflection, TV has given up on the two-party electoral process. On Mister Sterling, Jack & Bobby, and now, ABC’s Commander in Chief, leaders follow atypical paths to higher office, helped by hearty doses of luck and Republican machinations gone wrong. And yet they aren’t Democrats. These series revolve around Independents.
This identification provides Mackenzie S. Allen (Geena Davis) with the “best drama,” series creator Rod Lurie told the L.A. Times. “It gives her so many enemies. As an independent, you don’t know where she stands. It opens up the storylines.” Surely. But this series counts on singularity, rather than independence, as its hook: Mackenzie stands alone as the States’ first female President.
Because it’s still unimaginable that a woman might survive the U.S. presidential election (even if she could be president as well as most men), the series skips right over that hurdle. Like Senator Sterling, Mackenzie — here the sitting Vice President — comes into office following tragedy, namely, the president (Will Lyman) suffers a stroke. But, in the same moment she learns President Teddy Roosevelt Bridges is ill, she also learns that he wants her out.
A Republican, Bridges made Mack (a university chancellor who served just four years in Congress) his running mate to win the “women’s vote.” In a flashback, he woos her, praising her intellect and media appeal: “If my raw need for power is what opens the door for a woman, so what?” Now, with a year of post-op rehab before him, he insists he won’t resign until she does. “You and I, Mack, we just see a different America.”
Though Mack is swayed by his argument, she has reservations about the man next in line, Speaker of the House Nathan “Bloody Hell” Templeton (Donald Sutherland). Still, when Bridges dies, she’s prepared to cede to Templeton — until the Speaker opens his big, fat, chauvinist mouth. Matter-of-factly unloading a slew of insults (her Vice Presidency was never meant as more than theater, she’s a few years away from menopause, and so on), he goes too far when his slurs extend to a Nigerian woman on the verge of being stoned for adultery. He doesn’t think the U.S. should lose face to protect “a lady who couldn’t keep her legs together.”
Just like that, Mack knows he can’t be President. So she takes the oath, sending Bridges’ staff and her own family into tumult. Husband Rod (Kyle Secor) was her chief of staff, but now he’s FLOTUS. He’ll understand that she needs a new chief of staff, President Allen says. “He knows as the first female President, from an image point of view, I can’t have it seem like my husband is running the country.” Maybe so, but the pink office is still unsettling.
Certainly, one would expect image — in other words, public opinion — to be key in such a situation. But the series only trots out the idea before hurrying on to more woman-in-power drama and emasculated-hubby jokes (Rod is repeatedly advised not to do as Hillary did). Anyone who learned politics from The West Wing will feel adrift in Commander in Chief‘s vacuum. Where are the polls, the clamoring press? We get little proof that the nation President Allen governs even exists.
In its place, Lurie gives us kids. Mackenzie and Rod are raising teenage twins (the girl [Caitlin Wachs] is a Republican, and thinks her mother should have resigned) and the requisite cute grade-schooler (Jasmine Anthony), here asking if mommy will have her face put on money and spilling juice on the President’s blouse just before her first big speech. Motherhood is a 24/7 job, after all — even when you’re President. And so, Lurie told TV critics this summer that he plans to emphasize the East Wing and the humdrum challenges of leading a nation while managing a family. Which is to say, having gone to the trouble of putting a woman in the White House, he plans to focus on her efforts to keep house. See how far we’ve come?