Jack & Bobby

I believe Jack more than anyone always expected his little brother to surpass him.
— Elder Peter Benedict (Norman Lear), “Legacy”

At first glance, Jack & Bobby looks like it’s about a fictional American president, remembered through documentary interviews (set in 2049) and flashbacks to his youth (our present day). But it turns out that neither American politics nor President Robert McCallister (the youngster or the statesman) emerged as the focus. Instead, all roads lead back to handsome, loyal Jack (Matt Long), his older brother. While pre-launch promotions were coy, the series pilot not only revealed which brother would grow up to be President in 2040, but also that Jack would die young.

The buildup to the circumstances of his death (revealed in the show’s last hour) was surprisingly suspenseful. Given the tropes and recurrences of American fiction and history, odds favored a death in battle (he fought in something called the War of the Americas) or an assassination. But the series opted to give Jack a more random, and in its way more heartbreaking, end: A congressman and father of two, he was shot and killed (along with four others) in a convenience store robbery.

A random act of violence, but far from random on the writers’ part. Chief among the series’ puzzles was the story of the boys’ absent father, a Mexican busboy (Lou Diamond Philips), whom their mother Grace (Christine Lahti) met while waitressing in college. In the finale, both brothers and viewers learn that Juan is in a Texas prison for murder, convicted of killing (accidentally, Grace assures them) bystanders while — wait for it — robbing a convenience store.

After years of gauzy falsehoods — Grace has raised Bobby, in Hart, Missouri, thinking his father had been a Chilean professor executed for his political beliefs — this darker truth is too much for the boy to handle. The night before he’s to meet his father for the first time, he backs out. “I don’t want a murderer for a dad,” Bobby tells Jack. “I want the old one back.” When Jack reminds him that this one is real, Bobby answers, “I don’t want the real one.”

Jack, as much a parent as a big brother, tags along on their road trip to manage the inevitable fallout, but he finds himself taking Bobby’s place in meeting their father. As much as the brothers have in common, their feelings for Juan are different. The man actually knew (and left) Jack, who nurses childish concerns that this abandonment was somehow his fault. Bobby, on the other hand, has no connections. When Grace insists that their father gave her some of the best memories of her life, he reminds her that Juan — who left while Grace was pregnant with Bobby — gave none of them to him.

Bobby shifts his allegiance to the father figure in his life, chess partner (and future father-in-law) Peter Benedict (John Slattery), the conservative president of the university where Grace teaches. Time and again, Bobby strains for comfort and community; against Grace’s strident intellectual opposition, he is baptized in the Episcopal Church (drafting Peter as his godparent), and we know that in the future he becomes a minister. As President, he is known as “The Great Believer” — but flashbacks show how much he chooses what to believe and what (or whom) to discard.

If Bobby is the believer, Jack is the great protector. Following the war, he becomes a crusading public defender, and even in his youth, he seems incapable of rejecting the hard road. He is so decent and dependable that when ex-girlfriend Missy (Keri Lynn Pratt) becomes pregnant, she lies that he is the father, because she knows he will do right by her. When she is killed in a car accident, Jack lies that he was driving, to protect friend Marcus (Edwin Hodge), who had been drinking before he got behind the wheel. Through such experiences, the series offers a portrait of today’s America, as Jack and Grace stumble on many hot button “issues,” including abortion, homophobia, suicide, and addiction.

As the series is now cancelled following its one and only season, it’s obvious that the WB had trouble marketing Jack & Bobby. Launched last fall to great critical fanfare, the series was run over by Desperate Housewives Sundays at 8pm, then moved to Wednesdays after the shrinking Smallville, where it faced off against another show from co-creator Thomas Schlamme, The West Wing (an odd choice, given that the series presumably appeal to similar viewers). Indeed, the series’ documentary footage often feels straight out of West Wing, while the small town action adheres to the blueprint co-creator Greg Berlanti established with his Everwood.

Both that series and Jack & Bobby tend toward the episode-as-short-story format. Jack and Bobby juxtaposes events in the McCallister presidency with everyday drama in Hart to illustrate not only the formation of Bobby’s character but also the underlying repetition of human experience. “Under the Influence” weaves between the car accident that kills Missy and documentary accounts of the death of Henry, McCallister’s son, while driving drunk. These are the President’s words of comfort to favorite son Jack (Justin Kirk): “The more I’m a part of history, the more I realize a lot of it is already written.”

Hmm. That has the ring, but not the substance of wisdom. And no matter how much we learn of the President, he remains distant, a mythical figure recalled with admiration by friends and foes alike. Only his relationship with Jack feels real, because the series spends so much time on it. Bobby will not come into his own until after his brother’s death, when he finishes Jack’s term in Congress. (While the boys’ monikers have drawn inevitable comparisons to the similarly named Kennedys, the more apt parallel is to eldest son Joe Kennedy and JFK: Joe was the shining light destined for great things; Jack was the second choice who stepped in after his brother died.) He runs for another term (switching to the Republicans in the process), and as his political star rises, he picks up pieces of his brother’s life along the way: Jack’s old girlfriend Courtney (Jessica Paré) becomes his wife and Marcus serves as his Senior Legal Counsel.

In so many ways, his is the White House that Jack built. And in the end, all the series’ future-tense politics and documentary gravitas recede, becoming backdrop to a more intimate, more familiar story of big and little brothers. “You’re my little brother,” Jack teases the future world leader at the close of the finale. “No matter how big you get, you’ll always be smaller than me.”