Jack & Bobby

“All of the McAllisters had this thing, knowing what you want and going after it. Jack had it in spades.” Recalling his childhood friend, Marcus Ride (James Pickens Jr.) appears an appropriately sober talking head, a witness to “history” who is properly respectful and precise in his storytelling, revealing enough to indicate his possession of intimate knowledge, though not the knowledge itself.

A similar sort of carefulness underlies the rest of Jack & Bobby, the WB’s latest series about two good-looking boys. In this case, one will grow up to be elected President of the United States in 2040, the other is his brother and most profound inspiration. While most of the pilot is set in the past (that is, your present), when Jack (Matt Long) is 16 and Bobby (Logan Lerman) is 13, it cuts frequently to framing interviews (set in 2049) with subjects connected in some way to the McAllister presidency: Harvard historian Victor Sable (John Aylward), former vice-president Karen Carmichael (Tess Harper), chief campaign strategist Adam Chasen (David Paymer), and former First Lady Courtney McAllister (Brenda Wehle). All of them are composed and serious, as they inch their way toward the revelation at the pilot’s end: one of the brothers will be president and the other will be dead.

This disclosure is part gimmick and part narrative propulsion; presumably, now that you know which brother is which, you can focus on their sibling relationship, the emotional and very verbal details that typify the WB’s adolescents-based series. (Endeavoring to be innovative and trendy, the network made Jack & Bobby available to AOL for Broadband subscribers from 31 August through 7 September, garnering remarkable numbers; it was accessed some 700,000 times, a record for this new means to offer product.) The structure of Jack & Bobby is more ambitious and convoluted than most teen fare, investing its heroes with a historical weight and grandeur, even if that history is fictional and, more complexly, not yet history.

The boys’ coming of age in fictional Hart, Missouri is mostly shaped by their single mom, Grace (played by Christine Lahti, who brings her signature quirky magnificence to bear on the family unit; see also, Bill Forsyth’s 1987 film Housekeeping). An English professor with stanch ideas about raising her kids, she first appears in an electronics store, convincing Bobby that what he wants for his birthday is not a tv set, but a sweet Casio synthesizer, so he can create his own art. Wanting most of all to please her, Bobby goes along, to Jack’s dismay, and not only because Grace makes him carry the present home.

Such tension is part of a pattern, the pilot suggests: Jack’s a cool kid at school, a track star (“When I run,” he says cornily, “Everything else goes away”); Bobby’s asthmatic and nerdy, spending his first day at high school collecting signatures to start a “space club.” Jack is exasperated with his “weird” little brother: “Don’t you ever get tired of not being like everybody else?” When Grace wonders what’s so important about being “normal,” he educates her: “Normal is what you have to be if you don’t want to spend every day of high school getting beat up.” Mom does and doesn’t get this; she deals with her pressures in her own way, namely, smoking weed in her bedroom (and yes, she is punished, soap-opera-style, for her transgression, not only by Jack’s disapproval and by a mini-crisis involving Bobby’s asthma).

Jack sees something else at work in Grace’s child-raising methods, when he accuses her of teaching Bobby to be her own “best friend.” Bobby’s alienation is her fault, Jack tells her during one showdown, because “You’re a lonely pathetic middle-aged woman hiding behind your books and your words and your freak of a teenage son.” She slaps him. He’s daunted but right, as well as cute (as she will later apologize and explain her bad parenting). She also admits that the boys’ absent father is a Mexican busboy she met while working as a young waitress, rather than the archeology professor she’s been describing for Bobby, meaning not only that she’s a liar, but also that the boys are half-Hispanic.

The McAllisters’ three-way dynamic is complicated by the arrival in town of the new president of Grace’s university, Peter Benedict (John Slattery), who instantly develops a crush on her when she calls the president a “whore,” not knowing that she’s speaking to him. As it happens, Benedict’s daughter Courtney (Jessica Paré) catches Jack’s eye, and then develops her own affection for Bobby (she’s the Courtney who will grow up to be the First Lady).

While adolescent romances on tv tend to be formulaic, Courtney appears refreshingly eccentric, plus, she’s one of two characters — the other being Marcus, played by Edwin Hodge in high school — who might challenge the elegiac tone already established. Future episode summaries indicate that Jack and Marcus will have conflicts; that Marcus is the only black character in sight makes me worry that he’ll have to “teach” Jack about race and racism, but maybe the series is more original-thinking than it looks now.

However that plot works out, Jack & Bobby‘s primary promise lies in its capacity for twisting up linear time. Even within the obvious restrictions of the pretty-boy genre, the series has already laid out a potential interrogation of the ways that mythologies circulate, the stakes that communities might have in preserving lies as well as seeming truths (and, given the current ad ongoing media wrangling over Vietnam War era stories, it appears that such concerns are particularly topical).

And so, Jack & Bobby‘s 2049 interviewees aren’t just offering up “confessionals” concerning their own feelings about the McAllisters; they are constructing history by remembering it for a recording device, that is, constructing the way others — consumers of history will feel. More than one interviewee asserts that President McAllister wasn’t known as “The Great Believer” for nothing (that this is the president’s moniker, a la the “Great Communicator” may bode ill or good, depending on what “Believer” means and how you read it once you know what it means). “There was this lightness about him,” muses the First Lady, an unusual capacity to inspire and move others.

Shuffling between such personal and (ostensibly) collective memories, the pilot insists on the brothers’ interrelated “greatness.” Whether or not the series will dig into this process, question the precepts of such a mediation, is unclear. As of now, it looks quite content to use the framing device as a means to set up the boys’ general “importance” and conventional glamour factor. With such interest in a broader political culture, the series resembles another produced by Lahti’s husband, Thomas Schlamme, The West Wing.

In this context, Jack & Bobby‘s use of tv per se — in the interview segments, but also in the past segments — holds particular promise. Recall that NBC’s Sunday night series, American Dreams, has used its framing device, history as music television and vice versa, to smart and engaging narrative ends. Jack & Bobby looks to be interested in the interrelationships of media and memory. The first episode offers one very good sign, as it ends not only with the exposure of the doomed brother’s identity and the fact that mom has hidden their father’s identity, but with her purchase of a television. This is the start of her sons’ mutual greatness, then. The boys’ deepening relationship is of a piece with Bobby’s first contact with tv.