October 28, 2004,
Don't hate me for loving the WB's new fall drama Jack & Bobby. I love it even though star Christine Lahti as the feisty, lefty single mom of a teenage future president and his brother speaks with a straight face about "the plight of the Sandinistas," and even though she invites a vagrant home after he loses his cardboard box, despite her sons' understandable complaints.
"He's our guest," she tells the appalled boys, as they wait their turn for the bathroom now that it's occupied by the matted-haired visitor Mom dragged in.
The vagrant ends up stealing the family's TV a TV that, as an annoyed Jack reminds younger brother Bobby, "took us 15 years to get." Mom hates TV and made her entrance in the premiere striding through an electronics store, ranting about how her boys shouldn't waste their time with something most Americans enjoy especially not precious, brainy little Bobby, who should be learning to play the piano or speak French or something.
I should note here that the spectacle of a TV character railing against the bad taste of TV audiences seems like kind of a jinx, especially in Jack & Bobby's case. The show is a critical darling but has been trounced Sunday evenings by ABC's Desperate Housewives, which isn't nearly as good but has been getting almost ten times the ratings. That's why last week the WB suddenly moved Jack & Bobby to Wednesday nights, opposite NBC's The West Wing (about which more in a minute).
Three alternate endings have been shot for next week's post-election Jack & Bobby: One in which the Lahti character is thrilled (natch) when Kerry wins; one in which there's a clear Bush victory and she grimly begins counting the days until Hillary Clinton runs in 2008; and one in which she waits for a recount.
Lahti herself is an excellent actress who, like so many of her ilk, is also reflexively anti-Bush. So she's been on the Kerry campaign trail "trying to reach out to women," as she told USA Today last week. Don't even get me started on these aggravating women's-vote-outreach programs; as I note in my Independent Women's Forum column today, you'd never know from groups like Womens Voices Women Vote that militant Islam is a threat to America, much less women around the world. But anyway, about the theft of that TV on Jack & Bobby: It all works out well for posterity, because the vagrant leaves behind as payment a poem titled "The Great Believer." And that, as we already know from previous flash-forwards, was President Robert McCallister's nickname, just like Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator.
The present day scenes in Jack & Bobby, in most ways a conventional teen drama about two fatherless brothers growing up with their willfully eccentric college-professor mom, are interspersed with people addressing the camera for some documentary about President Robert McCallister 45 years in the future, just after he's left office. Did he die or simply retire? We don't know yet, although we do know that older brother Jack died young.
In the vagrant episode, Carrie Fisher plays a reporter still radiantly amazed at recalling the wonderfulness of President McCallister. She relates that she found the crumpled paper with "The Great Believer" poem on it while profiling the president for a story apparently he'd saved it all these years for sentimental reasons involving the homeless. The episode opens with the faux documentary informing viewers that McCallister helped us rediscover our compassion, and so the name stuck.
Just in case you're still not sure of Jack & Bobby's political sympathies, each episode begins with a montage of 20th-century presidents in their youth: Teddy Roosevelt, JFK, etc., but it all stops at Clinton. This being Hollywood, evidently that's the last president the producers can bear to think about. The argument could be made that in an election year, they didn't want to influence the race. But I'll bet that if Kerry wins, his adolescent mug will be added to the lineup. Don't count on Bush's making it, though, if he's reelected.
Still, I can't stop watching! Just like I can't stop watching Gilmore Girls and Everwood and never used to miss an episode of Angel or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I think I'm managing to cut down on One Tree Hill now that it's become completely inane. "The WB is your crack," NR columnist and TV comedy writer Rob Long regularly likes to inform me.
Maybe so, but I'd rather watch a show concerned with the eternally fascinating melodramas of adolescence and despite its smarm, Jack & Bobby is irresistibly well-executed storytelling than some office drama about people constantly rushing through corridors while gulping coffee and debriefing each other on the latest crisis. Which brings us to The West Wing.
I'm not one of those who loved this show in its glory days under Aaron Sorkin and mourn the ratings drop-off since he's left. I always found The West Wing tedious and insufferable. I did feel guilty about this a couple of years ago, when I was friendly with one of its writers and the show first started to tank against ABC's The Bachelor, then a reality-show phenomenon.
I wasn't skipping the liberal and uplifting adventures of President Martin Sheen even for The Bachelor. "Don't forget to tape Angel," I yelled to my daughter as the West Wing writer and I went out to dinner one Wednesday night, "and we'll watch it together later!" My friend looked at me balefully. Oops!
But even the New York Times is losing patience with The West Wing now: "The preaching is even more moralistic and maudlin," Alessandra Stanley described the post-Sorkin show last week. When the New York Times calls you preachy and maudlin, you've got problems. Unfortunately, The West Wing is trying to solve them by heading even further into the bizarro world it's created.
This season, it's a world in which Muslim terrorists kill U.S. officials in the Mideast, and although even Democratic members of Congress beg the president to retaliate against Syria and the Palestinians, he won't. "Blessed are the peacemakers," he explains. (It only frightens Democrats when President Bush cites scripture, by the way; when President Martin Sheen does it, it's inspirational, and the soundtrack swells up to remind viewers who may not otherwise have noticed.) President Sheen also refers to his critics as a bunch of "right-wing turkey-basters."
It's also a world in which Alan Alda is a Republican. The famously liberal actor joins the cast this season as a turkey-baster congressman.
Even if I weren't addicted to the WB, though, I'd stick with Jack & Bobby. TV-stealing vagrants who write poems that inspire future presidents are still more realistic than The West Wing this season.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.