Both Sides, Now

In his advance publicity work for Commander in Chief, series creator Rod Lurie told the press that the show -- ABC's new drama about the first female president -- was distinctly “anti-partisan.” Oh please, Rod; it's a lefty wish come true. The audience at the Washington screening put on by the nonprofit women's group The White House Project churned with excitement, punctuating key moments of the drama with choruses of “mm-hmm” and “you tell him, girl.” In the revival-tent atmosphere of the screening room, we were gripped with the fevered righteousness of a cause: a woman president, one who reflects our political visions and goals, and, even more jaw-dropping, an über-frau who juggles work -- and what work! -- and family … and still manages to look like a Hollywood star. She can do it; why can't we?

“[This show] is putting our dreams on the screen,” an American University student told me, and indeed, the audience seemed in thrall to a collective fantasy: a woman able to create the world -- and the audience -- in her own image. Volunteers at the event wore stickers that read “Hello, My Name is Ms. President.” More than anything else that night, the fake name tags underscored Commander's greatest weakness and its greatest strength: an insistence on hollowing out its heroine to a gendered shell and stripping her of political particularity, all so we can imagine ourselves in her shoes. President Everywoman.

Commander's Mackenzie “Mac” Allen, played with equal parts stiffness and pluck by Geena Davis, comes by her position after Republican President Teddy Roosevelt Bridges suffers a fatal aneurysm. A woman-friendly independent whom Bridges put on his ticket to Get Out Her Vote, Allen nearly resigns after his death, recognizing she can't carry out Bridges' conservative mandate. But after a galvanizing confrontation with the third in line, the spectacularly sexist and archconservative Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), she takes the oath and tackles her first foreign-policy challenge: saving a Nigerian woman from being stoned for adultery.

As in his Lewinsky-era feature film The Contender, in which a female vice-presidential candidate beatifically endures a sex scandal, Lurie here positions his president as the avatar of women's thwarted ambitions, the heroine who redeems female suffering at the hands of sexism. In his showdown with Mac, the deliciously Lurch-esque Templeton basically calls her an old bag and her Nigerian cause a slut. This moment turns Mac into the quintessential Someone We Can Believe In, even if we don't know what her politics are. All that matters is that she isn't that goddamn wanker.

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The premiere of Commander beat out its formidable competition, making it the highest-rated drama debut on a Tuesday night in five years. The numbers could be chalked up to curiosity, or to Commander's ubiquitous marketing campaign, but they also seem to signal how hungry so many Americans have become for an alternative to our current political nightmare -- even if that alternative is little other than escapist fantasy.

Mac's foreign-policy challenge was the pilot episode's one true tangle with politics, a wistful redrafting of our post–September 11 policies: After attempts at multilateralism fail, President Allen uses a show of military force to intimidate the Nigerian government into coughing up its captive. What a fraught ideal, this scaled-down retelling of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and of our lack of involvement in the real-life case of Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman who was sentenced to stoning for adultery in 2002 but ultimately earned a reprieve after worldwide outrage brought attention to her case. Mac combines feel-right feminism with a manly power move to assert her political will, saving her character from charges that she governs by heart alone. Yes, she ignores national sovereignty and could inflame conservative Islamic nations, but … even as I clucked at the white-rescuer-tinged fantasy and the real-world problems it would present, I had to furtively wipe my eyes on my notebook. Girl!

As politically empty and implausibly noble as her character is, it also provides a way to play out “feminist” dilemmas that really affect us all -- the domestic division of labor, balancing work and family, women's struggle to wield power well and responsibly. That's where Commander actually earns its props -- as a study in gender-work-family dynamics.

It's too bad, though, that in showing us women's workaday realm, Lurie has sacrificed some of the ugly politics, the “mannish” stuff, if you will. (Although that may soon change, with Lurie being replaced by Steven Bochco, creator of the rough-edged NYPD Blue. Studio heads cited production delays as the reason for the switch.) As the accidental president, Mac has sidestepped inevitable outsized expectations, the bitch- and bull-dyke-baiting that would confront any woman candidate who would have to rely on politics and not plot to become president.

Commander can inspire a nauseatingly funky combination of gratitude and ambivalence -- that's what comes of picking apart one of the only mainstream feminist images out there, especially one who has become a cause. “But it would be coy to say that we have no agenda; we do,” wrote Lurie, in a thank-you letter to White House Project members. “A woman in the White House. One day. Soon. Let's get America comfortable with the notion.” But unless it transforms Mac from a feminist doll into a real-live woman pol, unless it applies its edge on family politics to national politics, Commander risks growing mawkish and flatulent on its own self-importance. “A female president!” exclaims one of President Allen's staffers. “Can't you smell the history?” Indeed, and it smells like someone cut the cheese.

It's an unholy marriage, this union of culture and activism, and both partners can suffer for it. In a way, Mac is not so different from the Presidential Barbie that the White House Project, girl's empowerment group Girls Inc., and Mattel launched in 2000 in an effort to inspire girls to dream big. Like Barbie, Mac is pretty, pose-able, and we don't know what she stands for (she also seems to have a serious lip-gloss problem). There's a hole at the core of the show right now, a failure of imagination in bringing the premise to life: She's a woman president -- but where's the president part?

President Allen's gotten our attention and, in many cases, our grateful adoration. Now's the time to make her more than just a straw woman, to portray a real person who struggles with the substance of her work as much as she does with balancing that work with her family life. After all, we can do it; why can't she?

* * *

Just as Rod Lurie gives viewers an earnest liberal heroine with Commander, the creators of NBC's Three Wishes offer up a red-state one: Amy Grant, Christian-musician-turned-faith-healer. The matronly messiah presides over a new reality-TV show, granting at least three (very large) wishes made by the residents of a town, a different one chosen each episode. Three Wishes seems like a sea change from the usual sadomasochistic reality-TV fare, exemplified by Fear Factor and Survivor. But for all its kinder, gentler vision, Three Wishes still inflicts a measure of its own pain upon its, ah, Grantees and its audiences, each wrung dry for their tears.

Three Wishes is run on a merit-based charity system, or perhaps a desperation-based one. Grant and her staff roll into town and set up tents, where they hear the tales of suffering and frustrated gratitude, decide which are “most deserving” (or most dramatic), and then set to. (The premise is ripped straight from Extreme Makeover: Home Version, in which a carpenter crew descends upon the domiciles of the desperate and fixes their crappy lives by ostentatiously remaking their houses.) In the first episode, they hold a town festival to pay for a little girl's surgery bills, put in a new football field at the behest of a coach battling cancer, and help a little boy thank the stepfather (with a new truck, baseball tickets and a first-pitch opportunity, and an expedited adoption process) who is like a hero to him.

Grant makes a genuinely warm and soulful fairy godmother -- a nice return to form for the singer, once ostracized by some of her more unforgiving fans as a jezebel for divorcing her first husband. Grant has the backing of numerous corporations, of course, which are profusely thanked with product placements for their help with Grant's laying on of dollars. “I want to thank Ameriquest,” Grant announces at the festival. “Ameriquest, proud sponsor of the American dream.” Manna from mortgage heaven.

Just as Commander reads like a liberal dream come true, Three Wishes clearly plays to a conservative audience. Only the “deserving” receive aid, and oftentimes neighborhoods, individuals, and publicity-hungry corporations all rally around, God bless them, to fill a gap that some of us believe is better served by governmental services. In one scene, the mother of the little girl undergoing surgery hides the medical bills in a box (she can't bear to open at them) before the gallant aid arrives. But talk about health care? Heaven forbid. Similarly, in a promo for the following week, a Hurricane Katrina family is seen sobbing with gratitude. “We were lost,” says one member of the family, “and angels came to us.” That's 'cause the feds didn't!

Not to be a heartless grinch, of course.

Grant and her team do make a tremendous difference in the lives they touch despite the public garishness of their giving. Similarly, Wishes' vision of personal good, individual transformation, and “Kumbaya” community can leave viewers blubbering on the couch. But all the same, one yearns for a vision of social change that relies as much on creating strong support networks for all as it does on the power of one-off individual altruism. In the end, what we need is a team like Amy Grant and President Allen -- the celebrity good neighbor standing alongside a politically empowered, multilaterally minded woman who could build that systemic structure. Red and blue representatives working together toward a better world? That's wish fulfillment worth fighting for.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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