The mere premise ensures “American Candidate” will garner considerable media attention, but producer R.J. Cutler’s concoction amounts to little more than the not-so-amazing race — a cynical application of reality-show prosthetics over a political skeleton. Already making its second campaign stop after FX announced production plans to much fanfare and then jettisoned the project, the series finds a home on Showtime, which will need more illuminating fare than this to escape the chilly climes of HBO’s shadow.
As for Cutler, he’s traveled a long way from his acclaimed political documentary “The War Room,” and while the journey into television has doubtless offered financial benefits uncommon to the world of independent filmmaking, tedious exercises such as this certainly won’t enhance his reputation.
What Cutler and company have done, in essence, is trivialize politics by transferring the trappings of “Survivor” and network dating shows into a new attention-grabbing milieu, to little or no ostensible purpose.
In the premiere, 10 geographically, ethnically and politically diverse contestants are given a task — to organize a well-attended rally announcing their candidacy — which spurs the inevitable voting-off nonsense in the last act. Yet if the intention is to shed light on the process or even the personalities of those involved, the show fails dismally on both counts.
Casting is equally gimmicky, with participants chosen to represent political archetypes. The list also includes an obvious cheat, with Rep. Richard Gephardt’s lesbian daughter, Chrissy, among them, as if this made-for-TV creation is her only access to the media spotlight. Others include a Gulf War veteran, an animal rights activist (with a transgender campaign manager) and a former sheriff who calls a female toting a rifle “my kind of woman.”
Even the title is something of a misnomer, since the payoff seems less about finding a viable candidate than claiming a $200,000 prize, along with the winner’s nebulous opportunity to deliver an “address to the nation” via a “nationwide media appearance.” If that means speaking to the one in eight homes or so that subscribe to Showtime, federal matching funds probably won’t be necessary.
In a letter to critics, Cutler stated the goal is nothing less than to “identify one individual who has the qualities to be Presidentof the United States” within a concept that “pushes the boundaries of reality television.”
That’s funny, because all I saw is people with little chance of being elected to their local school board, in a series that unimaginatively toes the reality genre’s well-trodden boundaries. A more honest appraisal would be to admit that the big idea here was to draft on the presidential race and hope to borrow some heat.
Political pundits will advise the candidates in subsequent installments, as if we don’t see enough talking heads like Edward Rollins on basic cable. Then again, inasmuch as HBO suffered its own stumble with the ill-conceived reality-political hybrid “K Street,” maybe the inherent problem is simply that pay TV and politics shouldn’t mix.