High-minded and lovingly shot, the idea behind “Jack & Bobby” is more intriguing than the actual premiere. Buoyed by Christine Lahti’s knockout performance, this way-back “West Wing” about two present-day brothers — one of whom becomes President of the United States in 2041 — stumbles in only a few places, but the missteps are enough to throw off the delicate balancing act. Despite election-year timing, there’s also cause for skepticism as to whether the youthful audience will embrace the premise, potentially rendering the program a longshot to secure the popular support necessary to ensure one more year, let alone four.
Playing off the Kennedys in name only, Jack (Matt Long) is a good-looking high school track star, and Bobby (Logan Lerman) is his bookish, asthmatic, space-obsessed younger brother. They’re being raised by their professor mom Grace (Lahti), a flinty woman who is overprotective of the younger boy and flouts convention, including (gasp!) regularly smoking pot.
Through flash-forward interviews, aides and historians discuss the McCallister presidency, the suspense in the pilot being that viewers are left to guess which brother ultimately becomes commander in chief. It’s something of a letdown, then, when that’s revealed, inviting the question of whether it might have been smarter to either disclose that information at the outset or — in a bolder option — never tell the audience at all.
Nor do all the time-traveling plots quite connect, particularly those involving a new girl (Jessica Pare) who figures prominently in the McCallister brothers’ present as well as their future.
“Jack and Bobby” arrives with a fine creative pedigree — including “The West Wing’s” Thomas Schlamme and “Everwood” creator Greg Berlanti — and the show’s writing and physical trappings fulfill those expectations. Moreover, Lahti (the real-life Mrs. Schlamme) provides an extremely strong central presence as a woman who has hardened herself toward the outside world and must struggle to turn off the ice queen act in order to thaw toward her boys.
Jack, it becomes clear, will toughen Bobby, while Bobby’s gentleness provokes warmth and protectiveness in his older brother. (This will come as news to younger brothers such as myself, who were regularly used as circus props and battering rams.)
At least in the pilot, however, the idea of getting to know the great man as a boy doesn’t fully congeal. And while time will surely betray more about the McCallister presidency and how early events shaped his views, that leaves a rather narrow path to navigate between wonkishness and sentimentality, with plenty of the latter on display.
The WB made a point of saying it eschewed focus groups this year, and it’s easy to see how “Jack & Bobby” would play beautifully to a screening room filled with studio and network suits. With its attractive cast, the series fits the mold of the WB’s successful character-driven dramas, after a spotty track record with high-concept commodities like “Tarzan,” which flopped despite great promotional fanfare. That show not only occupied the same timeslot last season, but was also directed by David Nutter, who sets the course here.
Still, watching the debut — and thinking about what the producers do for an encore — brought to mind the politically themed movie “The Candidate,” where the newly elected official realizes he’s won, then asks somewhat ruefully, “Now what?”