Filled with a grave self-importance that leeches away most of its gusto, ABC’s bid to launch the next political drama must improve considerably if the goal is to be around when a woman actually might gain this show’s title in 2008. Despite nice touches in writer-director-exec producer Rod Lurie’s handsome-looking pilot, there’s also a smothering stiffness to it, including Geena Davis’ performance as the first female president. Curiosity might be the show’s greatest asset, but the premiere exhibits little of the passion necessary to command repeated viewing — especially with Fox’s soph hit “House” running against it.
Although the obvious comparison is to the Lurie-directed feature “The Contender,” a closer cousin might be “The Man,” Irving Wallace’s novel-turned-film starring James Earl Jones as (via a more tortured turn of events) the first African-American president.
Three decades later, the mere idea of a woman becoming president apparently didn’t yield the prospect of enough dramatic fireworks, so Lurie has added a less-than-convincing degree of difficulty to the equation.
Mackenzie Allen (Davis) was a university chancellor and registered independent when tapped by a conservative Republican as his running mate, creating a potential ideological rift between her and members of the president’s Cabinet.
It’s a few years into their term when Allen is hastily summoned to the White House upon learning that the president (nicely played by Will Lyman) must undergo emergency brain surgery. Yet rather than being instantly sworn in, his chief of staff (Harry Lennix) urges her to resign, thus allowing the president’s like-minded conservative ally, Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), to succeed him.
Beyond the daunting challenge of becoming president, then, the marginally experienced Allen (she served in the House before academia beckoned) faces a hostile staff. A more intriguing thread actually involves her husband and chief of staff, Rod (Kyle Secor), who is ushered off to the first lady’s pink Honeymoon Suite-type offices, where the questions center on what salad dressing Madame President prefers.
Davis is on the young side for any chief executive, and her stately bearing might sell the transition better if some unfortunate distractions didn’t undermine her. These range from three widely spaced kids — one with “issues” — to a thick coat of red lipstick that Vogue would probably label a fashion no-no when addressing a joint session of Congress.
Initially, Lurie approximates the patriotic underpinnings of “The West Wing” but has trapped himself in overly starched archetypes. As a consequence, the only real spark of life occurs during in a well-played exchange when Templeton confronts Allen about her rationale for wanting to lead the free world.
Lurie’s previous ABC drama, “Line of Fire,” was equally earnest, but at least that crime series dealt in moral ambiguities. By contrast, this pilot proceeds like a front-runner that doesn’t want to risk tripping up by taking any dramatic chances.
In the past, that might have been a winning strategy. If recent history teaches us anything, however, it’s that even the most marketable series premise is just the first primary in a long, grueling campaign.