There’s a juicy book waiting to be written about the travails of Commander in Chief, which began last fall as a crackling political drama and quickly turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Early on, the story of Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), the first female U.S. president (and the first with no party affiliation), was a compelling extension of the liberal fantasy and political gameplay that distinguished creator Rod Lurie’s 2000 big-screen guilty pleasure, The Contender. Lurie’s tardiness with scripts quickly got him ousted, and under Steven Bochco’s watch the series began juxtaposing overheated crises with eye-rolling family story lines. When President Allen’s busybody mom (Polly Bergen) moved into the White House, the show officially went off a cliff.
Bochco quit last month, and after a long break, the series recently returned with ER alumna Dee Johnson at the helm. Her early episodes show a particular fondness for demonizing the media, such as when “First Gentleman” Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor) is slipped a mickey so that he’ll lose his balance and fall onto an intern, creating the most misleading news footage since the tape of Homer Simpson pulling a Gummi worm off a babysitter’s ass. At least the plot wasn’t orchestrated by house speaker Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), the lip-smacking villain the series bends over backwards to feature every week. Templeton began as a complex, tragically flawed character, and his degeneration into a political Snidely Whiplash is an insult to Sutherland’s formidable talent. Some of this can be attributed to Johnson’s elimination of interpolated flashbacks that added context and nuance to the series’s fictional world. She proved herself a fine writer on her old show, and ABC would be well advised to let Johnson create something new instead of allowing this leaky ship of state to remain at sea.—Andrew Johnston