Do me a favor: As you read this, pretend you have a small, computer-mouse-shaped device in your hand, and pretend there’s a dial attached to it. When you’re enjoying what you’re reading, pretend to turn the dial up, clockwise. And when you’re not, turn it down — that’s counterclockwise. This is what we do in Hollywood when we have a television show or a film ready to be released: We send it to a facility — sometimes in the hot and dusty San Fernando Valley, sometimes in the glitzy and dissipated Las Vegas — and we show the picture to a bunch of demographically precise Americans. For a small amount of cash, plus pizza, they sit in a dark room with a dial apparatus and watch something that has taken millions of dollars and months to produce. This is called pilot season, and it’s happening now. The goal is to find out which shows might eke out some success when the fall season kicks off. If the process sounds vaguely familiar, that’s probably because it is. In politics, this is called a primary.
What are the early debates, the straw polls and caucuses, the snowy stump appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire but one long focus group?
The Republican lineup so far includes a dispirited group featured in a barely noted debate on Fox Newsthis month and a handful of Hamlets still nominally sitting on the fence, including former ambassador Jon Huntsman, the millionaire Mormon (the other one) who traded in his post in the Middle Kingdom (Beijing) to possibly set up a campaign headquarters in the Magic Kingdom (Orlando).
This slightly shabby group is up against The Obama Show in the 2012 season. And that’s a formidable ratings opponent, especially after the slaying of Osama bin Laden transformed President Obama overnight into Jack Bauer, the do-anything hero of Fox’s recent hit “24.”
So let’s pick up those dials and focus-group some counter-programming for the Republican Party.
First, the long shots and oddballs.
There’s such a thing, on television and in American politics, as being too interesting. You need an awful lot of eyeballs to be a hit, and if you’re too edgy or unexpected — if you’re, say, Ron Paul, or if you’re Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza who made a terrific showing in that first debate — you’re bound to turn some people off. The viewers you turn on, though, you turn on big. Shows like this (the short-lived “Arrested Development,” for instance, or “Firefly”) have devoted cult followings. Their producers and casts often tweet their brains out, stirring up viewers to campaign to hold off cancellation. This rarely succeeds, but when you’re a long shot, what choice do you have?
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. He’s like the show that comes on between the two shows you want to see. He’ll do, of course, if you can’t find the remote or there’s nothing on the DVR, but you’re more likely to make a quick sandwich or let the dog out than sit on the sofa and watch. A Mitt Romney Show gets on the air because it methodically hits all the major market-research bullet points — the dials, initially, are up — but then it fails to generate any real heat. Often, shows like that can hang on if they keep plugging away and delivering a solid audience. That’s why shows like Fox’s “Bones” and CBS’s “The Mentalist” live on. You may have forgotten all about them, but they’re still there, waiting for the flashier shows to burn out. And then, when there’s nothing else to watch, suddenly they get a second look: “Hey! ‘The Mentalist’ is on!”
Only in this case, “The Mentalist” enacted health-care reform in Massachusetts that’s uncomfortably close to the federal legislation spearheaded by President Obama. Sometimes a second look can be counterproductive. Keep the dials where they are.
Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, is about as far from Jack Bauer as you can get. He looks like the guy who does Bauer’s taxes. Amateur show-business analysts might dismiss him for that very reason: He’s colorless, short, lacking in charisma. And his message is gloomy: We’re on a path to penury and decay; we’ve got to stop living it up; America faces some tough choices. Dials down, right?
Maybe not. One of the most successful franchises in television history is the “Law & Order” series of shows. Each one has a downbeat cast. Every episode ends on a cheerless note. Other police procedural shows — I’m thinking CBS’s “CSI” — jazz it up with gruesome close-ups and disgusting graphics. Not “Law & Order.” It’s all clammed up. Just the facts.
Daniels, with his parsimonious budgets and his flinty realism, could easily do what that former Republican presidential candidate and onetime star of “Law & Order,” former senator Fred Thompson, could not do: He could become the “Law & Order: OMB” of American politics. And as “Law & Order” has taught us, there’s a big market for that. Dials up.
Networks are always worried about female-driven series. There’s something deep in the DNA of a television programmer that just isn’t comfortable with a woman running the show. Despite critical successes such as “30 Rock,” “Murder, She Wrote” and “Ally McBeal,” it’s always an iffy proposition to put a sole woman above the title.
Though the past does offer some lessons. Back in the 1970s — a more adventurous and honest era — two of the biggest hit shows were “Charlie’s Angels” and “Police Woman,” starring Kennedy-era “It girl” Angie Dickinson.
“Charlie’s Angels” is, in fact, on the fall 2011 ABC schedule. A remake, to be clear. But there’s no reason possible presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin can’t take a page from ABC’s research department. Bachmann might try to re-create the “Police Woman” vibe: tough, fearless, looks great holding a gun, knows how to mix it up with her sexist male colleagues. And Palin has already showed television viewers two important things: She knows how to aim at slow-moving herd animals (that takes care of the press), and she understands the importance of appearances. Dials up for both of them.
Hollywood sexism, though, is not a one-way street. Once, a few years ago, when I was casting a pilot for a major broadcast network, I mentioned the name of a solid actor for the lead role. “Yeah,” the network’s head of casting sighed, “he’s good. But I don’t know. He always feels like the best man. Not the groom. I mean, is he sexually attractive?” (The head of casting, for the record, did not say “sexually attractive.” She used a four-letter word, followed by “-able.”)
That’s the drawback for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is set to announce his presidential bid Monday. He’s called T-Paw, so he’s got a jaunty nickname, but viewers want a little more raw aggression in their star. Undeclared un-candidate Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, has it; tall, gimlet-eyed Rep. Paul Ryan has it — and Pawlenty needs to find some, quick. Put it this way: In the late 1970s, a popular sitcom, “Bosom Buddies,” had two young stars, Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, in the lead roles. Pawlenty is currently filling the Peter Scolari role. The dials stay put.
Finally: Newt Gingrich. Somehow, we all knew this was inevitable. This month, Gingrich declared his candidacy in the most Newt-ish way, on Facebook and Twitter. There’s a certain youthful swagger to this, a signal flare that says “I love the Internets.” The Internets though, haven’t returned the love. When a protester at a Gingrich event dumped glitter on him this past week, the image was TwitPic-ed all over the Web in moments.
Newt is kind of the ADD candidate. He’s all over the map — a five-windows-open-on-the-desktop politician, able to weave health-care reform, the invention of the freeway on-ramp, Austrian economics and the fate of the dinosaurs into a 15-minute torrent of words.
Gingrich is in many ways the political version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — a lot of different story lines that all come together (sort of) under the gaze of a hard-to-like hero. As he discovered only a few days after declaring, it’s possible to be too chatty. His uncharitable words about Paul Ryan’s economic plan were an act of self-sabotage straight out of the Larry David playbook. “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it must be noted, is a premium-cable show. Its cultural impact is much, much greater than its actual popularity. That’s bad news for Gingrich — and for Republicans in general.
For now, for Gingrich, dials down, down, down.
Of course, Donald Trump, that tornado of hair and noise, already has a show. And NBC, the network on which “Celebrity Apprentice” appears, made clear that because of “equal time” rules, a “Celebrity Apprentice” with a declared presidential candidate as host just wasn’t to be. Trump had to choose between saving the country and hosting a reality television show. Ever the practical thinker, he chose the show. I think everyone was happy with that.
Mike Huckabee faced a similar, though more downscale, dilemma. The former governor of Arkansas and 2008 presidential contender hosts a program on Fox News, and he’d have to give it up to run for president. He surveyed the packed GOP field and decided to stick with the show he’s got.
Both Trump and Huckabee came to the right, rational conclusion: It’s better to stay in regular show business than to try to break into political show business. And the Republican field is ridiculously crowded. As in pilot season, the numbers are brutal: Each network orders dozens and dozens of scripts; from those it orders maybe a dozen produced pilots; and from those it orders maybe three or four series. And of those three or four, usually only one becomes a hit. But the unexpected joy of becoming a hit is what keeps everybody in the game. Occasionally, the long shots win.
That’s what must get Tim Pawlenty out of bed in the morning. He could be the next “House.”
Rob Long, whose work as a television writer and producer includes “Cheers,” writes frequently about politics for National Review. He is the editor in chief of Ricochet.com.