Geena Davis Sweeps Up the Oval Office

Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen assumes the presidency in the premiere of
Geena Davis as Mackenzie Allen assumes the presidency in the premiere of "Commander in Chief." (By Danny Feld -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Geena Davis can veto my legislation anytime. Starring as the first woman to hold the highest office in the land, Davis reminds us what we have missed in most of our past, real-life presidents: cuteness. She's got a twinkle in her eye, a twinkle in her smile, a twinkle everywhere. She's President Twinkle -- just what we need to tame the extreme, charm the militant, inspire the troops.

Unfortunately, "Commander in Chief," the new ABC drama series premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 7, never gets much beyond its gimmicky premise, and that results in a good deal of wasted time. Can you imagine?! A woman as president of the United States?! Well, yes, we can imagine it, so let's get on with some good stories and knotty controversies and horns of dilemmas.

Rod Lurie, the one-time critic who wrote, directed and executive-produced the series pilot, spends too much time being slack-jawed in amazement at what has jiggled its way out of his word processor. But pilot episodes are of necessity given over to setting the rules and parameters and such. The fact is, "Commander in Chief" starts out a little too bland but still tantalizing, and Davis is the tantalizer all sublime. Maybe the presidency should be a beauty pageant; it's hard to imagine that the results would really be that much worse than we get already.

Davis is bountiful, beautiful, believable. You can accept that maybe, under the right set of quixotic circumstances, she might ascend to the position of leader of the free world. She certainly does wear more lipstick than any of her predecessors. Sometimes she boasts such a big bold blob of red that she looks like she's wearing those red wax lips they sell for Halloween.

But when she gets tough, she's formidable, even if "the issues" in the pilot are not exactly earth-shaking. Chief among them is the case of a young woman in Nigeria who, by local custom, is to be buried up to her neck in sand and stoned to death for the crime of having sex and giving birth before marriage.

Maybe such things really happen, but by leading off the series with it, Lurie suggests that the show won't be about a female president and her problems of adjustment but instead about a myopic busybody who sees herself as a feminist first and leader of the people second (or third). The president leads the Nigerian ambassador into a meeting of the Joint Chiefs and shows him how many ships can be relocated in a matter of moments to rescue the poor young woman. A general says, "There should be [only] limited loss of life."

Take that, Nigerian reactionaries! Meanwhile, there's no specific mention of all the other crises raging throughout the world as the president takes office. We are told that Davis's character, a professor at the University of Richmond, is an expert on Mideast affairs, but she certainly doesn't get a chance to show off.

You can probably guess a likely source of comic relief: The White House is set up to accommodate a president and a first lady. When for the first time the first lady is a man, it does create a new set of problems. Kyle Secor has a good time in the role, making sure the character keeps his dignity.

One thing about dignity, though: It isn't very entertaining. Lurie and company may have approached this project with a bit too much awe. People never shout or lose their tempers, even though the new president has a bona fide, hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool enemy played with sly, smug malice aforethought by Donald Sutherland. He's Nathan (rhymes, almost, with Satan) Templeton, speaker of the House and the man who would be king or, failing that, successor to his old friend the president, who dropped dead. If only the vice president weren't in the way.

In the opening scenes, we learn that President Bridges (Will Lyman), halfway through his first term, has suffered a bleeding aneurysm in his brain. Regaining consciousness, he asks Vice President Mackenzie Spenser Allen (Davis) to resign so that Templeton, politically like-minded, can succeed him. She's about to do it -- even writes a speech on yellow legal paper -- then movingly reconsiders.

"I will not resign until you do," President Bridges tells her, but it turns out he has no choice, summoned eventually to that big Oval Office in the sky. The new president meets with Templeton and scoffs at his crusty, cobwebby ideas, referring sarcastically to "that whole once-a-month, will-she-or-won't-she press the button thing." Davis handles the sarcasm deftly. As vice president, "I wasn't Gore, I wasn't Cheney," she says, but it's not yet clear just what she means by that.

The president and First Manny have two children -- a teenage son (who was a high school wrestler in a previous version of the pilot but now has morphed into a track star) and a stuck-up little snip of a daughter, so disloyal that she advises her own mother to resign when asked to because the daughter would rather see Pat Buchanan as president. This kid could be a very irritating problem.

Maybe we already have too many artificial presidents in prime-time series, stretching the limits of credibility beyond even the usual television standards. But if other fake presidents fall by the wayside, Davis deserves to hang around. Her presidency can't help being a statement, and it's already clear that as president she is going to do the job first and worry about history's verdicts second. One can sense the intense and particular pressure that would accompany such a transformation, and Davis imparts that with subtlety and smarts.

We could do a lot worse than have Geena Davis serving as president of the United States. Indeed, we already have.

Commander in Chief (60 minutes) airs tonight at 9 on Channel 7.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company