The premise of "American Candidate" is that reality-TV junkies, having developed a tolerance for gay male home invaders, surgical makeover artists, blind-daters and spouse-swappers, need a new fix. But can it come from watching "ordinary people" take a walk on the wonk side?
In the latest dose of the popular genre, Showtime pulls together 10 contestants for a parallel presidential campaign. Over the next 10 weeks, starting tomorrow at 9 p.m., they will run around doing what the big boys do -- give lofty addresses on the war against terror, pump hands, tweak their ads, pray for positive media coverage, agonize with strategists, eat rubber chicken. (They don't have to kiss up to big-money donors, and frankly that's a relief.)
The winner, after two rounds of public voting at series' end, gets $200,000 and the chance to deliver an acceptance speech trumpeting the civic convictions most important to him or her. And boy, do these people have convictions.
If these contestants are exhibitionists, which is a standard requirement for the reality-TV contestant, they are ideological exhibitionists. Far from being regular folks, they're organizers and agitators. Most refreshingly, in a nation supposedly calcified into partisanship, they are not so easily categorized.
Bruce Friedrich is "director for vegan outreach" for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Former county sheriff Richard Mack is the author of "From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns" -- and a proponent of legalizing marijuana. Middle school teacher Park Gillespie wants to wipe abortion from the face of the Earth. He also does refugee work in Africa and lectures on racial reconciliation. Malia Lazu works on increasing voter participation among urban youth. "I'm black, Puerto Rican, Italian and from Hawaii!" she says by way of introduction, her tongue stud flashing in her mouth. She listened to Rush Limbaugh with her Republican grandparents and read "Soul on Ice" when her mother bought it for her.
The one with the name recognition is Chrissy Gephardt, a lesbian and social worker who is the daughter of Rep. Dick Gephardt. Part of the tension of the first episode is whether Gephardt's political lineage will assure her front-runner status -- at one point she is hoping for an endorsement from Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) -- or whether the Gephardt name will prove the same old curse in presidential campaigning. When Gephardt learns that there is another openly gay candidate in the race (Keith Boykin: Dartmouth, Harvard Law, former Clinton aide), she moans: "They've already got a press release [out]?" Episode 1 shows the contestants opening their front doors to find a briefcase and a bullhorn. Their first assignment: to find a location and hold a rally in the next 36 hours announcing their candidacy. Whoever gets the most people to show up is declared the front-runner. "Three or four Mormon families," quips Mack, who lives in Provo, Utah, "and I've got it made." The most irritating member of the bunch, Bob Vanech, a Type A venture capitalist prone to harassing his campaign manager, promptly takes his bullhorn to Venice Beach, where he hollers at muscleheads.
The two candidates with the fewest people at their rallies must debate before their fellow candidates, who then duck behind the voting booth curtain to vote one of them off, like the tiniest Iowa caucus.
This method of winnowing bears no relation to reality, of course, but so what? It does force the candidates to think strategically and to decide what really matters -- principles or self-interest. At least "American Candidate" makes more sense then "K Street," HBO's fiction-or-fact series last season about lobbying. And wouldn't the actual primary candidates have loved the idea (back when they were grousing about the crowded Democratic field) of voting their competition out of the debates?
Next week, the remaining contenders get to meet with Joe Trippi, who was Howard Dean's campaign manager. Other professional political operatives who will appear include Republican consultant Rich Bond and pollster and focus groupie Frank Luntz. Happily, at least in the first episode provided to reviewers, there is none of that ridiculous heart-monitor type graphing Luntz inflicted on MSNBC viewers during this week's convention coverage.
In conceiving "American Candidate," R.J. Cutler -- who produced "The War Room," the acclaimed documentary about the 1992 Clinton campaign -- has said he wanted to create an entertainment form that could permit political discourse outside the mainstream. And why not? Campaigning is one of the most splendid forms of American theater. Candidate-selling is as carefully and creatively produced as any blockbuster. And a recent study by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California indicates that 44 percent of 18-to-49-year-olds say that what they see on entertainment television is the most important influence on their view of government.
So if "American Candidate" can find a Showtime audience dying to see contestants eat their words instead of worms, well, bring it on.