Noble, portentous and often achingly predictable, "Jack & Bobby," a new drama series about a boy who grows up to be president in the year 2040, represents a step up for the WB, Time-Warner's kiddie-car network, which has previously catered mainly to teenage girls and, according to audience research, gay men.
That's because WB shows usually involve "cute" teenage boys who manage to become disrobed on the same unsubtle pretexts as starlets in movies have done for years. The score has sort of been settled. But in the handsome-looking premiere of "Jack & Bobby," tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 50, the teenage boy is shirtless only briefly, and the drama's aims are clearly earnest and substantial.
Maybe, indeed, too earnest. The show begins off-puttingly, with a huffy-puffy historian looking back from the vantage point of 2049 at the McCallister presidency and what made this chief executive click. Throughout the hour, flashbacks to the brothers' boyhood are intercut with documentary-like sound bites from old geezers who remember the McCallister years with varying degrees of fondness.
And lest the Jack and Bobby thing sound too clearly Kennedyesque, we learn that President McCallister was known as "The Great Believer," obviously a variation on Ronald Reagan's richly deserved nickname, "The Great Communicator."
The key influence in the boys' lives is their dynamic, intrusive and very, very empowered single mother, played with sometimes overbearing intensity by Christine Lahti, looking as if she should be playing their granny instead of their mommy. Expect a whole lotta Lahti from the beginning. We meet her in a Missouri appliance store mulling the prospect of buying her younger son, Bobby, a TV set. Instead, insisting most TV is "garbage," she walks out of the store with a fancy synthesizer on which he will supposedly compose a masterpiece.
Casio also gets a nice big product-placement plug out of the deal.
It turns out Mom is inexplicably the most popular professor at the local university, and she has high, high hopes for both her sons, the older Jack (Matt Long, which sounds like a porno star's name) being a track star in high school and Bobby (Logan Lerman) an asthmatic nerd in junior high. Poor Bobby is ridiculed by the "cool" kids and even abandoned by his only friend.
The premise of the series sounds promising. In addition to telling the stories of these two kids growing up in current times, the writers can put forth all kinds of hypotheses about what will happen to the world in the next 40 years or so. Unfortunately, we hear about all that -- via the interrupting sound bites -- rather than see it. Nothing looks fakier on TV than an actor trying not to come across like an actor in pseudo-realistic interview footage.
More critically, isn't a major component of the show's suspense supposed to be that the audience is kept guessing, week by week, as to which brother will one day move into the White House and which one will die without getting to see that happen?
And yet at the end of the premiere, one witness seems to give it all away, leaving little doubt which brother meets which fate. Frankly, I don't get it, nor was I enticed to tune in next week to see Bobby and Jack learn and teach more lessons about life.
The plot curves are visible from miles away. When Little Bobby swipes his mom's stash of marijuana, takes it to school and tells the cool kids he'll share it with them at the end of the day, we know that instead of making friends, he'll get caught and there'll be a big hullabaloo. When Mom meets a stranger at a party and blabs on and on to him about how the new university president is a "money-grubbing whore," we know that her patient listener will eventually introduce himself as that very man. And be smitten with her.
Asked why he runs, young Jack comes up with the corny and familiar response "When I run, everything else goes away." But the show's major howler is the big family secret about the identity of the boys' father. How tragique to discover that he was not a distinguished South American professor, as Mother had told the boys, but instead a Mexican bus boy who abandoned the family after the second child appeared.
Lahti reveals this in a tearful confession, but it's hard to hold back the giggles -- a Mexican bus boy? Named Juan? Maybe the WB figures its audience is too young to have experienced this kind of hokey melodrama and will find "Jack & Bobby" a blessing, but although there are definitely touching and poignant moments, the show seems to represent not a new deal but rather a very old frontier.