When in doubt in network television, make a mad dash for an old well. "Hail to the Chief," the "new" ABC sitcom about the first woman president, is really a shameless clone of the network's dirty "Soap," that big noncontroversy of the mid-'70s that became a demi-hit and lingers in late-night reruns. "Soap" was a bubble but right for its time. The time has passed and "Chief" comes off as quaint as Billy Beer or a pet rock.
For good reasons or bad, America is probably not in a receptive mood for cynicism about the presidency right now. Maybe there should be, but there's not a lot of cynicism about anything out there in Ronald Reagan's Magic Kingdom. "Chief's" sour notes are likely to fall on millions of deaf ears.
Susan Harris, the creator of "Soap," also created "Chief" and wrote the premiere. Ostensibly political satire, "Chief" just relocates the arbitrarily daft "Soap" clan to the White House. Joking around with subjects like nuclear annihilation and racial hostility, "Chief" aspires to the level of mordant farce. Unfortunately, it uses these subjects as glitzy titillation, the equivalent of cop show car chases. In a pantingly pandering effort to hold a viewer's attention, it keeps returning, with sad old-coot obsessiveness, to the well-trampled topic of sex.
The premiere, tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7, opens with the president's husband (Ted Bessell) on the phone to his imploring mistress. "What? You covered yourself with peanut butter and jelly?" he asks. She wants him to come over and play "sandwich." President Julia Mansfield (Patty Duke, looking like a very short Barbara Walters) soon enters and invites her hubby to the presidential bed.
Then who should barge into the presidential bedroom but a gay Secret Service agent (Joel Brooks), one of the show's contrived audacities. "Sorry to have disturbed you," he says to the First Gentleman, "although in your case, I doubt I was interrupting anything much." The husband snarls. "I think you're a fruit," he says. The Secret Service man says, "Very perceptive." He likes picking out the president's dresses for her. He tells her husband, "You'll jump on anything that hasn't been cremated."
There was a continuing gay character on "Soap," too, though like Steve Carrington of "Dynasty," he was forever changing his mind. Harris may be courting a gay constituency with "Chief" as she did with "Soap," but neither gay nor nongay viewers may be amused by such epithets, shouted about in this and future episodes, as "homo," "pansy," "queer" and "faggot." Similarly, there's something fiercely unfunny in all the uses of the word "hymie" in tonight's premiere, supposedly mirthful references to Jesse Jackson's disparaging remarks about New York and Jews during last year's presidential campaign.
Norman Lear changed television by expanding the scope of comedies; he really made dramas-with-comedy, and he brought up subjects previously verboten so as to make sometimes pungent comment about modern life and the human condition. "Hail to the Chief" traffics in slack shock. It's Norman Lear without heart. Or mind.
In later episodes, a character seemingly patterned on Jerry Falwell and called Rev. Billy Joe Bickerstaff is introduced. He's a right-wing goldbricker in league with big (and for some reason racist) oil interests who hatch a plan to impeach the prez, but only with Billy Joe's blessing. "Nail her to the cross; it's God's will!" he shouts. The president has a Kissingeresque adviser, Helmut Luger, who has a thick German accent. In the early chapters Luger thinks he has impregnated an 18-year-old girl.
"This could be the end of the world, Luger," he is told after a deranged general takes control of a missile launching site and threatens to lob a few Kremlinward. "I'll tell you the end of the world: the date I'm missing tonight!" Luger replies.
Herschel Bernardi plays Luger. Glynn Turman is the first black secretary of state (crudely named "LaRue Hawkes"). Pat Hingle appears in Part 4 as an oil man. Dick Shawn plays both the Soviet premier and his twin brother, head of the KGB. In other words, a fairly impressive cast has been assembled. But they are not partners in wit. They're not even sophomorically funny most of the time, though Harris and other writers do get off their occasional sly nifty.
Most of the time, they're just trying to prove themselves irreverently smutty. When the president's little boy wants to stay home from school, he makes up the original lie "I have an enlarged prostate, Mom." The president's mother is depicted as a swinging granny who has been dating the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court (which creates an opening for the Secret Service man to imply that one of the justices is homosexual). The old lady exclaims jubilantly, "Who would have thought that at my age I'd have to worry about herpes?"
Hospitalized after being shot by the deranged general at the launching site, the president's husband is greeted by his mistress in a nurse's uniform; she says to him, "Let's do something kinky. I understand this bed has 47 positions." This is in the fourth episode, wherein the president's daughter (Quinn Cummings, once the cute tyke of "The Goodbye Girl") loses her virginity to the Hispanic White House butler, Raoul (Chick Vennera). It was "everything I ever dreamed of -- only faster," she says. "I can feel my skin clearing up even as we speak." Not all the humor is sexual, of course. The president's husband, a former astronaut, says he had to wait out the moon walk in a space capsule because of "the worst case of runs I ever had."
And so on.
If you've had enough, you probably are not likely to become a big fan of "Hail to the Chief." And you may be afflicted with good taste, a real handicap when it comes to tolerating large doses of television. "Chief" begins just as "Soap" did, with a recap of previous events and an announcer asking, "Confused? You won't be after this episode of 'Hail to the Chief.' " The announcer could as well say, "Disgusted? You will be after this episode of 'Hail to the Chief.' " After watching it, one may feel the compulsion to disinfect the television set with Lysol or to grab the nearest Reader's Digest hoping for some boldly wholesome heartwarming mush.
"Chief" is beyond any sort of cleansing. It has already been washed out with "Soap."