Commander in Chief
Created by Rod Lurie
Produced by Battleplan Productions, Stephen Bochco Productions, Touchstone Television
Aired on ABC for 1 season (18 episodes) from September 27, 2005 – June 14, 2006
Geena Davis as Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Allen
Kyle Secor as Rod Calloway
Donald Sutherland as Nathan Templeton
Harry J. Lennix as Jim Gardner
After beloved President Teddy Bridges falls fatally ill from a cerebral aneurysm, the protocol of replacing him brings forth Vice President Mackenzie Allen to take over his presidency, marking a landmark moment in history, as the United States pronounces their first female POTUS to preside over the White House. Manning the helm of Commander in Chief is never an easy task for anyone coming in unplanned, but much less so when stepping into the oval office as a woman; getting doubly criticized, undermined, and penalized by a governmental system that had been primarily patriarchal. Controversy stirs from the day she takes the oath, as her very acceptance of the Presidency goes against the dying wishes of former President Bridges, a fact that Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton intends to bring to light, as he was to be Bridges’ truly chosen successor.
The show chronicles President Allen as she takes on the responsibility of being POTUS, facing new challenges such as assembling her White House staff and testing their loyalties, facing the press and balancing transparency, assimilating her family to media ridicule, maintaining good foreign relations, etc. The series is mostly a serialized political procedural, with each episode dealing with a different crisis that would often get resolved within the hour, except for the two part episodes, which would extend the situation.
In recent years there has been an influx of fictional television female presidents or president contenders. From Selina Meyer on the satirical Veep to Sally Langston on soapy drama Scandal to, briefly, Elizabeth McCord on procedural Madam Secretary to Constance Payton on State of Affairs, and lastly to Leslie Knope on bureaucratic sitcom Parks and Recreation, there has been a variety of fictional women that have taken the oath of office on television shows as of late. It has not always been the case that a woman in the role of the US national leader would be taken as seriously as they are today. In the mid 1980s, there was a short-lived series titled Hail to the Chief that featured a female president, played by Patty Duke, that would mine comedy from the character trying to balance running the country while also enduring family issues. The show only lasted seven episodes and did very little to credibly represent how a political woman would actually take office.
Not until the mid-2000s has there been better depictions of women US leaders in television. Some of the characters that paved the way for viable female Presidential representation in television have been Battlestar Galactica’s reluctant yet capable Laura Roslin, 24’s good-natured idealist Alison Taylor, and Prison Break’s scheming and manipulating Caroline Reynolds, whose dirty politics seem like a precursor to House of Cards‘ Frank Underwood. One of the most notable series to truly feature a female POTUS in television, as well as offer a realistic approach to how she would govern, would be the unfortunately brief run of Rod Lurie’s Commander in Chief.
Rod Lurie conceived the show as a sort of spiritual sequel to his second feature film The Contender, which starred Joan Allen as a Vice Presidential hopeful who gets swept up in a hearsay sex scandal and is forced to defend her public image. The premise of the show would take elements of that character, place her in the White House office, and serialize her inauguration as the first female US President. Lurie pitched the idea to Touchstone Television, who understood the commercial potential of the series if given the right notable star in the lead. After Lurie wrote the teleplay, the series was green-lit to be developed as a pilot. Geena Davis had been in primary consideration for the role, as Lurie saw her as an ideal candidate, but unfortunately at the time that they were casting the show, she was not available. Lurie and his company looked over several other candidates, some of whom were Oscar winning actresses, but were still unable to find their Mackenzie Allen. Just two weeks before shooting had to begin, Davis was finally available to be pitched the role. They contacted her and asked her if she would be interested in playing the first Madam President of the United States, to which she then replied “Do I have to read it first, or can I just say yes?”
When developing the character of Mackenzie Allen, Rod Lurie intended to make her into a categorically heroic figure, someone that young girls can look up to and want to emulate, so it was important to make her into a person with little complexity early on. The pilot was made with a very clear narrative, and although there were many characters on the series, they all revolved around President Allen. Rod Lurie wrote and directed many of the early episodes of the series, which did all feel part of a unified vision that credibly told the stages of the incoming female presidency. When the pilot premiered in Fall 2005, it did very well at bringing in high ratings for the network. While the show had been well-received by the public, behind the scenes the production company took issue with Lurie as a showrunner. The company would cite that Lurie was stretched thin with all of his jobs as writer/director/producer, and that it would lead to late script orders and high production costs, the growing pains of making a good hit show. This led to Lurie’s dismissal from duty, replacing the show creator with TV veteran Stephen Bochco.
The Rod Lurie era ended with episode seven, which was entitled “First Scandal”, an episode that satisfyingly tied up the emotional and dramatic arc that began in the pilot. This episode brought closure and allowed for a new direction to take place when the Bochco reign would take effect. The Bochco era is significantly different from what came before; the changes begin with the episode titles no longer implementing “First” into their titling scheme. Other changes included de-fanging the role of Donald Sutherland’s character, who became a lesser antagonist, with the intent of making him more likable. The new direction did improve the production status well enough, but the ratings were beginning to drop. Somehow the audience that the show had garnered had lost steam and had started to tune out of the series. The ratings had sunk so much and so fast that the network decided to change up showrunners a second time, promoting Dee Johnson to executive produce the show. Johnson had been in the writers’ room with Lurie, sharing writing credits on three of the early episodes. Although Johnson’s run did restabilize the story and bring it somewhat closer to the original vision, her time in the showrunner seat was very short, as after only three episodes ABC decided to finally just pull the plug on the whole series.
For a brief time after the announcement of the show’s cancellation, many of the fans and even actors held on to hope that the show could make a return. Geena Davis had said in interviews that she would continue portraying President Mackenzie Allen from a production set in her backyard if need be. There had been rumors that ABC executives were in talks to revive the series as a two hour TV movie that would have Rod Lurie at the helm, which then, if successful, would open the door for more Commander in Chief projects. Alas, none of that came to be, and the series remained like a vetoed bill sitting on the steps of Capitol Hill.
Commander in Chief began as a very unique series, and even with all the retooling, was a very watchable one. The cast were all wonderful and led by a powerhouse performer in Geena Davis. The character of Mackenzie Allen is very strong-willed and dynamic, with a moral center that is very easy to get behind. The strongest episodes are in that initial Rod Lurie run, where President Allen is developing her team and figuring out how to handle the media. The early arc also has the strongest performance of Donald Sutherland as Nathan Templeton, who is a very effective opposing force against Davis’ Allen. The dynamic is that Templeton is a Republican whose views align with what that of former President Teddy’s were, and he was denied the power of the office in favor of someone he felt did not follow the same principles as him. The way that President Allen governs the Country were counter to his beliefs of ruling, which were a bit more ruthless and cutthroat, and this made for interesting conflicts and great standoff moments and, at times, beats of mutual respect. These early episodes were a much better showcase of the two opposing characters and brought out a better performance from Sutherland, who was just under-served post-Lurie’s reign. As the series hits the shift, the character just loses a lot of his bite, and it’s not really clear why.
There’s also plenty of family strife that gets played up to good effect, but as the season progressed, most of that would get dropped, as the family conflicts became decidedly less combative. By the end of the series, the show became more about the White House team working together and less about the struggles of being the first woman president, and while that’s not a bad thing, it’s probably not what most people signed on for. All in all, for a short series it’s still very strong and effective, and even the latter half has enough good performances and efficient storytelling to keep one’s interest. This series is still one of the only shows to highlight a credible female United States President and have her be the central focus of a television series, and that is a landmark in itself.
According to Rod Lurie, the path to Commander in Chief began when his daughter asked him the question “Why are there no women candidates running?” This question led Lurie to write The Contender, which had him imagine that if a woman candidate was able to get into the White House, how would it happen? What would be the circumstances? What ridicule would she go through? etc. The Contender only went so far as to imagine the female character gaining office as Vice President, but this spurred what would become Commander in Chief, a genuine investigation of what a woman president might go through when taking office. The situation is not played for laughs or as a metaphor or even ironically; the circumstances are taken seriously and with purpose.
If we can look towards television as a way to check the pulse of where America is progressively, with the current state of television that can, and has, imagined several female Presidential types within the last decade, it appears that there may be a change coming, similar to when 24 predicted the possibility of the first African American President. This may very well not be the case in this upcoming election year, but hopefully now, with the current state of female Presidential representation on television, this would allow a young girl right now to have those aspirations and know that she can succeed in that dream.
Commander in Chief is one of those shows that had a strong representation of a woman in political power that was not made to appear as simply a woman stereotype, but as leader who only happened to be a woman, a representation that was by far a landmark in television history, and should be remembered as a series that, although had its production problems, still stands as a significant step towards a future where equality includes gender, even in the highest office of the United States.
Rod Lurie would go on to script the made-for-TV-movie I’m Paige Wilson, as well as feature films Nothing but the Truth and Straw Dogs.
Dee Johnson went on to write scripts for Army Wives, The Good Wife, Rizzoli and Isles, and Nashville.
Stephen Bochco would later produce Raising the Bar and Murder in the First.
Geena Davis would later appear in the television miniseries Coma, followed by a recurring role on Grey’s Anatomy.
Kyle Secor would make many TV appearances, including shows such as Veronica Mars, The Practice, Resurrection, and most recently Aquarius.
Donald Sutherland would later star in Dirty Sexy Money, Pillars of Earth, and Crossing Lines.
Harry J. Lennix would go on to appear in 24, Dollhouse, Emily Owens MD, and most recently on The Blacklist.
There is a DVD home video release of the show available to purchase in two different sets; Season one part one and Season one part two. All 18 episodes are also available in SD and HD quality video downloads for purchase at Amazon Video or the iTunes store. The show is also available to stream on Hulu.