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How Commander In Chief, starring Geena Davis as POTUS, flamed out

ABC's 2005 series about the first woman president was a certain hit, until it was voted out by behind-the-scenes drama
Commander In Chief (Screenshots: Prime Video)
Commander In Chief (Screenshots: Prime Video)
Graphic: Libby McGuire
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Imagine for a moment what the first female president of the United States will be like. Will she be progressive and professorial like Elizabeth Warren? A pragmatic centrist like Amy Klobuchar? A torchbearer of pre-Trump conservatism like Liz Cheney? Will she be a self-made woman or an extension of a political dynasty? Will she be folksy and plain-spoken or rhetorically elegant or both? Will she smile easily? Make jokes? Talk tough? Will she be—retch—someone you’d want to have a beer with?

America is closer than it’s ever been to a female president. Hillary Clinton earned the first major-party nomination in 2016, followed by the ascendance of Vice President Kamala Harris, who is now a heartbeat away from the office of a POTUS just months away from his 80th birthday who has repeatedly floated the notion of serving a single term. And yet, conjuring up an origin story for the first female American president remains an abstract thought experiment. The only explorations of West Wing women have come in renderings of influential spouses, as in Showtime’s The First Lady, or fictional presidents who hint at the ramifications such a sea change could have.

The most interesting example of the latter came in the fall of 2005, roughly 15 months before Clinton announced her first presidential campaign. ABC debuted Commander In Chief, a Sorkin-lite political drama about the challenges facing the country’s first female president, Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis). Like both of Clinton’s campaigns, Commander enjoyed an auspicious launch only to flame out in spectacular fashion. Within just 18 episodes, it went from the biggest new drama of the broadcast season to an ignominious cancellation. And the story behind the dramatic rise and fall of ABC’s primetime POTUS is mostly about men, specifically two men whose tug-of-war over President Allen’s identity derailed a promising series in record time.

Commander In Chief was the brainchild of writer-director Rod Lurie, who had explored similar themes in The Contender, his 2000 film about a contentious confirmation process for Senator Laine Hansen (Joan Allen), the country’s first female vice president. Hansen ultimately lands the job, but only after deftly navigating a manufactured sex scandal designed to shame her out of the spotlight. (“For Our Daughters,” reads the film’s closing dedication.) The year prior, Lurie wrote and directed Deterrence, a low-budget feature in which Kevin Pollak plays a vice president who ascends to the Oval Office following the president’s death, then immediately has to navigate a nuclear threat.

Commander’s pilot plays like a combination of the two films, with the same devotion to imagining how the dynamics of gender would reverberate through the executive branch and how people rise to, and shrink from, the challenges thrust upon them by an unexpected accession. The show is every bit as feisty and forward-thinking as The Contender, with a lead character acutely aware of the gender politics at play in her rise to power. Mackenzie “Mac” Allen is a former Connecticut congresswoman who had fled politics for a quiet life in academia before being tapped for the vice-presidential slot under President Teddy Bridges (Will Lyman). When Bridges dies in office following a cerebral aneurysm, Mac prepares to assume the presidency only to find out that Bridges and his top advisers want her to resign so that Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), the Republican Speaker of the House and Bridges’ preferred replacement, can serve in her stead.

Bridges and his team, including his chief of staff Jim Gardner (Harry Lennix), make no effort to hide the sexist reasoning behind the request. Mac is repeatedly told that she was put on the ticket to shore up Bridges’ support among women, and as a left-leaning Independent, she can’t be trusted to execute Bridges’ orthodox-conservative vision. Templeton, a bare-knuckle brawler with a Dixiecrat pedigree, belittles Mac by voicing concern that male despots won’t respect her, at once a malicious taunt and a genuine worry of his.

Despite his condescension and her concern about a potential hard-right turn from a Templeton administration, Mac agrees to step down. She changes her mind while dealing, in her acting authority, with a human rights emergency involving a Nigerian woman set to be executed for adultery under Sharia law. Mac’s instinct is to try rescuing the woman, but Templeton calls it a naive waste of resources, characterizing the situation as much ado about “a lady who couldn’t keep her legs together.” Mac disposes of her resignation speech and tells him she’ll run the country as she sees fit. The closing sequence cuts between Mac addressing Congress and the outcome of her successful negotiation with Nigeria to allow the woman to be flown out of the country. Meanwhile, Templeton seethes, vowing to destroy Mac’s administration.

In this version of the show—the first of three, each demarcated by a hasty showrunner swap—the political drama and the family drama were given equal weight. In keeping with the early tagline, “Wife. Mother. Leader of the Free World,” Mac’s family life is a major component of the story. When Mac isn’t locking horns with Templeton, she’s fretting over how the new job will affect her family: husband Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor), teenage twins Horace and Rebecca (Matt Lanter and Caitlin Wachs), and 6-year-old Amy (Jasmine Anthony). She’s a woman with a high-powered job just trying to have it all, and there’s never a suggestion that she’ll allow her professional duties to invariably take precedent over her personal ones.

Rod’s arc best represents how Lurie’s vision weaved together Mac’s personal and political lives. Though Rod was Mac’s chief of staff in the veep’s office, she chooses to keep the more qualified Gardner in the Oval Office role. This move relegates Rod to the loosely defined but primarily domestic role of First Gentleman, one he’s slow to warm to. Lurie intended Rod’s arc as a combination of comic relief and marital strife. He’s put in awkward, fish-out-of-water scenes where he’s choosing decor and directing the kitchen staff. Rod perceives the move as a demotion, creating tension with Mac, while Horace gets into a brawl at school with a peer who calls the First Gentleman a “wimp.”

This was the version of the show America fell in love with. Commander drew more than 16 million viewers in its debut and added another million in its second week, easily winning its time slot and landing it just inside Nielsen’s Top 10. Though the ratings tapered off, the show leveled off at a healthy 14 million viewers and remained high in the public consciousness even as the viewership softened. Davis and Sutherland won critical acclaim for their performances, and both were nominated for Golden Globes along with the series, which nabbed a Best Drama nomination.

Davis, who also received an Emmy nomination, won her Golden Globe category and delivered an endearing speech that highlights how Commander was viewed equally as a television show and a potential cultural watershed. Davis told the story of a little girl who had tugged at her dress on the way into the ceremony and said, “Because of you, I want to be president.” Once the audience melted, Davis went in for the kill. “Well, that didn’t actually happen,” she confessed to uproarious laughter. “But it could have…and if that were to be the case, all of this would have been worth it.”

Commander In Chief
Commander In Chief
Screenshot: Prime Video

That sweet and triumphant moment belied the upheaval happening behind the scenes. Three months before Davis accepted her award, just after Commander’s second episode aired, Lurie was unceremoniously axed, having turned out only six episodes. In a 2013 interview recounting the events, Lurie said he was summoned to the office of Mark Pedowitz, then the president of Touchstone Television, who told him he was being fired because of delayed scripts that wreaked havoc on tight budgets and schedules. It’s a tale as old as time: a rookie showrunner struggles to figure out the rhythms of a uniquely demanding job. But according to a New York Times report, Lurie’s tenure was bumpy even by those standards. The production had gotten so behind under Lurie’s stewardship that ABC executives were brainstorming scenarios in case they had to suddenly patch a hole in their schedule during the crucial November sweeps period.

In a changing of the guard that mirrored the action on screen, Lurie was replaced by veteran showrunner Steven Bochco, who had proven himself invaluable to ABC with NYPD Blue and had just inked a new development deal with Touchstone. Despite Bochco’s rich experience producing television shows, he had only ever produced his own. Commander was his first time taking over a show someone else created, and the transition from Lurie to Bochco was anything but smooth. There was little coordination between the two, and the night of the Golden Globes was the closest the two came to interacting. Davis thanked both Lurie and Bochco in her acceptance speech, and the two met briefly at the ceremony for the first time despite Bochco being nearly three months into the job. “I have no intention of doing violence to your show,” Bochco said to Lurie, according to an account he gave to Entertainment Weekly.

Based on Bochco’s decisions, while he may not have intended violence, nor did he intend to maintain Lurie’s status quo. Bochco did a stem-to-stern makeover, with not even the title reveal or the episodic nomenclature escaping his scrutiny. He fired most of Lurie’s writers and replaced them with his own hires. (One of the replacements was Joel Fields, who would go on to co-run The Americans.) The changes reportedly didn’t go over well with the cast and crew, who had bonded with Lurie, for whom Commander was a long-gestating passion project. Bochco was a polarizing presence on set, which he claimed to be unfazed by. “I don’t care if they like me,” he said of his new team in an interview. “I don’t think they care whether they like me. Who cares if you’re the nicest person in the world if the job isn’t getting done?” And in one sense, the job was getting done: Bochco and his reconstituted writers’ room quelled the network’s concerns by cranking out two new scripts in five days’ time.

Were those the extent of Bochco’s changes to Commander, the show could have kept its momentum and a narrative consistency to belie the backstage upheaval. Instead, Bochco altered the formula and reset the chessboard in a way that perilously shifted the understanding of who Mackenzie Allen was. Bochco added Dickie McDonald (NYPD Blue alum Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a sharp-elbowed media consultant hired to boost Mac’s poll numbers. Gosselaar’s character brings in elements of partisan cynicism and psychological warfare, which the show had mostly shied away from, and his influence quickly spreads through Mac’s cabinet. Suddenly, the wish fulfillment was increasingly replaced by crude reality.

Polly Bergen also joined the show as Mac’s mother, Kate, who moves into the White House to fill the traditional First Spouse functions Rod shrank from. (Bergen’s casting was an endearing nod to her starring role in 1964’s Kisses For My President, the first feature film to imagine a female POTUS.) Kate came as a result of Bochco’s discomfort with what he viewed as Rod’s emasculation at the hands of his powerful wife. According to reports (referenced in this EW article), one of Bochco’s first gestures was to make Rod more aggressive and macho. Within the first few minutes of Bochco’s first episode, Rod questions Mac in front of her staff, then forcefully demands a significant role in her administration. “You have no focus, forward motion, no game plan,” he says. “And guess what? The guy who could help you make one, who wants to help you make one? He’s too busy picking out drapes for the Vermeil Room.” Mac agrees to move him into the West Wing, much to Gardner’s chagrin, while Kate runs point on window dressings.

Presidents are always a bit inscrutable, and we mainly understand their personalities through the people they surround themselves with, as with classic presidential biographies like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals. As seen through the eyes of her staff, Mac is a woman of unimpeachable character. She values loyalty and honesty in her staff over experience and cunning. Most of all, she loathes the notion that she would be viewed as a female proxy for the machinations of men. Was Lurie’s show politically accurate? Not especially, and it certainly wasn’t as high-minded as The Contender. But it wasn’t intended to be gritty or wonky. It’s a girlboss fantasy set in the White House, more The American President Sorkin than The West Wing Sorkin. And it’s decidedly feminist: Mac sees her difference from every one of her predecessors as a resource to be harnessed.

Commander In Chief
Commander In Chief
Screenshot: Prime Video

Bochco’s spin darkened the show’s tone and, most crucially, turned Commander into a show about a female president who didn’t spend much time thinking about how her gender shaped perceptions of her ability. He also broke with Lurie’s more episodic structure for longer arcs that were more focused on Beltway maneuvering than the personal lives of Mac’s staff. To that end, two major storylines were abruptly stitched up: one involving a clandestine sexual relationship between Gardner and Jayne Murray (Natasha Henstridge), Templeton’s chief of staff, and another involving Vince Taylor (Anthony Azizi), a special White House aide whose concealment of his HIV status becomes a political football.

Lurie became frustrated with the show’s creative direction according to a Newsweek interview, one of many post-mortems about the show’s dramatic flameout. “[Mac] was always turning to her husband or to a man for advice or approval, so the show was beginning to become not about why we should have a female president, but why we should not have one,” said Lurie. “I don’t know if I can call myself a feminist, but I know that Bochco is not.” For his part, Bochco wasn’t thrilled with the experience either, telling the Boston Globe that “no good deed goes unpunished…it was a horrible, horrible experience.”

Complicating matters was the fact that Lurie claimed to have loyalists on the set feeding him information about Bochco’s moves and smuggling him drafts of scripts in the pipeline. (This is alluded to in this YouTube clip, and Lurie told me as much in an interview years ago.) One such script, originally designated as the 13th episode, had Mac declining to intervene in an African genocide because of domestic political concerns, a heel-turn from the decision Mac made in the pilot. The episode was pulled from the schedule and never aired after Lurie directly lobbied ABC to neutralize the episode due to his fears that female viewers would never forgive Mac if they saw it.

What ultimately doomed Commander In Chief is much more practical than conceptual. Bochco turned around stop-gap scripts at lightning speed, but then asked the network for a three-week hiatus to retool the series. Because that ran into the winter break, Commander spent nearly six weeks off the air, not unlike the months-long scheduling gaps that made Lost so frustrating to watch during its first three seasons. That was enough time for the show to lose its hot hand. While Davis’ Golden Globe win lent Commander some prestige as it returned after the break, due to Bochco’s changes the audience was greeted with a show that didn’t quite resemble the one they’d been watching.

Commander came back after the winter break to an audience of just over 10 million and slowly slid lower, then was dealt another blow when Bochco left abruptly to develop a new pilot. The show was turned over to executive producer Dee Johnson, who survived both writers’ room configurations, a second staff shake-up that necessitated yet another production hiatus. By the time the show returned in mid-April for its final three episodes (after having its production order slashed by three), the audience was half what the premiere brought in, and had shrunk to a third of the premiere audience’s size by the hasty series finale. Johnson’s vision of the show was arguably the best of the three, merely by splitting the difference between Lurie’s Cinderella story and Bochco’s institutional decay. But sadly, that’s also the version of the show the least amount of people got to see and the one most influenced by a female producer.

For all the hand-wringing around Commander’s whiplash portrayal of gender politics, it’s possible that either Lurie or Bochco’s version of the show could have worked assuming production ran smoothly and the vision stayed relatively consistent. After all, the premise is not far removed from another ABC political drama starring a member of the Sutherland clan. Designated Survivor became another instant hit for ABC despite enduring just as much showrunner shuffling and just as many whiplash makeovers. The difference is that Commander demanded the people making it to constantly imagine what the first female American president might be like, only to come up with radically different ideas. And the key to a successful campaign is having a clear and unambiguous idea of who your candidate is.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wonder turned wannabe, one episode at a time.