Anyone else for president
As the 2004 election year chugs into high gear, I sometimes overhear this lament: If only President Jed Bartlet (The West Wing) or David Palmer (24) were in the race. Is integrity and intellectual curiosity too much to ask for in a world leader?
Satirical cartoonist Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury) and filmmaker Robert Altman (Nashville, M*A*S*H) may have been asking themselves the same question during the 1988 election. Unlike now, there were no ideal TV presidents to imagine in the White House. So what did they do? They made one up of their own. The product of their creative collaboration was the miniseries Tanner '88, now airing on the Sundance Channel.
Merging fact and fiction, the series follows Jack Tanner, a fictitious presidential candidate from Michigan, who hits the 1998 campaign trail with a ragtag crew, which later evolves into a full-blown, star spangled banner dog and pony show through chance and, eventually, cunning manipulation.
As in this election year, the 1988 campaign had a large slate of Democrats gunning for their party's nomination. A Bush was in the White House, and the media machine was a well-oiled, though less thoroughly understood, entity. This, along with deadpan performances by Michael Murphy (as Tanner), a dewy-eyed Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as Tanner's 19-year-old daughter Alex, and Pamela Reed (The Right Stuff) as the flinty campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh, makes Tanner '88 surprisingly fresh and, in many ways, disturbingly prescient. Cameos throughout the series include Chris Matthews, Bob Dole, Linda Ellerbee, Kitty Dukakis, Hodding Carter, Sidney Blumenthal, Waylon Jennings, and many others.
Though Trudeau's droll humor brightens each script, long passages of edifying talk occasionally clog the momentum. Still, these passages are worth enduring, particularly for viewers interested in how the political process works (or doesn't work).
As an added treat, Trudeau and Altman created pre-episode "Fireside Chats" featuring Murphy, Nixon, and Reed as their older and wiser Tanner characters, reminiscing about the 1988 campaign. Some of these, particularly the one recounting Tanner's so-called assassination attempt, are simply delicious.
Tanner '88 airs Tuesdays at 8pm through April 13 on the Sundance Channel.