Presidential woes

Is ABC so inherently screwed up that it doesn’t know how to handle a hit show?

These surely are salad days in the rejuvenation of Disney’s American Broadcasting Company. Its surprise super hit, Lost, won this year’s Emmy as the best drama on TV. Women across the country are gathering like rowdy football fans on Sunday nights to watch the outrageously overhyped Desperate Housewives in mass viewing parties. “Watercooler hits,” they’re called, because you can’t wait to cackle about them with your co-workers around the break room the next day.

As such, ABC is riding a wave of innovative, involving series. What wonderful luck. That’s right, luck. Success in television is cyclical; usually a network has to suck for so long that execs are willing to take any risk necessary to reverse fortunes. Then the lineup becomes hot again for a while.

Now comes Commander in Chief (9 p.m. Tuesdays, Channel 7). Created and written by Rod Lurie, the former L.A. film critic-turned-movie director (The Contender), this is an intense, well-acted hour, starring Geena Davis as America’s first woman president. While serving as America’s first female vice president, her running mate dies in office — leaving her to contend with Donald Sutherland as the Machiavellian House speaker hell-bent on forcing her resignation. ABC crows that Commander is Tuesday’s No. 1 show, a Top 10 ratings candidate taking the full measure of its Emmy-winning time slot rival The Amazing Race on CBS. (And, the greatest joy of watching Commander in Chief is rediscovering the statuesque beauty and presence of Davis for a full hour each week. Hillary should be so impressive.)

In television, however, every silver lining must have a cloud. ABC claimed that writer-director Lurie was running so far behind in delivering new episodes that the network feared having to either pre-empt the show or air reruns during the crucial November sweeps period, when local affiliates recalculate their ad rates based on ratings numbers. (This is why you’ll be seeing “shocking news exposés” at 5 and 11 for the next month.)

So ABC did the only thing it thought appropriate under the circumstances: It yanked Lurie off his own show less than three weeks into the fall season and replaced him with, of all people, celebrated TV producer Steven Bochco.

Now, if you have to lose your creative dream to somebody, you could do a whole lot worse than Bochco. He’s shepherded some of the most honored and enduring dramas of the last two decades, including Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, and did very well by ABC with the recently concluded NYPD Blue. But as Dana Carvey used to say in his Johnny Carson impersonation on Saturday Night Live, this is some weird, wild stuff.

In fact, it’s unheard of. In the movie business, some films change directors as frequently as its actors change costumes, but no one can remember a television series that overthrew its originator and prime mover in a bloodless network coup so early in a season — especially when the show is a major hit. In his nearly 40 years in the industry, Bochco says he’s never before come aboard a show that someone else had created.

For nascent fans of Commander in Chief, this should be troublesome to say the least. Lurie had completed shooting only six episodes of the series before being given the bum’s rush. His double duty as writer and director led to numerous rewrites and production delays, ABC contends, but it was his baby and he wanted to get it exactly right.

Great as Bochco may be, there’s no way anyone can pick up the same rhythms and nuances that the show’s creator had intended, not in midstream and with a new writing staff. The Oscar-winning Davis, who has been burned by television before (The Geena Davis Show), obviously took the oath of office for Commander because she had faith in Lurie’s vision for the series. How will the star respond to such a jolting change of leadership?

Millions of dollars ride on every hour of prime-time TV, true, but you’ve got to believe the network could have found a more reasonable way to resolve this creative conflict than canning the creator. ABC blinked. Forgive them; they’re clearly not accustomed to dealing with such success.

The Bochco episodes should start appearing around mid-November. Here’s what to look for: Will Andy Sipowicz suddenly appear as director of homeland security? Will First Gentleman Kyle Secor (Homicide: Life on the Street) begin a torrid affair with Donna Abandando? Hey, Jimmy Smits worked for Bochco on NYPD Blue; if his West Wing candidate Matt Santos fails to win the presidency (which seems likely), maybe there’s a Cabinet position open for him in Geena’s administration.

Last time I checked, the show’s opening credits still read, “Commander in Chief, created by Rod Lurie.” Wonder how long that will last? Meanwhile, ABC now has shown the entire Hollywood creative community how it responds at the first hint of production difficulty. Lotsa luck getting your hands on a Jerry Bruckheimer show.

Jim McFarlin writes about television for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].