When it comes to boosting concert ticket sales, DVD rental profits and television ratings, there's nothing like a contentious presidential race.
What used to be "Rock the Vote" has been displaced by "Vote for Change." In video stores, Michael Moore's anti-George Bush "Fahrenheit 9/11" does battle with anti-Moore pieces.
And of course, cable news (which, let's be honest, is as much entertainment as news) thrives on the conflict: At any time of day, you can hear a pundit rant about Bush's rush to war or John Kerry's flip-flopping.
But toggle to the lower numbers of your TV dial and it's a different story: The networks' scripted dramas toe the line as methodically as track stars. R.E.M. may not be concerned about losing fans, but the programmers of the major networks hate losing viewers (because it means their job is the next thing to go). Even if most of the producers, writers and actors on scripted dramas favor Kerry, they like big ratings even more, and they know conservatives in flyover country can deliver that.
Most shows adhere to the "please everyone, offend no one" mantra by avoiding politics altogether or by performing balancing acts that would earn 9.9s from gymnastics judges. Here's the twist: That's not such a bad thing. It forces the writers to create better characters and nuanced stories.
"American Dreams" (7 p.m. Sundays, NBC) and "Jack & Bobby" (8 p.m. Wednesdays, WB) are refreshing cases in point.
Granted, Jack's and Bobby's mother (Christine Lahti) is a living, breathing stereotype of a liberal college professor who feels out of sorts in Small Town, Mo. In the show's second episode, she invites students to smoke marijuana and open their minds in her living room, which is littered with Kerry-Edwards placards. Bobby (Logan Lerman), the show's future-president-as-a-young-man, wears about 30 Kerry-Edwards pins on his T-shirt.
At first glance, this would appear to be an example of executive producers Greg Berlanti and Thomas Schlamme indulging in shameless stumping in the guise of a TV show. However, the liberal righteousness displayed by Professor McCallister is characterization, not campaigning. In the same episode, an abashed school president responds to one of the prof's diatribes with, "Hey, I'm a Republican, not a Communist."
"Jack & Bobby" endeavors to make the present into the past and the future into the present by interspersing standard WB tales of growing up with comments from Bobby's colleagues, political rivals and journalists in 2048, after he completes a presidency that earns him the tag "The Great Believer."
But as we learn in these interviews, Bobby, a left-leaning Republican, leaves his party in the midst of his campaign to run -- and win -- as an Independent. In contrast to Professor McCallister, "Jack & Bobby's" writing team seems like Democrats who are disenfranchised with their party, but not its ideals.
Like "Jack & Bobby," Jonathan Prince's "American Dreams" conjures up better days, but it looks to the past instead of the future. It lionizes the 1960s with an "American Bandstand" soundtrack and contemporizes the period by having modern pop stars play dress-up while covering classics by their predecessors (I guarantee you won't hear Hilary Duff sing "Leader of the Pack" on any other show). The parallel between Vietnam and Iraq is there for those who want it, but "American Dreams," especially as of last season, has a softer touch than you'd think.
Pryor family patriarch Jack (Tom Verica), running for a Philadelphia City Council seat in the current storyline, is the type of stick-to-what-you-believe guy who would get a lot of votes. The cast features the best one-note actors on TV, and I don't mean that as a slight. In addition to Verica, there's Sarah Ramos as younger daughter Patty, who speaks in the perpetual monotone of an interested/baffled kid who is put off by her parents' seeming disinterest and drawn to older sister Meg's (Brittany Snow) phone calls.
Milo Ventimiglia, who played aloof rebel Jess the last few years on "Gilmore Girls," essentially reprises his role, only this time he's called Chris. He smokes cigarettes and drinks beer (1965 edgy), preferably with smart/cute girl Meg, instead of dropping out of school and secretly working at Wal-Mart to save up enough money to buy a car and live his aloof lifestyle in peace (2002 edgy), preferably with smart-cute girl Rory. If it doesn't work out with Meg, I think Jess-Chris would be perfect for Veronica Mars.
As brother J.J. (Will Estes) fights overseas, Meg directs her school's 'Nam-centric version of "Henry V," and Jess-Chris feigns disinterest in the project while secretly wishing her well. He hides his true feelings in an attempt to get someone to like him.
He'd make a good politician.
"American Dreams": A-
"Jack & Bobby": B
JOHN HANSEN, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5863.
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