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Monday, September 26, 2005 - Page updated at 11:54 AM

Kay McFadden

Davis is in command, but show is impeachable

Seattle Times TV critic

ABC's "Commander in Chief" has an ideological predictability guaranteed to make Republicans gnash their teeth at perfidious Babylon's left-leaning ways.

Relax: It's no opposition-rousing "West Wing." In fact, I'm not sure what it is.

The new series, which debuts at 9 p.m. tomorrow and stars Geena Davis as America's first woman president, presents this notion with a mighty chip on its shoulder — go on, we dare ya to laugh.

That posture might have rung truer a few decades back. With Hillary Clinton clearly on the horizon for a 2008 candidacy — and perhaps Condoleezza Rice — the show's gyno-defiance seems overbaked.

To be sure, we haven't actually had an elected female head of government. The United States trails on that score behind a number of nations, including Great Britain, Israel, India, Portugal, New Zealand, several Scandinavian countries and maybe — if things are hashed out — Germany.

It's also true that "Commander in Chief," like "West Wing," can take refuge in being make-believe. Even fiction, however, requires sincerity to emotionally resonate with viewers, and the focus on gender in "Commander in Chief" feels shamelessly contrived to court a demographic.

This false effect is brought home in a much-advertised climax. Republican Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), who wants the job himself, tries to talk Vice President Mackenzie Allen (Davis) into resigning after the president suddenly dies in office.

Templeton presents his argument. "This is not the time for social advances made for the sake of social advances," he says, then continues. "A woman as the leader of the free world. How many Islamic states do you think would follow the edict of a woman?"

When "Mac," as she's called, rebuts his argument, the discussion suddenly takes a left turn into the fallopian jungle.

She makes a sarcastic response about how these states also will have to worry about those few days a month when she might push the button.

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Templeton kiddingly answers, "Well, that's something you won't have to worry about in a few years" — at which point Mac stiffens in her chair, flashes fire from her eyes and decides to take on leadership of the free world.

Davis, it should be said, rises admirably to the role. Those skeptical of her ability to project subtlety and stature may be pleasantly surprised at how well she conveys both.

Still, who knew that when a woman finally reached for the presidential brass ring, the prime motivator would be a menopause joke?

The confrontation reveals several other key weaknesses in "Commander in Chief."

The series' creators have made Mac a nonpartisan independent, which in American politics is even deadlier to high ambition than being a woman. Mac's vice presidency is explained in a flashback that shows the president recruiting her as a ticket-balancing running mate because his approval rating is low, but the practical problem of having no party support is omitted.

Still, it does help us understand why the president's team, including his chief of staff (Harry Lennix), doesn't want her; she didn't sign on to endorse his policies.

Unfortunately, what's left out of the equation are Mac's beliefs. She's defined by not being a cretin like Templeton, yet her principles hinge on a single subplot: In Mac's first act as president, she threatens Nigeria with an invasive military mission to rescue a young woman condemned to die because she had sex outside marriage.

It's not clear exactly how this would have distinguished Mac from her predecessor. Republicans never invaded a country in the name of human rights?

And despite the show's progressive aura, it has some oddly insular moments, like that line about Islamic states' objecting to a female leader. Many have high-ranking women in their governments: for instance, Pakistan, Indonesia, Jordan, Brunei, Iran, Uzbekistan, Guinea and Somaliland.

"Commander in Chief" has one more rose to throw to female viewers. Mac's vice-presidential chief of staff happens to be her husband (Kyle Secor), and he's none too happy about being relegated to First Husband.

His adjustment provides the only light moments in the pilot episode. The kids — two teenagers and a younger girl named Amy — are not quite integrated into the script, though we're given to anticipate some friction between Mac and her older daughter, who's a conservative.

"Commander in Chief" is well-produced, and Davis has appeal. But the show feels less like an enticing, uplifting fantasy than one put together by a marketing study. That's the closest it gets to real politics.

Pop schlock

Also on at 9 tomorrow is "Sex, Love & Secrets" on UPN. It's meant to be a 21st-century "Melrose Place" — let the tradition be carried forth — but something has gone terribly wrong with its Hot/Not compass.

The series tries to do for the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake what "The O.C" has done for Orange County, which is to populate it with young, attractive and relationship-tormented people and let the desperate pursuit of trendiness do the rest.

Alas, it has none of the self-aware wit of "The O.C." or over-the-top fun of "Melrose Place." Denise Richards, reprising the Heather Locklear role, is game but lame. The rest of the cast is strung together from recognizable stereotypes (are goatees still in style?) that reek of a Madison Avenue advertising campaign.

NOTE: Thanks to the "Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership" (www.guide2womenleaders.com) for keeping us abreast of who's running what in the world.

kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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