By Jeff Jensen
September 10, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

(The WB) 9-10 PM Premieres Sept. 12

My fellow Americans, we have finally found a candidate you can believe in. He’s inspired. Filled with bold ideas. Truly a man of his time. Sure, he’s got some skeletons in the closet, such as the father he doesn’t like to talk about and the piece-of-work mother with a weakness for weed. But he’s a good guy — spent a year or two in a seminary, actually — and besides, even the most moral of presidents have a Billy Carter in the family. His name is McCallister, and there’s an Oval Office in his future. . .

Two teensy problems. One: He’s still in high school. Two: He doesn’t exist. He’s a character on The WB’s ‘Jack & Bobby, a new family drama from Everwood exec producers Greg Berlanti and Mickey Liddell and Emmy-winning producer-director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) about a Missouri teen destined to become president. . . in the year 2041. Which character — that is, Jack or Bobby — we are bound by Fall TV Preview disclosure laws not to reveal. He might be 16-year-old Jack (newcomer Matt Long), a bright but underachieving jock, or he might be his younger brother Bobby, a 13-year-old science nerd (Logan Lerman, the young Ashton Kutcher in The Butterfly Effect). Both are sons of single mom Grace (Chicago Hope Emmy winner Christine Lahti), a history professor with high-minded ideals and much-too-high expectations of her boys. The secret will be declassified in the first episode, courtesy of a device that will appear throughout the series: flash-forwards to a future documentary in which talking heads discuss President McCallister’s life. So until the premiere, Berlanti wants to remain as intriguingly vague as a politico on the stump. ”Now I know what M. Night Shyamalan feels like,” he quips.

Jack & Bobby arrives after kicking around Hollywood’s development hell like a bill stuck in congressional committee. It originated with two writers: author Brad Meltzer and Steve Cohen, neither of whom had any TV experience. They had the title and the track-a-future-president’s-evolution concept. . . and little else. The scribes pitched their neat idea to Schlamme since he was into politics and TV and stuff. He was interested, but after two years of tinkering, Schlamme still thought the project wasn’t ready for prime time. ”It was a great idea, but didn’t feel realized,” he says.

Undaunted, Warner Bros. Television head Peter Roth encouraged Schlamme to bring the project to Berlanti, believing the Everwood creator’s skill for mixing family drama and contemporary issues would unlock Jack & Bobby‘s potential. Roth was right. Berlanti’s remedies were few yet significant, including switching which brother became president. ”Having worked on family shows for years, you tend to tell the same moments again and again,” says the Dawson’s Creek vet. ”But this had a high concept that puts a new spin on all the familiar beats. They all take on new meanings when you imagine that 40 years later, he’s ruling the free world.”

To help govern Jack & Bobby, Berlanti brought aboard a running mate: Vanessa Taylor, an Everwood scribe who wrote season 1’s controversial abortion episode. Berlanti and Taylor immersed themselves in presidential history and, of course, boned up on Kennedy arcana. Jack & Bobby is steeped in Camelot allusions, from its evocation of political idealism to an undercurrent of fatalism: The first episode reveals one character’s untimely death.

Still, no one will confuse the boys playing the titular characters with the Jack and Bobby of legend. A precocious kid who looks more Bobby Brady than Bobby Kennedy, the 12-year-old Lerman is regarded by producers as something of a child prodigy. The kids at summer camp thought so too. ”They had no idea I had been cast in this series, and they voted me ‘Most Likely to Rule the World,”’ he says with a grin. (Not that we’re giving anything away.) In a span of weeks last spring, Long, a mild-mannered Kentucky native with a passing resemblance to a young Tom Cruise, went from wannabe actor in New York to shooting the pilot in Austin. His first day: a verbal throwdown with Lahti, in which Jack calls out Grace for her suspect parenting skills — and gets hit upside the head. ”Here I am, not even in SAG yet, getting slapped around by Christine Lahti,” says Long. ”I think maybe they had me do that scene first to see if I could hang with her — so they could get me out of there quick if I couldn’t.”

Lahti actually almost missed her chance to join the Jack & Bobby ticket. Married to Schlamme since 1983, Lahti and her husband have worked together occasionally (he directed episodes of Chicago Hope) but in general prefer to keep their home life separate from their Hollywood lives. Hence, Schlamme never suggested his wife for the role. Lahti ultimately owes her job to another actor (whom the producers won’t name) who, during his unsuccessful audition for the role of college president Peter Benedict, offered the unsolicited observation that Lahti would be great for Grace. Turns out Berlanti, Taylor, and Schlamme had been thinking the same thing, but kept silent for fear of awkwardness. Ironically, when Lahti was finally approached, her reaction was What took you so long? ”I had read the script, not looking for a role,” she says. ”When I finished, I thought, ‘Why am I not being considered?!”’

Though the creative minds behind Jack & Bobby are unabashedly liberal, their goal is to be fair and balanced with the Big Issues, like religious tolerance and race. ”The ambition here is to explore issues in a very complex way,” says Lahti, whose own character is perhaps the show’s best example of its evenhandedness. Brilliant and self-righteous, Grace is also fragile, insensitive, and hypocritical. She also smokes a lot of pot. ”She’s got a problem,” Lahti says ominously. Moreover, look for Grace’s boss, Benedict (Sex and the City‘s John Slattery), to give voice to the conservative set. ”I’m a Republican. The first time [my character] said it, I couldn’t get the word out,” says Slattery, who obviously isn’t a Bush man. ”But I want to be the conduit for the best argument the conservatives have to offer. If the show is too left-leaning, it misses out on being as rich as possible.”

Not to mention missing out on a wide demographic sweep. That hasn’t always been part of The WB’s youth agenda — until now. ”Our audience has been with us for 10 years, so the median age is creeping up,” says David Janollari, The WB’s new president of entertainment. Of course, the show has a few teen-friendly elements: Jack has a hunky best friend (Edwin Hodge) and a love-hate thing with Benedict’s daughter (Jessica Paré), both of whom will have roles in the McCallister White House. (Not that we’re giving anything away.)

Jack & Bobby also has a nobler ambition than expanding The WB’s viewer base: affecting the current body politic. ”This is The WB,” says Taylor, ”so we have a real opportunity to reach teenagers when they’re about to become politically active. If we can get the message across, ‘You enjoy the privileges of a democracy — get involved,’ that would be phenomenal.” Here’s hoping that’s a campaign promise Jack & Bobby can keep.