Behind the scenes of ''Commander in Chief'': A backstage transfer of power cut short the ABC series' presidential honeymoon -- but can a veteran TV hitmaker help it regain the popular vote?
Credit: Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland Photograph by Justin Stephens

Watching a giddy Geena Davis relax during a time-out on the set of ABC’s Commander in Chief, it’s hard to believe that the statuesque Oscar winner (and the woman behind the most entertaining Golden Globe acceptance speech this year) can ever muster up the gravitas required to lead the free world every week as President Mackenzie Allen. She’s chomping on a big wad of bubble gum and bouncing from side to side like an impatient teenager, her pedicured feet snuggled into fuzzy black slippers as she awaits her cue.

But as soon as it comes, Davis seamlessly morphs into kick-butt mode. She slips into some serious heels, spits out the gum, and heads for Chief‘s war room set, where she fixes her eyes with fierce intensity on a monitor showing footage of the suicide bomber threatening to blow up Air Force One. The terrorist steps off the plane. ”Wait!” Allen orders. ”Don’t shoot.” The entire room hangs on her every syllable. Even the grips on set look tense, as if they really believe the 50-year-old actress holds the country’s future in her hands.

If Davis has mastered her game face, it’s because she’s had plenty of practice since Chief‘s Sept. 27 bow. Like many real-life politicians, Chief — a very unwonky drama about an Independent female vice president (and mother of three) who gets the ultimate promotion when her male Republican boss dies — was groomed to be a winner from the day it was conceived. There was the cast, headed up by two movie stars: Davis and Donald Sutherland, in his first series gig. There was also high-profile creator Rod Lurie, who directed Joan Allen’s Oscar-nominated performance in 2000’s The Contender. When Chief premiered to 16.2 million viewers, it became the highest-rated new Tuesday drama series in five years.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long: Thirteen weeks into Chief‘s production (and just after the second episode aired to 16.9 million viewers), Davis and company found themselves in the midst of a sudden and unexpected transfer of power.

Lurie, a genial journalist-turned-screenwriter, remembers exactly where he was when the phone rang. He was at a restaurant for his son’s birthday dinner on Oct. 6 when his agent called to tell him that Touchstone Television (the studio behind Chief) wanted a meeting the following morning. Aware that the execs were unhappy with missed script deadlines and expensive production delays, Lurie figured he’d no longer be in charge of Chief after the meeting. ”I knew it was coming,” he says. ”I don’t necessarily agree with their decision, but I completely understand it.” Explains Mark Pedowitz, president of Touchstone: ”It needed new leadership so we could get the show to the network [on time]. The show was creatively sound, but deadlines were being almost missed.”

Meanwhile, Steven Bochco — co-creator of hits like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue — was traveling with wife Dayna to Martha’s Vineyard when his cell phone rang. It was Pedowitz from Touchstone, where Bochco had recently signed a new development deal. The exec outlined the plan to replace Lurie, and asked Bochco if he’d do it. The prolific producer had never taken over someone else’s show — and he had some serious concerns. ”You have to make it your baby, yet the DNA isn’t yours,” he says. ”You inherit certain aspects of the show that maybe you would have done differently, and you can’t just eliminate them.” Ultimately, Bochco took the challenge. ”It seemed to be a show that wanted to be a hit in spite of itself,” he explains. ”I thought, If I can take it over, and get it organized, it will be a hit because of itself.”

The first step in the renovation of his newly acquired White House was deciding what worked, which Bochco could count on two fingers. ”Donald and Geena are thoroughbred racehorses,” he says. ”You’ve got to put good jockeys on them, but they’re winners.” Bochco then met with his two stars before informing the rest of the cast. ”I was told in person and, yeah, it was a surprise,” recalls Davis, pausing a long time before articulating her answer. ”It was a strange situation for all of us.” The actress, who had grown particularly close with Lurie, continues, ”The show wasn’t broken. It wasn’t like we needed someone else to come in. But Steven really hit the ground running. He’s such an incredible genius.” Sutherland, 70, who plays Nathan Templeton, the pragmatic Speaker of the House and Allen’s rival, explains the transition like this: ”Steven came [to my trailer], put his arm around me, and that was it.” Bochco, meanwhile, isn’t concerned with his on-set image. ”I don’t care if they like me,” he laughs. ”I don’t think they care whether they like me. Who cares if you’re the nicest person in the world if the job isn’t getting done?”

He wasted no time doing just that: After firing most of the original writing staff, Bochco assembled a new team, hammered out two November scripts in five days, and shut down production for three weeks to figure out how to Bochco-ify the series. In short: fewer save-the-world-every-week stories, more complex political dilemmas. ”The show felt a little too broad. I wanted to create an environment of urgency,” he says. ”I want to show why this job really ages people.”

Commander in Chief
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