The fall of ''Commander in Chief''
On the evening of April 30, at the Ivar, a hip Hollywood club, Geena Davis stood before a crowd at the Commander in Chief wrap party and delivered a State of the Series address. She thanked the cast and crew and then began chanting ”Four more years!” A few days later, ABC yanked her show off the air.
What transpired between Sept. 27, when the drama about the first female president premiered, and May 3, when it effectively got a death sentence, was a shocking chain of events that led to one of the more spectacular flameouts in recent memory. Though ABC says the remaining episodes will air in June, there’s little chance it will return for a second season, much less four more.
Of course, eight months ago the situation looked very different. The stakes were high for the drama, which featured a ”movie guy” creator in Rod Lurie (The Contender) and a pair of film stars in Davis and Donald Sutherland. But when the ratings rolled in, the creative team, ABC president Steve McPherson, and Touchstone president Mark Pedowitz all had reason to celebrate. With 16.4 million viewers the first week and nearly 17 million the next, their show looked like ABC’s fourth megahit in just two years.
But the lofty ratings masked behind-the-scenes woes. By early October, production problems and late scripts had snakebitten Lurie’s tenure, causing significant delays. The creator wouldn’t comment for this story, but in January he told EW that ”I was stretched a little bit everywhere. On my next show I’ll do things differently.” Pedowitz, who’d struck a development deal earlier in the year with legendary producer Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), asked him to take over for Lurie and get the show back on track.
When Lurie left in October, he retained an exec-producer credit and stayed in contact with his stars. Shockingly, however, Lurie and Bochco never met until the Golden Globes in January, when Davis claimed a best actress award. ”I said when I took over, ‘I have no intention of doing violence to your show,”’ Bochco told EW this winter.
Whatever his intentions, the megaproducer began a significant overhaul, replacing most of Lurie’s writing staff with his own. He didn’t understand why First Husband Rod (Kyle Secor) was ”emasculated” and transformed him from a wimp into the president’s confidant. He ditched developing story lines about an HIV-positive assistant and a scandalous tape involving the president’s daughter and introduced two new characters, the president’s spunky mother (Polly Bergen) and a crass politico (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). Initially, things looked good: Bochco’s Thanksgiving-themed episode scored 13 million-plus viewers, reversing a downward trend that had plagued the show since week 2. Even Davis seemed content. ”If you change the team, it’s going to be dramatic,” she said just after New Year’s. ”This was the most painless version.”
The situation wouldn’t stay that way. Bochco had originally wanted to shut down production to plan with his staff before taking over, but ABC asked him to squeeze out two episodes for November sweeps. So he took the break in December — leaving the show off the air for six weeks, an eternity for a new network drama — and planned a triumphant return with a two-parter in January, about a submarine in North Korean waters. But out of sight proved out of mind for audiences, and the sub twofer kicked off a disastrous run of viewer-hemorrhaging episodes. That’s when the network pulled the plug again, this time for over two months.