The Little Picture: Hail ‘American Candidate’

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When I heard that FX was going to stage a competition in which viewers would select a candidate for the presidency-as in president of the United States-my first thought was: What has “American Idol” wrought? Visions flashed before me of Simon Cowell rolling his eyes and telling an idealistic young contestant that was the worst deficit-reduction plan he has ever heard.
But then I learned that the project was the brainchild of R.J. Cutler, the documentary filmmaker who worked on “The War Room,” D.A. Pennebaker’s terrific account of the 1992 presidential campaign, and made his own election movie, “A Perfect Candidate,” about Oliver North’s run for the U.S. Senate in ’94. Mr. Cutler also conceived and produced “American High,” to date one of the most ambitious documentary projects to air on commercial TV (albeit briefly, on Fox; PBS later aired the whole series).
I was intrigued. Yet I found it hard to imagine Mr. Cutler helming a star search show. Or how exactly he sold FX-home to prime-time’s hottest unreality show, “The Shield”-on the concept. But when I told that to FX President Peter Liguori, he shot back, “Why are we attracted to `The Shield’? Because it presents a distinctive voice in a quality fashion. Here we expect to do the same thing.” With “The American Candidate,” Mr. Liguori said, “We will hopefully enervate an audience to again recognize the democratic system that we have and spark a debate on the issues. That’s exactly what `The Shield’ does. It sparks debate.”
Americans willing to be president
You’re darned right it does-mostly debate over whether “The Shield” should be on basic cable. Which brings us back to the filmmaker and his idea for finding, if not a perfect candidate, then at least a few thousand Americans willing to try acting like one. There’s a scene toward the end of Mr. Cutler’s film in which Mr. North’s campaign manager, Mark Goodin, has clearly had it with all the sound bites and counterspin and mudslinging. Campaigns, he wearily concludes, “provide daily entertainment. What [they] are not providing is serious solutions to what’s going on in the country. Not us … not Clinton … not anybody. …” And then he looks at the camera: “Not you.”
“That’s my favorite moment in the film,” Mr. Cutler tells me. We’re sitting in his office in a decidedly unglamorous section of Culver City, Calif. “I agree with his lament. I really did feel that there was widespread malaise in the 2000 election. You knew there was a difference (between the candidates), but still, it felt so hard to care because it was like the choices were preordained. And at that point it was no longer about inspirational leadership. That’s why there was disengagement.”
“American Candidate” will try to rekindle its viewers’ faith in democracy through an alternate reality in which the old American myth comes true and literally anyone can run for president-provided they’re native-born and have moved out of the 18 to 34 demographic by inauguration day.
Mr. Cutler, who credits FX entertainment chief Kevin Reilly with the idea for “American Candidate,” prefers to call his show a “simulation.” The winner will not be an actual candidate, though as he notes, “If the winner of our show decides to run for president, he or she will be in a unique position to do so.”
Already hundreds of people have e-mailed his office, unsolicited, wanting to be included in the race. Mr. Cutler pulls a three-ring binder two inches thick and begins reading applications at random. Most of them are touchingly decent.
“`My family is half-Catholic, half-Jewish, so it never occurred to me to be intolerant. … My father and grandparents emigrated to the U.S. after the failed democratic uprising in Hungary. … I’d like to be president.”’
“`I’m a common man with common thoughts and everyday ideas. Given a chance I could win this thing and do some good for everyday people in the process.”’
Mr. Cutler flips more pages. “Disabled Vietnam veterans. People who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. One of these is from a member of the Professional Golfers Association who wants to be president so he can prove to the world that America can have a president who can play golf.”
Not exactly people looking for local TV gigs after the reality show finishes shooting.
The “American Candidate” Web site is scheduled to launch in May. The simulation will begin there, as the projected 10,000 applicants build bases of supporters, debate their opponents online and generally try to stand out in the crowd.
Then there will be four “regional leadership conferences” in which the producers will get to see and hear the hopefuls. These aren’t mere casting calls. Mr. Cutler is adamant that his team create the broadest spectrum of candidates in the nation’s history, one that is diverse ethnically, sexually, religiously and, above all, ideologically.
Compelling drama
He calls it his “political compass”-a matrix with two dozen or more points on it, so that a candidate is free to stand only for what she or he believes in. One of the biggest turnoffs for voters, Mr. Cutler believes, is being forced to choose between candidates who stand for “ossified elements of the Democratic Party or ossified elements of the Republican Party.”
These 100 semifinalists will be presented to a blue-ribbon panel “from politics, business, the clergy, education, community activism, all these areas,” and from those will be picked the 18 candidates on episode one of the show, scheduled to begin in early 2004.
Besides “American Candidate,” Mr. Cutler and his staff of 150 are developing a college version of “American High” for Showtime, a show-behind-the-show for Roseanne and other projects. But clearly there’s something special about this one.
“I’m doing this show because it’s a great platform for compelling, engaging drama. I’m just enormously fascinated by the political process-what drives people and the vision that people have for this country. That’s kind of the magic of the American experiment.”