A Change of Command

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

At the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London’s Hyde Park last week, Queen Elizabeth II was among the guests at a party to celebrate the 80th birthday of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The “Iron Lady,” as Mrs. Thatcher was known, arrived late for her party, delayed by a congratulatory call from President Bush.

The first woman to serve as leader of a Western superpower in modern times came to mind recently because one of the few genuine hits this fall is ABC/Touchstone’s drama “Commander in Chief.” Starring in the title role is Geena Davis, who looks nothing like Mrs. Thatcher-or for that matter the late Golda Meir, who was prime minister of Israel, or even Angela Merkel, recently chosen as the first woman to serve as chancellor of Germany.

Ms. Davis, who plays President Mackenzie Allen, is 6 feet tall, model thin, movie-star beautiful and always fashionably dressed, as she was in last week’s episode for her first state dinner, wearing a strapless off-the-shoulder designer gown.

When she took office in 1979, the stocky, diminutive Mrs. Thatcher was 54. She was known for her conservative politics and was never seen at a state dinner or elsewhere in a strapless dress.

But this is Hollywood’s version of the first female president. It is a fantasy that apparently has a lot of appeal, regularly winning its Tuesday

9 p.m. time slot and averaging about 16.5 million viewers a week, according to Nielsen media Research. It is the only new show that rates in the top 20 both in total audience and among 18- to 49-year-old viewers. Last week ABC officially exercised its option on “Commander” for an additional nine episodes, which will mean a full 22-episode season.

In a year with few hits and in an industry with a high fatality rate for new shows, this level of success is reason for celebration. In this case, however, the fantasy came to an abrupt end. Earlier this month creator and executive producer Rod Lurie was suddenly replaced. He technically remains an executive producer, but in reality will have no further involvement. The show is now overseen by veteran producer Steven Bochco, who recently moved his company’s base to Touchstone.

Mr. Lurie and Mr. Bochco aren’t talking about what happened, beyond a prepared statement issued earlier this month in which each provided canned quotes praising the other.

Putting the best face possible on the shift, Mr. Lurie gave one of the national newsweeklies a prepared quote that said, “Having Steven Bochco take over your show is like having the Rockefellers adopt your baby.”

Mr. Bochco can certainly understand what Mr. Lurie is going through. In 1985, though his “Hill Street Blues” was acclaimed by critics as a breakthrough for TV, he was fired from the series by the production company over cost issues and in the wake of the failure of another show he created, “Bay City Blues.”

Internet reports about creative differences between Mr. Lurie and the studio on “Commander” appear overblown. While there was the normal flow of notes from the studio and network suits, that wasn’t the main trigger, according to sources.

Officially and unofficially, it was the slow pace of production that had the Mouse House concerned. In the second year of ABC’s ratings resurrection, Disney wanted assurance that there would be new episodes through the November sweeps. Mr. Lurie, according to these sources, was doing so much-writing, producing and directing-that it slowed things down.

Mr. Lurie was not actually replaced as showrunner. He had given up that job in April to Dee Johnson, a former exec producer on “ER” who had been running the writing room. Mr. Bochco will now run the room, but Ms. Johnson has been retained as part of the revamped writing and producing staff.

Mr. Lurie was not left out in the cold. Touchstone gave him what sources describe as a generous two-year deal to develop other TV shows. Mr. Lurie is also expected to revive his feature film writing and directing career, including a long-in-development drama at Paramount called “Resurrecting the Champ,” based on a true story about a Los Angeles Times sportswriter and a homeless man, with Morgan Freeman.

The move is unusual for Mr. Bochco, whose past successes already assure his place in the Television Hall of Fame. This is the first time he has taken over a show that he did not develop. It is a rare case when the show centers on an individual-Madame President-rather than the ensembles that have been his hallmark on such shows as “L.A. Law,” “Murder One” and “NYPD Blue.”

Currently Mr. Bochco has only one show on the air, the Iraq war ensemble drama “Over There” on FX. The series provides insights into the lives of American soldiers in Iraq that viewers will never see on the news. However, after starting off with a wave of publicity and decent ratings, “Over There” has been criticized by some for lacking authentic detail, and ratings have steadily slipped. “Over There” appears unlikely to be renewed.

It is unclear what direction “Commander” will take under Mr. Bochco. It seems unlikely to move in the direction of “The West Wing,” which has much more serious and complex plotting. However, it is hard to see Mr. Bochco putting greater emphasis on the family side, moving the show toward the D.C. version of “The O.C.” What can be predicted is that once the Bochco logo appears beginning with episode seven, the show will reflect his unique style.

Since “Commander” is really a show with a split personality, divided between serious issues and family interaction, Mr. Bochco might well do something similar to what he did on “Hill Street Blues,” where he paired broad humor and intense drama.

Whatever happens, the fantasy that makes for good television will continue even though the real world has intruded behind the scenes.

Happy birthday, Maggie.

Publisher’s Note: Editor Alex Ben Block has left TelevisionWeek to write a book. However, we are fortunate that he has agreed to continue writing his column for us.

Alex joined us at the beginning of 2003, a time of great change, both in the industry and here at this newsweekly. We were deciding to refocus and re-brand the publication from Electronic Media to TelevisionWeek, and Alex was instrumental in that transition. Alex brought with him a knowledge of our industry and a reputation second to none. We thank him for helping get us to where we are, and wish him well with his book project.