The big news last October: ABC pulled a shocking switcheroo, replacing Rod Lurie with Steven Bochco as show runner for Commander in Chief (Tuesdays at 9 pm/ET), which had debuted to impressive approval ratings, aka Nielsens. The big news today: ABC has announced that Chief will temporarily step down on March 7 to make room for the new comedy Sons & Daughters. Can the acclaimed Geena Davis-as-president drama survive another hiatus and retain the popular vote?
Bochco, for one, believes that "hiatus" need not be a four-letter word, given the right circumstances. But first, a bit of background on Chief's change in "administrations" and an update on where the show stands today.
When Lurie repeatedly almost missed deadlines for turning around the show's first episodes, Bochco, with his years of experience overseeing such shows as NYPD Blue, was brought in to fast-track the production process. Although the veteran producer hesitates to detail the changes he made in the actual on-screen product "[it] invites a critique of the show prior to my arrival, and that's not a comfortable analysis for me to engage in publicly" he does admit there were "some issues that had to be addressed." Ergo, the posthaste introduction of Mark-Paul Gosselaar's spinmeister, "Dickie" McDonald, and Polly Bergen's mother-of-the-president, Kate.
Recalling the transition, Davis says, "[The new team] came in and within five days, we had one of the best scripts that we'd had [so far]. From the beginning, they were knocking it out of the park. That gave us a tremendous feeling of security and comfort." Upon completing enough episodes to air through November sweeps, Bochco says, "We sort of shut the company down for three or four weeks so that, as a writing group, we could take a deep breath and get some new material working."
Acknowledging the difficulty in taking over a series that someone else created, Bochco says he proceeded to finesse a few of the characters that were in place, making tweaks that would enrich what viewers loved about them. Hence, President Mackenzie Allen became a bit less perfect, First Gentleman Rod Calloway a little less passive, Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton a touch more sympathetic, via the introduction of his wife. "The job of president is a horrendously thankless task [where] it's very rare that you get the clean win," Bochco notes. "In an attempt to render some realistic portrayal of that, we try to fashion stories that put the president in a 'Damned if she does, damned if she doesn't' situation.'"
ABC, alas, recently found itself in such a quandary, as Chief's ratings dipped below its initial marks, all the while meriting critical kudos. (Davis grabbed a Golden Globe just weeks ago for her portrayal of the nation's first female president.) That ebb in performance underscored by the fact that those who do tune in tend to skew "older" than ABC would prefer likely played into the aforementioned decision to bench Chief on March 7.
Is the drama being groomed as a lame duck? Or is there hope for a resurgence when it returns in the spring? Recalling the "breather" Chief took during its show-runner transition, Bochco says, "Obviously, it's always difficult when you go down for a while. We used to go down for a month or five weeks on NYPD Blue, and we always had a tough time building our audience back up because people get distracted by other things."
One possible saving grace would be a new time slot upon Chief's return, seeing as how, Bochco points out, "Tuesday at 9 o'clock is a very difficult time slot under the best of circumstances" especially unassisted by the mismatched likes of lead-ins According to Jim and Rodney. "There's not much we can do about stuff like that," says Bochco. Still, pointing to the way that a new season of American Idol helped bolster a little Fox series called House a year ago, he says, "We would obviously hope that something of that nature would happen for us."
In the meantime, and until that March 7 KO, Bochco plans to play on Chief's strengths, "older-skewing" as they may be. "This is a show about the president of the United States, and by definition that is a mature character surrounded by mature characters," he notes. "In the final analysis, the most important thing is to make a compelling drama about real-world stuff that is complex and interesting."
In other words, save for perhaps a forthcoming twist where the First Son gets a girl pregnant (!), Bochco won't kowtow to the kiddies (i.e., adults 18-49). "You have to embrace what this show is. You can't let the tail wag the dog."