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FALL TV PREVIEW

The making of a president, circa 2040

The Wb's 'Jack & Bobby,' A Tale Of Nascent Greatness, Is A Crash Course In Politics And Current Events. But Will Anyone Enroll?

September 05, 2004|Jonathan Taylor | Times Staff Writer

Running for president of the United States and launching a network television show have more in common than you might imagine.

Both start with a core group of believers, but the efforts end up demanding an army of workers. Both rely on advertising, but ultimate success depends on the appeal of the message. Both have do-or-die moments this fall.

And in both arenas, conventional wisdom is that it's dangerous to mess with conventional wisdom. (Just ask Howard Dean.) But the people behind the WB's "Jack & Bobby" are pushing the family drama in decidedly untraditional directions.

Premiering next Sunday, the series focuses on Jack McCallister, a natural leader and high school sports star, his less-assured younger brother, Bobby, and their brilliant but flawed mother, Grace. To that point, it resembles many family dramas, not the least being the WB's own "Everwood."

But one of these boys is going to be elected president in 2040 -- and not just any commander in chief, but a heroic leader with touches of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The other will die young (which is revealed at the end of the first episode). Themes explored around the McCallister dinner table read like a course outline for a current events class: racism, sexuality, religious intolerance, the Patriot Act. It's not a simple sell as prime-time TV entertainment.

"Jack & Bobby" has big stylistic ambitions as well. Intercut throughout each episode are documentary-like interviews with President McCallister's friends, advisors, adversaries and wife. These comments from the year 2049 illuminate how seemingly innocuous moments in the brothers' lives add up to what drives the future president.

That touch of otherworldliness fused with real-world politics sets "Jack & Bobby" apart from the simpler teen-soap antics of "The O.C." or "One Tree Hill" -- or most of what's on network TV.

"The question now is: How do you create scripted shows that are more provocative, more honest, more in-your-face? I don't think too many people get thrown off television for being too provocative," says executive producer Thomas Schlamme, whose work on "The West Wing" and "Sports Night" won him an armful of Emmys. "You get thrown off of television for not being provocative enough."

Co-creator and lead writer-producer Greg Berlanti has a term for the show's genre, suggested by a dean from his alma mater, Northwestern University, after a recent visit to the set. "It's like political science fiction."

Sci-fi has always been a tricky proposition on TV -- shows with Klingons or Agent Mulder aside -- and politics as a core theme has really only worked with "The West Wing." Issues-oriented shows? Young viewers seem to endorse the oldest saying in Hollywood: If you want to send a message, call Western Union.

A VEHICLE FOR CHANGE?

"Jack & Bobby" may be a risky prospect, but the mood is light as the show's producers, writers and cast gather around a large conference table in mid-August for the first read-through of the fourth episode.

The feeling in this featureless room attached to a soundstage in Hollywood is that they're working on the kind of show that can turn around the WB's lagging fortunes, and that can breathe new life into the beleaguered scripted-drama genre.

It's still early, of course, too soon for harsh reviews or discouraging ratings to have dampened spirits. The network is clearly behind the show too. DVDs of the first episode were inserted into last week's Entertainment Weekly. The network did some guerrilla marketing at the Republican convention, distributing buttons that read "Bush in 2004, McCallister in 2040."

Berlanti, boyish, energetic and possessing a boisterous laugh, sits halfway down the long table. He got his start on "Dawson's Creek," then created and executive produces "Everwood," and now oversees this show as well. Only midway through shooting the third episode of "Jack & Bobby," the cast and crew are somewhat unfamiliar with one another, so Berlanti plays host, introducing everyone -- particularly to some of the writers who typically don't turn up on the set, choosing to work instead at the show's main offices in Burbank.

At one end of the table sits Schlamme, who's still getting used to being on the sideline, unlike at "The West Wing," where he oversaw every detail the first four seasons. Because not all of the guest actors are in on this reading, and because he looks the part, Schlamme reads the role of a rabbi who briefly mentors one of the McCallister boys. Schlamme plays the rabbinic sage for the producers, writers and cast as well, who hope they'll have the kind of heat for this show that he had with "The West Wing" and even "Sports Night."

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