All in the Family


In an era that has made a catchphrase of the term “family values,” it’s no surprise that a few new TV hits capitalize shamelessly on the theme of kinship. ABC’s schmaltzy woman-president drama Commander in Chief may have practically nothing in common with Fox’s thriller Prison Break, or UPN’s hilarious sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, but all three shows give new meaning to the maxim that home is where the heart is.

In the case of Commander in Chief, the home is the most famous address in the country: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That locale begins to percolate with cutesy conflicts accompanying the political ascendancy of Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis)-a politician who could make good money moonlighting as a model for Maybelline lip gloss. Most of the show’s dilemmas revolve around the dual role of Mac (her nickname) as both president and mother. Will the family hang together when the teenage daughter’s missing diary becomes fodder for the Secret Service? Can America stand strong when its chief executive has to hiss to her six-year-old daughter, during a national security crisis, “Amy! Mommy’s on the phone!”

Commander in Chief also addresses the more general challenge a career woman faces in a culture still swayed by chauvinism. Weighing in as villain in this regard is the bleary-eyed Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), whose devious plotting against Mac reeks of misogynist spleen. Trouble also seems to be looming from an ostensibly friendly male quarter: the role of supportive presidential spouse-traditionally held by a woman-is a bad fit for Mac’s husband Rod (Kyle Secor), who would clearly prefer a more prestigious, active job.

Unfortunately, the ho-hum writing and ponderous attitude of Commander in Chief blunt the edge of its social commentary. Where is the witty repartee that spiced up NBC’s The West Wing, a far more entertaining riff on the workings of the executive branch? Why are the characters in Commander in Chief so schematic and drippy, by comparison? Oh, to see Mac’s wimpy press secretary Kelly Ludlow (Ever Carradine) take on West Wing’s C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney) in a fist fight-or a game of Scrabble! The creators of the ABC drama evidently believed that their work was over once they had imagined a female president and supplied her with some kids-no energy has been expended on personality or nuance for the resultant scenario. The concept of family has become a kind of creative crutch.

Blood relationships figure almost as awkwardly in Prison Break, Fox’s adrenaline-pumping tale of a planned escape from a penitentiary. The minds that conceived this gritty yarn must have assumed that the more farfetched the plot, the higher the ratings (they may have been right). Thus we have a hero, a brilliant structural engineer named Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), who manages to get himself incarcerated in a jail that he himself helped design-and does so without anyone in authority observing that he has the architectural blueprints for the building tattooed across his body. Oh, and the fact that he’s the brother of high-profile death-row inmate Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), scheduled for imminent execution. That detail has also escaped the notice of the entire criminal-justice system.

The family theme helps prop up Prison Break’s preposterous narrative in other ways. A lovely prison doctor (Sarah Wayne Callies) just happens to be the daughter of the governor, a circumstance that ratchets up the tension when a prison riot jeopardizes her safety. Lincoln Burrows’s alleged crime is the assassination of not the vice president, but the brother of the vice president, and in the spiraling aftermath of that murder, Burrows’s teenage son finds himself fleeing for his life. These blood relationships intensify the mood of melodrama, vaguely recalling the kind of fortuitous family bonds (illegitimate children; long-lost siblings) that turn up in a Victorian novel to advance the plot. Making the melodramatic atmosphere of Prison Break all the more noticeable is the show’s art direction; the brooding, blue-tinged shots give the sinister prison, with its spidering pipes and passageways, the air of a rambling edifice out of Dickens.

It’s a Bleak House indeed, a warren seething with nasty goings-on. Inmates mutilate each other on a regular basis. Threats reverberate through the cells and in the gloomy yard, with its chain-link fence. One episode even includes the murder of a cat. In this brutal environment, family loyalty doesn’t offer much comfort. The impulse that drives Michael to attempt a sensationalistic rescue of his brother seems like a grim biological drive, not far removed from the survival-of-the-fittest ethos that rules the prison itself. As one convict observed dourly to Michael in a recent episode, “Darwin wins inside these walls. Not Einstein. Darwin.”

After the stilted storytelling of Commander in Chief and the grim vision of Prison Break, it’s a relief to contemplate a new series that is actually entertaining, and that also happens to paint a sweet picture of family life. Based on the experiences of edgy comedian Chris Rock, UPN’s side-splitting Everybody Hates Chris depicts the hard-knocks childhood of a smart African-American boy growing up in Brooklyn in 1982. Thirteen-year-old Chris (Tyler James Williams) has a grueling daily commute across the city to a public school where he’s relentlessly bullied, and where he happens to be the only minority student. Back at home, he struggles to please his loving, authoritarian mother (Tichina Arnold), who rules the household-including her meek husband (Terry Crews)-with an iron fist.

Everybody Hates Chris skims zestfully through the small ordeals and triumphs of its quirky characters, but what really makes the show delectable is Rock’s voiceover, jazzily woven through the scenes and brimming with irreverence. This wisecracking narration revels in the absurdity of particular people and society at large-and racial stereotypes come in for an extra helping of mockery. In one early episode, the klutzy Chris, newly enrolled in his lily-white school, has to disillusion teachers and students who assume that, since he’s African-American, he’s good at basketball. Another storyline, focusing on the workaholic tendencies of Chris’s dad, skewers clichés about deadbeat African-American men.

Paradoxically, the ironic distance only makes the portrait of family life more endearing. These parents may explode at one another periodically, and young Chris inevitably gets the short end of the stick, but you can always sense the affection there. As the voiceover sassily intones at one point, with relevance to families everywhere, “My parents taught me love is never having to say, ‘Kiss my ass!’”

Published in the 2005-12-02 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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