Friday, June 07, 2013

Week 3 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

This was a fun one, probably because no one has ever seen or heard of this show before. Maybe it doesn't actually exist and it's just something I hallucinated in a Don Draper fever dream. Or a Don Draper meth high. Or a Don Draper hashish bender. No wait, I have pictures and video, so it must be real! Or maybe the video exists only on a YouTube that I hallucinated in a Don Draper fever dr- yeah, let's move on.

After the break: A shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.

Jack and Bobby, "Pilot"
First aired on The WB Sunday, September 12, 2004

“Could a single image ever be expected to tell their story?” – Victor Sable

While walking through downtown Toronto recently, I came across an interesting photography series whose title and author I really should have tried harder to remember. At first it actually appeared to be a series of advertisements – I believe they were in glass cases that print ads are usually found in – so my reaction was, “Wow, what’s this an ad for? It made me stop and actually walk up to the thing to try and find out, so good job.” The images were very simple – just grey backgrounds with centered, white text on them, reading things like “Wreckage of the World Trade Center.” or “Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas.” These refer to photos so iconic we don’t need to see them – they’re burned into our brain as the defining image of the event. We’re not remembering a photo in our mind of what happened – we’re remembering the photo. And though I was in a hurry to catch a train, I still took some time to think about these photos and the quote above from Victor Sable, a Harvard professor who has a hand in the making of a documentary on the life of the fictional 51st President of the United States on The WB’s short lived “Jack and Bobby”.

Sable notes that the first photograph of a U.S. president was taken of James K. Polk in 1848 and ever since, “each president has had one defining image associated with him or her” (“Jack and Bobby’s” 2004 assumptions that both an African American and a woman will be the head of state sometime before 2040 are on the right track to being accurate). We see a montage of presidency-defining shots – a stoic looking Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman holding up the infamously botched “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, LBJ taking the oath of office on Air Force One – before Sable tells us that “no documentary about President McCallister’s administration could be complete without mention of this photo:

“Taken just before his election in 2040, it tells the story of a fiercely determined man, on the cusp of wresting victory away from the jaws of near-certain defeat.

“Now whether it tells the whole story...” Sable continues, “...well that’s another question altogether, isn’t it?”

The photo tells part of the story, but it reveals very little about the people and events who shaped a young man who would grow up to be the leader of the free world. “Jack and Bobby” asks a lot of questions about greatness, and one of its most interesting is whether people are aware they are destined for it, or if, as Winston Churchill wrote, it is thrust upon us.

In the year 2004, Jack (Matt Long) and Bobby McCallister (Logan Lerman) are growing up in the small, college town of Hart, Missouri. Raised by their single mother Grace (Christine Lahti), an eccentric but popular history professor, 13-year-old Bobby is a geeky social outcast with just one friend. 16-year-old Jack, meanwhile, has done everything he can to not be a social outcast with just one friend, always ready with an excuse as to why there’s no food in the house or why his hippie mom won’t allow them to have a TV. As he later tells Grace, “normal is what you have to be if you don’t want to spend every day of high school getting beat up.”

For Jack, the first day of school consists of goofing off with his best friend Marcus Ride (Edwin Hodge) and trying to strike up a conversation with the new girl at Truman High, Courtney Benedict (Jessica Pare), daughter of the new college president/Grace’s boss Peter (John Slattery) (I’ll interject here that the five people who watched both “Jack and Bobby” and season 4 of “Mad Men” had their minds blown when Joey Baird and Megan Calvet joined the SCDP payroll). For Bobby, the first day of high school goes much less smoothly, with his peers treating him as a trash can as he tries to recruit members for the school’s soon to be formed (by Bobby, of course) space club.

“All the McCallisters had that thing,” says senior counsel to the president Marcus Ride in the year 2049. “Knowing what you want and going after it without any hesitation or equivocation.”

At a bonfire pep rally, Jack and Courtney begin to bond over their mutual lack of a strong parental figure, as Courtney reveals her mother’s suicide. But elsewhere Bobby’s only friendship seemingly comes to an end as a panicked Warren decides to abandon Bobby for the cool, clove-smoking bad boys of eighth grade. And of course, Warren handled the situation the way all 13 year olds do – with punches.

Left friendless, Warren’s worries about five years of being a social pariah finally catch up to Bobby. So Bobby decides to demonstrate that he is just as well versed in making judgment calls as Warren by stealing marijuana out of Grace’s desk drawer and bringing it to school.

And in the year 2049, President McCallister’s political strategist makes first mention of “The Lie”.

I’ve embedded a clip of the episode’s next two scenes below and I’d really encourage you to watch it, because the performances are just phenomenal (Use headphones if you can). If you watch, enjoy the knowledge that the second of the two scenes was the very first thing Matt Long shot as a professional screen actor. If not, I’ll still be summarizing the scenes below.

Adam Chasen came on board the McCallister campaign because he recognized the future President’s “hunger”. As a result, he never could have anticipated that McCallister would potentially self-destruct his chance at election to uphold a lie for the sake of his mother.

Back in the present day, Grace is called out of a class to the high school where she is informed that marijuana has been found in Bobby’s locker. To make matters worse, Bobby confesses that he brought it to school for Jack, and as punishment, Jack is kicked off the track team for the rest of the semester. When Grace begins to berate Jack for not taking better care of his younger brother, he immediately goes on the offensive and blames her for all the problems in their family. “You’re just a lonely, pathetic, middle aged woman, hiding behind your books, and your words, and your freak of a teenage son,” Jack tells her, which is received with a slap in the face from his mother.

And with that, Jack has had all he can take of this life: "One day I'll be gone. And he'll see things for what they are. And hate you for the lies you told."

Grace immediately knows where this is going. She very sternly says, "Jack, don't."

But Jack drops the bombshell. “Go on. Tell him who our father really is.”

As far as Bobby knew, his father was an archaeologist and researcher who was "executed for his political beliefs when he returned to his native Chile". Jack, as unkindly as possible, informs Bobby that their father was actually a busboy from Mexico that Grace met when she was a waitress working at her college student union.

“He’s not dead, he’s just gone. She lied to you all this time, made up this fantasy life with all these weird ideas she wants you to live up to!” Bobby, unprepared for the truth, begins having an asthma attack. With Bobby’s inhaler broken from the fight with Warren, Jack grabs his younger brother and races him to the hospital.

Really, I can’t find something I don’t like about these scenes. The performances are excellent, the writing is honest, and Christine Lahti gets some really entertaining wackiness to play in the scene where she’s dragged to the principal’s office (when “Vincent,” as Grace refers to him, informs her that Bobby confessed, Grace’s response is the brilliantly crazy, “I’m sure he did, given your Gestapo-like tactics!”). Even the score by Blake Neely is so hauntingly laid over Jack’s revelation and the asthma attack. It’s the kind of scene that makes you wonder, why the hell has this show been relegated to the pre-teen audience of The WB? (We’ll get back to that.)

The asthma attack is a wake up call for both Grace and Jack. Grace reluctantly agrees that Bobby needs a better role model, and Jack reluctantly agrees that he needs to be that role model. “It was always ‘Grace and Bobby’ were somewhere else, growing up on your own,” Grace tells Jack in the hospital. “It may be too late, but it needs to be ‘Jack and Bobby’ now.”

The changes begin almost instantly. Grace trades in the synthesizer she convinced Bobby he wanted for his birthday (Grace tells Bobby, "you're more the sax type anyway") to finally get her sons the television they’ve always wanted, but Bobby’s enthusiasm is interrupted when Jack informs him he’s taking him on a run. As Bobby heads off to get his shoes, Grace and Jack share a look – now, instead of reluctance for themselves, they feel sympathy for the other. Jack recognizes that it isn’t easy for her to finally let Bobby fly away, and Grace recognizes that it won’t be easy for Jack to tear down the wall he’s built.

No one who watched the episode would ever say that Jack was a lost cause as a human being, far from it – but for once, Grace and Jack are a united front, knowing that it’s up to them to ensure Bobby will be the best person he can be. When Grace defends her marijuana use as an escape from her stressful job, Jack informs her, "I don't think there can be an escape, for you or for me, anymore. I think we just need to be here, for him. So maybe one day he can escape...for real."

In actuality though, Jack and Bobby will be responsible for making each other great. In the year 2049, Former First Lady Courtney McCallister recalls that “Grace used to say that Jack and Bobby were like two sides of one coin: Without Bobby, Jack might never have learned compassion. Without Jack, Bobby might never have gained strength.”

Does Jack become great? Yes, but his fate is revealed in the show’s final episode. As for Bobby: mission accomplished. On November 6, 2040, Robert “Bobby” McCallister is elected the 51st President of the United States. His two-term presidency goes as smoothly as his first day of high school, with Bobby continuing to uphold Grace’s lies about his father and facing numerous other conflicts over the eight year period. But Bobby makes it out alive.

The same couldn’t be said for “Jack and Bobby” as a series, unfortunately. It was a well-made show and still continued to produce good episodes (their holiday episode “The Lost Boys”, is another well written and well acted installment, if a tad after school special-y), but audience erosion in the first half of the season took its toll on the overall quality. “Jack and Bobby” became more of a teen soap focusing on Jack’s life in high school, and spent far too much time on an arc in which Grace has an affair with her much younger TA (played by a then relatively unknown Bradley Cooper). The future interviews started to simply bookend the episodes with almost identical stories containing the most obvious symbolism. Two episodes contain no interviews at all because there was no room for them in the midst of scandal and teen heartbreak. They finally got their act back together in episode 22 for the series finale, but only because they were fairly certain that it would be just that – a series finale.

Frankly, I would have been much more interested to see where “Jack and Bobby” might have gone had it aired on a different network. Would an older audience have better appreciated the show’s political nature? Could the show have been less obvious? Certainly the future parallels didn’t need to be so on the nose, but part of me wished they'd never even revealed which brother became president. The eleven remaining viewers of “How I Met Your Mother” (twelve if you count me) can tell you that defining your show by a central mystery can be a death sentence, but “Jack and Bobby” could have been a show that operated on interesting ambiguity due to withheld information because it was never about an answer. Like HBO’s “Veep,” the producers and writers could have said upfront that the president will never be revealed, and perhaps also like “Veep,” “Jack and Bobby” could have had some fun, showing us how the brothers gave each other their best qualities. As a result, it would never be a forgone conclusion which of them became commander in chief.

Doing that would have also given viewers a built in topic of conversation about the show: the Internet had already become a water cooler at this time and people could have had a lot of fun exchanging theories about the president's identity and what they might have seen as "obvious things" the show was trying to tell them. Instead, the actual series came right out and told us it would be Bobby and did episodes in which young Bobby is traumatized by killing a deer on a hunting trip and President Bobby is shot with a non-lethal gun to teach him the impact of weapons.

But as its inaugural episode addresses, my strongest memories of this series are powerful, meaningful images that have come to define it for me: Jack carrying his brother to the hospital, or the two brothers going running together for the first time. For me, “Jack and Bobby” is an outstanding pilot with 21 unofficial sequels, but even though that’s not the truth, it’s what the images from the show that last with me tell me is the truth.

As the episode concludes, Victor Sable sets the scene of the night before the 2040 election: the race is still too close to call, and if Bobby will win, it will be by “a negligible margin.”

“People associate this image with the president’s determination, as he steels himself for battle in the crucial hours to come. They say it tells the story of a man who sensed his destiny – and chased it. In truth, he was none of these things,” Sable admits with a smile, as if he can finally, safely reveal a long kept secret.

“McCallister had asthma. Had from boyhood. He was simply pausing, as he often did before a speech, to catch his breath.”

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words – but that doesn’t mean you can’t decide for yourself what the words are, or whether or not they’re true.

Next week: Hands off the skin.