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‘Commander in Chief’ returns for second term

After starting out strong, female-president drama has had many changes
/ Source: The Associated Press

What does a woman president want? The same thing a man holding the office does — a second term.

To that end, "Commander in Chief" is returning from a long absence with six season-ending episodes aimed at reminding viewers what they liked in ABC's drama about the first female president — and building on that record.

The series, starring Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen, saw its ratings slip after an impressive start last fall and suffered a TV version of a cabinet shake-up as first one and then another executive producer stepped down.

Dee Johnson, who was with the drama when it began and now is running it, gave the cast pep talks when she took over about six weeks ago.

"This is a show that should succeed and could succeed and everybody wants it to succeed," she recounted telling them. "And we're going to do everything we can to make that happen."

For her part, Davis said the drama doesn't have anything to prove but can demonstrate that "we know what we're doing. ... It's like we found our groove."

The new episodes "are gonna rock," Davis promised, stumping energetically for her administration. "We put so much heart and soul into them and really making sure every scene is as great as it can be. ... We're all just working so hard."

No one more so, perhaps, than Johnson. Like President Allen, who faces all sorts of court intrigue when the show airs in its new 10 p.m. EDT Thursday time slot, Johnson was under pressure.

First, "Commander in Chief" lost the stewardship of filmmaker Rod Lurie ("The Contender"), who had the audacity to create a show with a female chief executive but difficulty adhering to a fast-paced TV production schedule.

Then veteran producer Steven Bochco ("NYPD Blue") came and went, unable to right the ship of state that had started to founder in the ratings. It dipped from a high of nearly 17 million viewers for its second episode to 10.4 million for its last, Jan. 24.

The "American Idol" juggernaut was partly to blame. As with other shows facing Fox's hit talent contest on its return in January, "Commander in Chief" found itself a Tuesday also-ran.

The ABC drama took a break to make up for production delays and Johnson, who had five years' experience on NBC's medical drama "ER," was promoted to executive producer in charge.

"Part of me said, `Great, let's do it.' The other part was, 'Oh, God,'" Johnson said. "Not only was it daunting in the sense it had gone through these changes, but we were also facing a time crunch and we really had to band together to make this thing happen."

Facing an accelerated schedule ("It was a little bit like make it better, faster, cheaper"), Johnson picked up story lines left over from her predecessors and started to develop her own. She wants to emphasize people as well as politics, she said.

"We're really trying to explore our character and the characters surrounding her as they go through these things, and take a little more time, perhaps, to do that," she said. "The whole point of television is getting to know characters, and that's my goal."

In the return episode, a potential scandal involving first husband Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor) threatens to undermine Allen's State of the Union speech. In the coming weeks, we see her nemesis, Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland) try to derail her presidency.

Templeton is resentful that Allen, a political independent who was serving as vice president when the Republican president's death elevated her — has the job that Templeton believes should have been his.

His scheming grows when a health crisis puts Allen out of commission and he briefly seizes Oval Office power.

"It's a fascinating story to see him get in ... The fox is in the hen house," Davis said.

Her colorful phrasing raises the question of whether the real White House will someday have a woman at the top of the pecking order. It's a query Davis has repeatedly fielded.

"It's like, 'Do you think aliens will land and take over the world?' You have to figure Americans had difficulty picturing this," the actress said. Starring in the first project to handle seriously the idea of a female president is "tremendously meaningful to me," she added.

The portrayal of a strong and effective female leader may carry far beyond television, Johnson suggested.

"Fiction is funny," the producer said. "If you show (something), it becomes possible."

She firmly rejects the theory that "Commander in Chief" is intended as a stalking horse intended to bolster Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton's presumed 2008 presidential bid.

"I think it's an advertisement for a female president," Johnson said. "I don't think it's an advertisement for anybody in particular. I think it's just (about) how exciting an idea it would be to have that happen."