Hail to the Chief-tess 

"Commander" outshines creator Rod Lurie's other Richmond-filmed TV drama.

You see, the Republican Bridges picked Allen as his running mate even though she was an independent, because he wanted to pick up the women's vote. What he didn't count on, understandably, was dying a year and a half into his first term.

Before shuffling off to the Oval Office in the sky, Bridges asks Allen to resign so the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), can take over. And Allen's just about to do it, too, when Templeton, whose every entrance is announced with threatening music, makes a callous comment about a Nigerian woman sentenced to die because she committed adultery.

What Templeton, who seethes every line as if the coals of hell were barbecuing his liver, doesn't realize is that he's gone just a little bit too far.

Allen will show him! She'll become president after all, much to the delight of her staff (one of whom delivers the odd line, "It's not my job to smell history" because — oh, never mind), though not to the delight of her husband, Rod Calloway (Kyle Secor). He has to step down as her chief of staff so it doesn't look like he's running things. She even gets sworn in on Templeton's Bible, which for some reason doesn't burn his hands.

Bridges' staff is apoplectic — gee, you'd think Republicans would be a little more understanding about a president taking office under unorthodox circumstances — but most fall in line grudgingly. It's up to the attorney general (Lisa Cohen) to shoot Allen stony stares during cabinet meetings.

What's more, the new first gentleman discovers to his chagrin that (a) his office is pink and (b) he has a Clinton-hater for a secretary. Then there's the business Allen must contend with: the Nigerian woman she must extricate with the help of the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one daughter who's not talking to her and another who's just spilled juice over her blouse seconds before she's due to address a joint session.

What's a gal to do? Talk it out. The action in "Commander in Chief" is almost entirely verbal, a hallmark of creator Rod Lurie's work. We last caught sight of Lurie leaving town when "Line of Fire" — a dreadful yet addictive series set in Richmond — was canceled. In fact, there are so many "Line of Fire" vets in "Chief" that I kept expecting David Paymer to appear with a tray of coffee.

But this series is miles better. Davis glows through her crises, relying on an almost visible reserve of inner strength to get her through what one presumes will be some eventful years ahead. Sutherland growls through his scenes impressively, making lines such as "I'll always be right here behind you" seem not exactly supportive.

"Commander in Chief" is probably as close as big, loud American television —where swelling strings accompany every stirring speech and the audience is always urged to cheer an ass-kicking, verbal or otherwise — can get to a subtle examination of power. And power, as Templeton reminds Allen, is dangerous in the hands of people who don't want it. The show's sexual politics are almost a subtext.

If they get Rob Lowe in the cast, I'm hooked. S


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