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Commander in Chief on DVD: Part 1 Part 2

"Commander in Chief" Part 1 DVD Review

Buy Commander in Chief: The Complete Series - Part 1 (2-Disc Inaugural Edition) from Amazon.com Commander in Chief: Part 1 (2005-06)
Show & DVD Details

Creator: Rod Lurie / Directors: Rod Lurie, Vincent Misiano, Daniel Minahan, Daniel Attias, Jeremy Podeswa, Chris Long, Jesse Bochco

Regular Cast: Geena Davis (Mackenzie Allen), Donald Sutherland (Nathan Templeton), Kyle Secor (Rod Calloway), Harry Lennix (Jim Gardner), Ever Carradine (Kelly Ludlow), Matt Lanter (Horace Calloway), Caitlin Wachs (Rebecca Calloway), Jasmine Anthony (Amy Calloway)

Recurring Characters: Anthony Azizi (Vince Taylor), Natasha Henstridge (Jayne Murray), Peter Coyote (Warren Keaton), Samantha Eggar (Sara Templeton), Kristen Shaw (Norah Woodruff), Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Dickie McDonald), Polly Bergen (Kate Allen), Hira Ambrosino (Laura), Pamela Dunlap (Gilda Rockwell), Matt Barr (Mike Fleming), Julie Ann Emery (Agent Joan Greer), Jenna Gavigan (Jenny), Leslie Hope (Melanie Blackston), Jason Wiles (Alex Williams), Ted Porter (Agent Elderson), Will Lyman (President Bridges), David Wells (Usher Waverly), Hunter Allan (Tommy Bridges), Al Brown (General Pollack), Alex Fernandez (Anthony Prado)

Notable Guest Stars: Ato Essandoh (Manute Obama), Bruce Boxleitner (Tucker Baynes), Edward Edwards (Hale Richardson), Kim Robillard (Principal Stokes), Mike Binder (Evan Hutchins), Jamie McShane (Captain Andrew Dugan)

Running Time: 427 Minutes (10 episodes) / Rating: TV-PG
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: June 27, 2006
Part 1 Airdates: September 27, 2005 - January 10, 2006
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s); Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Standard-Width Black Keep Case with Side Snaps

By Albert Gutierrez

When "The West Wing" premiered in the fall of 1999, it was an instant ratings and critical hit. The show went on to win numerous Emmys and Golden Globes in the following years. But no show stays golden forever, and shortly before its creator left, the series took a dip in both ratings and quality. Coupled with a new, less reliable timeslot, it limped on
for a few more seasons. A few weak shots in the arm and shake-ups in the cast revitalizited the series, but it was too little too late. After seven seasons, President Bartlet's term came to a close.

But this isn't about "The West Wing." Rather, it's about a slightly similar series which went through the same production pattern...in the span of only one season. Readers of Ultimate Disney, I present..."Commander in Chief".

It seemed only apropos that as one presidential series was winding down, another would begin and ABC knew there'd be an audience for the critical darling. Its star power alone seemed to seal the deal, with Oscar winners Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland headlining the series as President Mackenzie Allen and Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton, respectively. ABC itself was riding high from the huge success of "Desperate Housewives", "Lost", and "Grey's Anatomy." "Commander in Chief" seemed poised to be the next in a string of successes. Alas, backstage problems plagued the series, and what could have been the fourth unparalleled hit in two years for the previously-struggling network became one of the season's biggest disappointments. I use the term "disappointment" very lightly, though, because "Commander in Chief" never truly faltered in quality, despite having three separate showrunners within its single season -- creator Rod Lurie, TV veteran Steven Bochco, and Dee Johnson. Instead, the show became one of those "could've, would've, should've" in the TV world. It could've been the next big hit for ABC. It would've been a long-running show. It should've been handled better by the powers that be.

The original opening title logo for "Commander in Chief." Geena Davis plays Mackenzie "Mac" Allen, the first female President of the United States. In the background, Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland) looks on.

There was an abrupt but somewhat smooth transition between Lurie's vision of "Commander in Chief" and Bochco's. While Bochco (known for creating "L.A. Law", "Doogie Howser, M.D.", and "NYPD Blue", among others) set out to put his stamp on the show, he tried not to betray the work Lurie put into the characters. There were quite a few changes made, to both characters and story, most notably in the First Gentleman, Rob Calloway. Instead of being just a husband-turned-wife of the family, he was expanded to receive an actual White House position, and become more of an advisor than confidante to Mac. A few sacrifices were made, though, and one that prominently stands out is the sudden drop of Vince Taylor's HIV storyline, which barely lasted within one episode, and was simply a passing reference in the next. Natasha Henstridge's recurring role as Jayne Murray, Templeton's chief of staff, was somewhat diminished as well. Perhaps those two were sacrificed to make way for the Bochco-created characters Kate Allen and Dickie McDonald, who I'll get to later.

There's a venerable wealth of talent in the main and supporting players, though of course not every part is cast to perfection. Both Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland are golden in their roles, but some of Mac's family isn't as fortunate. Kyle Secor as husband Rob Calloway is somewhat bland in the role, either because he's bad at it or because he's wishing they didn't write out Jake Kane from "Veronica Mars." Likewise, the expectedly moody teenage daughter, Rebecca Calloway, is wasted in Caitlin Wachs. The character is unnecessary, predictable, and, with Wachs in the role, garners little to no sympathy in whatever trivial problems she may have. The little they do with Horace (Matt Lanter) and Amy (Jasmine Anthony) leaves me with nothing to complain about, though their roles are so small that they could be disposed of and you wouldn't miss them.

Madam President walks with her man Rod (Kyle Secor), who journeys from emasculated househusband to confident confidante. Donald Sutherland's crusty Speaker of the House is somewhat of a foe for President Mac.

On the bright side, you've got a pair of wonderful supporting characters with Harry Lennix (The Matrix) as Jim Gardner, Mac's chief of staff, and Ever Carradine ("Once and Again") as Kelly Ludlow, her speechwriter-turned-press-secretary. The two are merely supporting players, not nearly as developed as the First Family, but they give their roles an air of importance. They're far more interesting than, say, presidential twins Horace and Rebecca and it makes this viewer wish they had more to do besides being Mac's yes-men. Sure, Jim occasionally butts heads with the president, but beyond that, neither he nor Kelly are given any chance for personal growth in their roles.
Joining the show late in the game (well, near the end of Part 1, as divided-for-DVD) and under Bochco's helm, were Polly Bergen and Mark-Paul Gosselaar, as Kate Allen and Dickie McDonald. Kate, as Mac's mom, is Mac's new confidante, while Dickie is a political consultant/lobbyist/ campaign guy. I still never quite understood his role in the show, but come on, you can't go wrong with Zack Morris.

Dee Johnson's "Commander in Chief" isn't covered here, as though with the show from its start, she only helmed Episodes 13-18. This two-disc set covers Episodes 1-10, where we get to see the series find its footing. And perhaps in an ironic twist, episode 10 ("Sub Enchanted Evening"), ends on a cliffhanger, perhaps to prompt the consumer to purchase the Part 2 DVD set this September. To watch the Lurie episodes (1-7) next to the Bochco ones (8-10; 11-12 to come in Part 2), there is a definite difference in style and substance. Lurie's show was a blend of family drama and political intrigue. It was a genuinely good show, though perhaps too slow for my taste. Bochco, with an array of cop shows under his belt, delivers a more tense feel to the show. The action and pacing is heightened, more in dialogue than anything else. It packs more punch to it, and viewers are given a more in-depth look at the professional and personal life of Mackenzie Allen.

With the president on his deathbed, Mac must make a decision in the Pilot episode. Mac dresses up to schmooze with Russia's President in "First Dance." The First Family shares a couch.

DISC 1

1. Pilot (43:46) (Originally aired September 27, 2005)
President Teddy Bridges suffers a stroke and now Vice President Mackenzie Allen is faced with a terrible dilemma: should she resign so Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton can be sworn in...or should she become the President of the United States?

2. First Choice (43:11) (Originally aired October 4, 2005)
Mac begins her tenure as President, with her first major decisions including a selection of her Vice President (which Templeton tries to turn in his favor), and which should be her first executive order: a space program which would honor President Bridges, or an educational program which she had been pushing for as Vice President.

3. First Strike (42:42) (Originally aired October 11, 2005)
After the death of nine DEA agents, Mac must prove her worth as a woman in the office and deal with the corrupt leader of another country. Templeton continues to thwart Warren Keaton from the VP candidacy, and finds help in a congressman with damaging information.

4. First Dance (42:07) (Originally aired October 18, 2005)
The first meeting between Mac and the Russian President is overshadowed by another of Templeton's machinations, this time to set in motion a series of resignations from the cabinet.

5. First...Do No Harm (40:54) (Originally aired October 25, 2005)
In the wake of a terrorist incident on the Canadian border, Mac and the Attorney General butt heads over what to do, giving Templeton more reason to publicly criticize her leadership abilities.

From First Husband to Commissioner of Major League Baseball? Rod ponders his future on the field of Oriole Park. Warren Keaton (Peter Coyote of "E.T."), candidate for the vice presidency, endures confirmation hearings in "First Scandal." Forget the principal -- Zack Morris is now being called into the office of an even higher authority!

DISC 2

6. First Disaster (41:32) (Originally aired November 1, 2005)
A devastating hurricane sends Mac and Templeton to Florida (his home state) to survey the damage and raise the morale of the locals, only to find an even larger problem with a downed oil tanker. Rod is offered a job outside the White House, as Commissioner of Baseball.

7. First Scandal (42:57) (Originally aired November 8, 2005)
A tell-all book entitled Stolen Presidency is brought to Mac's attention before its release, thus having her staff burn the midnight oil finding every inaccuracy in order to discredit the author. Mac's priorities lie elsewhere, as the confirmation hearings for her VP candidate, Warren Keaton, begin. This is the last of Lurie's seven episodes for "Commander in Chief."

8. Rubie Dubidoux and the Brown Bound Express (42:38) (Originally aired November 15, 2005)
Mac is given a damaging videotape that could destroy Templeton, all the while consulting with the West Wing and giving her husband an official position at the White House. This is the first of the five Bochco episodes of the series.

9. The Mom Who Came To Dinner (42:48) (Originally aired November 29, 2005)
Thanksgiving in the White House is overlooked as Mac tries to balance hometown problems, Supreme Court problems, her mother, and a new guy joining her team.

10. Sub Enchanted Evening (43:07) (Originally aired January 10, 2006)
A US submarine is critically damaged and down in North Korean waters, prompting Mac to ask the Chinese government to help rescue the crew. Also, Mac makes the decision to run for re-election.

Ever Carradine and Mark-Paul Gosselaar hold recurring roles as press secretary and campaign advisor, respectively. Presidential twins Rebecca (Caitlin Wachs) and Horace (Matt Lanter) get used to increased attention in a dramatic drive to high school.

VIDEO and AUDIO

"Commander in Chief" is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The quality is as clear and sharp as you'd expect it to be, with colors very vibrant and present. I wasn't surprised by its crispness, though I was a bit disappointed in its polished presentation. I'm not saying I'd prefer a lesser quality in the video, it's just that sometimes you want a show to look lived in, so to speak. It's such a stark and clean picture that there's little warmth to it.

I'm puzzled, though, as to why it is being touted as "Family Friendly Widescreen" on the back. The show itself is a wonderful family drama with a political context, but Disney normally uses that branding to suggest the "black bars" won't be a strain on the eyes for its younger viewers (such as the option to watch Brother Bear in the "family friendly" 1.66:1). I cannot picture Mom, Dad, and 2.5 children (under the age of 12) sitting down to watch this series.

Audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. I had the opportunity to play an episode on a home theatre system, and while surround sound is a welcome way to listen to the show, it perhaps is unnecessary. The show focuses more on dialogue than splashy action sequences (which would benefit better from 5.1). Still, it's pretty even on all speakers, be it on 5.1 or on normal stereo.

Disc 1's Main Menu. For Disc 2's Main Menu, change the "1" to a "2" and that's it. Disc 1's basic Episode Selection menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The original fact sheet for the set (back when it was a four-disc set) touted some bonus features, including interviews, outtakes, deleted scenes, and commentaries. I'm guessing, then, that they all would have been on Disc Four (now Disc Two of Part 2), since this two-disc set
is devoid of any other features besides the episodes themselves. I would have expected commentaries on a couple episodes, especially the Pilot, but we get nothing. And amazingly, there are no previews on either disc. While I'm not always a big fan of the sneak peeks Disney puts on discs, this would have been a perfect chance for them to promote Part 2's DVD release, or even relevant concurrent releases.

Episodes run a shade above 40 minutes each, and five are presented on each disc. There are nine chapter stops for each episode (with a recap preceding episodes 2-10), though there is only an episode selection option from the menu. No airdates are mentioned anywhere on the disc. The first episode was simply titled "Pilot", while the next six were "First...". Starting with episode 8, the "First..." titles stopped, which could be expected, as Bochco had taken over.

The 16x9 enhanced menus are static with political-sounding music playing in the background. Identical on each disc, 4x3 playback lops off three of the five faces featured on the Main Menu, which simply offers "Play All", "Episode Selection", and "Set Up". Within the Episode Selection menu, you get five choices, static again, but no background music. Set Up gives your basic Audio Options and Subtitle Options. A very bare disc set indeed.

The two discs are packaged in a dual amaray keep case, with the swinging page for the first disc. There are sidesnaps, which I don't like to remove, though they are that extra chore you have to do whenever you open the set. Inside is a two-sided insert, one side simply listing the episodes on each disc and the other promoting Part 2's DVD release in the fall (with slightly different cover art than what other sites have posted).

Halloween candy gives way to pressing presidential matters. Donald Sutherland doesn't like what he sees: his promising show has been cancelled and now needlessly split into two DVD sets!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I had high hopes for "Commander in Chief" when it premiered last fall. It was poised for greatness in television history, not just because it was about a female president, but because it was a smartly written show that had universal appeal. If not for the meddling from ABC and the production problems, we could have seen Mac in action for five or six more years. The barebones DVD set we get here does not do the series justice, especially since the bonus materials were saved for Part 2. While I highly recommend the series for someone to watch, I can't recommend buying the DVD just yet; Part 2 is now locked in for September 5, so I'd wait until then and pick up both at the same time. Sure, the two-month hiatus makes Part 1's cliffhanger even more exciting, but the series should have been presented on DVD as a whole, not sliced in half. The splitting of the series and the absence of bonus features merits only three stars for the DVD, despite the show being five-star quality.

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Commander in Chief on DVD: Part 1 Part 2

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Reviewed July 26, 2006.

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