NEW YORK — Geena Davis, leader of the free world? It’s a tantalizing prospect.
But now that Vice President Mackenzie Allen is ABC’s “Commander in Chief,” Davis can expect a world of challenges. And not just because “Mac” is the first woman president, but also because she is a registered Independent.
With Washington polarized by party labels and partisanship, what problems lie ahead for a leader with allegiance to nothing but doing the right thing?
“It made perfect sense to me that I would play this part,” says Davis. “I have always been interested in roles that are gonna be challenging for me — but also, characters that other women can identify with.”
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Gorgeous and (at 6 feet tall) legendarily rangy, the 48-year-old Davis can point to a career playing exceptional women in such films as “A League of Their Own,” “Beetlejuice” and, of course, “Thelma & Louise.” She won her best-supporting-actress Oscar as a kookie dog trainer in “The Accidental Tourist.”
Now she’s an accidental president (the sitting officeholder unexpectedly died) who must juggle affairs of state with family obligations that include three kids. Who must help her husband and former chief of staff (Kyle Secor) navigate his new job as the first-ever “First Man.” And who must defend herself against a town of enemies — notably the vengeful Speaker of the House (Donald Sutherland), who seethes at her refusal to step aside, which would have cleared his own path to the White House.
Viewers vote for Davis
In early polling, the Allen Administration has logged high approval ratings: The premiere of “Commander in Chief” (airing 9 p.m. ET Tuesdays) was watched by more than 16 million people, winning its hour.
But before that, Davis was receiving the kind of concerned scrutiny a real-life President Allen might undergo. Is she too glamorous, too tall, too strong, too weak? What does “presidential” mean when applied to a woman? Could be, Davis’ portrayal is being analyzed in ways no other role would subject her to.
“People want you to satisfy every possible dream or expectation they would have for a woman president,” reasons Davis, who adds, “We still live at a time when a female president is controversial — even though it seems so bizarre that we’ve made it to the 21st century excluding half of the potential talent pool.”
Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings This isn’t Davis’ first TV series. She has starred in a pair of sitcom flops, the most recent — “The Geena Davis Show” in 2000-01 — playing a glamorous career gal who weds a reporter with kids.
“I had a great time,” she says, fondly recalling her sitcom’s relaxed workload, which, compared to an hour drama’s production grind, “is like night and day.
“But it’s not like I didn’t know this show was called ‘Commander in Chief,”’ she laughs. “I haven’t really got any excuse if I want to complain about the hours.
“And it’s so worth it. I want to play Mac as a smart and capable person you can count on,” she says with a grand sweep of her arm. “Somebody with a lot of confidence in herself, in her intellect and ability, and a sort of quiet authority.
“Mac can figure out what she thinks about stuff, and act decisively, and I like that about her.”
In time, President Allen might distinguish herself in yet another way: As a serious archer. Muses Davis (who in 2000 tried out for the U.S. Olympic archery team), “Maybe she will shoot arrows on the White House lawn.”
It might come to that, considering the range of opposition Mac seems fated to attract.
“As an Independent, she has no party backing,” Davis says. “Her being the first Independent president trumps the fact that she’s a woman. It causes even more upheaval in Washington than her being female.”
Meanwhile, beyond Mackenzie Allen’s fictitious presidency there’s another phantom chief executive in office. Jeb Bartlet, the Democratic incumbent played by Martin Sheen on NBC’s “The West Wing,” is closing out his second term as the race to succeed him shifts into high gear: the Republican hopeful, Senator Vinick (Alan Alda), is battling Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits).
Is all this too much government for viewers?
“Look at the number of cop shows and lawyer shows and forensics shows,” Davis argues. “I think there could be room for two quite different examinations of the same political office.”
She quotes “Commander in Chief” creator Rod Lurie, who says his series “is not nonpartisan, it’s anti-partisan.” That’s what really sets it apart.
Explains Davis, “To behave with the idea of pleasing your party always in the back of your mind is limiting. But President Allen isn’t forced to adhere to a party platform.
“It’s a fantasy that we could have a president who could actually make choices based on what’s right, rather than having to weigh the political fallout. But that’s sort of what we’re showing.” Davis smiles like a shoo-in. “And you can dream.”
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