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Election Return

A decade and a half later, Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s award-winning political mini-series Tanner ’88 out–West Wings The West Wing.

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Washington postscript: Michael Murphy and Robert Altman taping a "Fireside Chat," to be added to a rerun of Tanner '88.  

Whether what you think you need is a nostalgia trip or a revenge fantasy or a refresher course in campaign hanky-panky and the vampire media, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend the next three months than watching reruns of Tanner ’88 (Tuesday, February 3, 9 to 10 p.m.; Tuesdays thereafter through April 13, 9 to 9:30 p.m.; Sundance). This is the HBO series in which director Robert Altman and scriptwriter Garry Trudeau ran Michael Murphy for president in the party primaries of 1988, alongside the cameo likes of Bruce Babbitt, Bob Dole, Al Gore, Gary Hart, and Pat Robertson, from the slush of New Hampshire to the bluegrass of Nashville to poolside Hollywood to mosh-pit Atlanta, with a handheld camera, on a retro platform of social justice.

Each of these eleven episodes will be introduced by a brand-new two-minute “Fireside Chat,” allowing Murphy’s Jack Tanner to look back bemused from his comfort zone as a college professor at Michigan State, while his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon), all grown up to be a film producer who got married in the middle of a Guatemalan civil war, is no less excitable than she was at age 19, and campaign manager T. J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed) seems no less insouciant, although she is no longer chain-smoking and may very well wonder how come Kathy Bates got that choice part in the movie version of Primary Colors. These chats actually raise a question they don’t answer. How come Jack never married his First Mistress, Joanna (Wendy Crewson)? We are left instead with the last frame of the last close-up of the last episode, looking with Altman’s camera into Jack’s eyes and nostrils: He really wanted to win; losing tastes like aspirin.

There are many such grace notes: Picking up where he left off in Nashville, Altman plays a kind of grad-school peekaboo. Even as an overlapping soundtrack muddies meanings while insinuating secrets, he’ll shoot a scene in which the only images we see are reflected in the sunglasses of Secret Service agents telling stories on themselves around a motel swimming pool. Or, as we listen to an angry pre-Eminem rap about urban decay in Detroit, what Altman’s camera looks at is the danse macabre of automation, machines jerking themselves off on the floor of an assembly plant. Likewise, when the press bus is stranded in the middle of the humid night miles from the campaign, these bigfoot journalists might as well have lost their songlines in the outback; except for Kevin J. O’Connor, they are practically reptilian.

Combine this wicked eye with a Trudeau screenplay that appreciates the difference between a principle and a focus group; that references Darwin, the Beatles, Watergate, and Michael Kinsley; that can move with assurance from Jimmy Carter to Daniel Boorstin to Waylon Jennings to nuclear waste; that, after eight years of Reagan, actually still cares about civil rights, the inner city, lost children, the environment, and apartheid; that can deliver a deep joke involving airplane barf bags and the movie La Bamba without waiting for a laugh; and that can make us care about a hero so diffident that on his own birthday, he needs to ask his daughter, “How old am I, anyway?”—and you’ve got everything The West Wing used to be and K Street never was.

I should say I have a personal history with Tanner ’88. I admired it here, where I fell in love with the then-blonde Cynthia Nixon. That fall, I happened to be in Cannes when it won the prize for best television series at the Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels. You can imagine the enthusiasm of the Europeans, especially the French. If they missed Trudeau’s inside digs at Phyllis Schlafly and Tipper Gore, they were wild about Altman’s surreal mix-and-match. Jesse Jackson! Linda Ellerbee! Gloria Steinem! Studs Terkel! Any confusion of art and life—of, say, E. G. Marshall and Ralph Nader—was bound to be profound. And I got to hang with Altman and the cast. After which I did a piece on Cannes for CBS that got me invited to a Tanner ’88 Election Night party at Elaine’s where, drowning in Pamela Reed’s gray eyes, I beseeched her opinion on the early returns . . . before suddenly remembering that Reed was an actor. Trudeau had written her lines. If only he had written mine! So I left early for Alphabet City and the Ritz, where Hunter S. Thompson would show up only two hours late, waving a rifle and wearing a rubber Richard Nixon mask. Even then, all the signs said that the sixties were over, that wild Borks waited to eat us in the great American Bush.


Dogs and More Dogs (February 3; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13) encourages John Lithgow to mosey from a wolf-research facility in Indiana to the Westminster Dog Show in Madison Square Garden all the way back to the Stone Age, when wolves apparently decided to domesticate themselves.

Oliver Beene (February 4; 9:30 to 10 p.m.; Fox) previews its return to the Fox schedule next Sunday night with a sibling rivalry between Oliver and his brother Ted over a hot Swedish exchange student named Elke. We are also promised Beat poetry and cool jazz.

Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks (February 8; 7 to 7:45 p.m.; HBO), nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category, makes sure we know that Parks was not an accidental heroine; she was trained for her role in the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott. Smart interviews, archival footage, and reenactments.

The Legend of the Blue Puppy (February 8; 8 to 8:30 p.m.; Nickelodeon) is a prime-time Blue’s Clues in which the animated Blue turns into a live-action puppet who can talk directly to preschoolers, after which—Interactivity!

Diamonds (February 8; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13) sends Stockard Channing 100 miles beneath the surface of the earth thousands of millions of years ago, where and when many tons of carbon rock were turned by heat and pressure into precious stones, after which we will visit those who dig them up, cut, polish, auction, and trade them, and use them for everything from wedding rings to pressure sensors on hypersonic aircraft.

The Forsyte Saga, Series II (February 8, 15, and 22; 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) moves on from Soames and Irene to their equally pigheaded children, his daughter, Fleur (Emma Griffiths Malin), and her son, Jon (Lee Williams), who, not knowing the family secret, fall in Roaring Twenties love.


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