In the first of four episodes of Tanner on Tanner (Tuesdays, starting October 5; 9 to 9:30 P.M.; Sundance), the sequel to the political mockumentary Tanner ’88, we spend too much time eating dinner and shooting breezes at Elaine’s. At one table, Jack Tanner (a graying Michael Murphy), the fictional ex-congressman and presidential candidate turned college professor, seems to agree with everything the actual Mario Cuomo has to say about George W., the deficit, and Iraq. At another table, Jack’s daughter, Alex (a blonded Cynthia Nixon), is so psyched to meet Martin Scorsese that she practically pees. (“I’m a filmmaker, too!” she cries.) In between, in perpetual motion like tumbleweeds or sharks, such vagabonds as Carl Bernstein, Dina Merrill, and Elaine herself are also seen if not quite heard—because, of course, Tanner on Tanner is a Robert Altman production, which means that Garry Trudeau’s dialogue doesn’t so much overlap as it tidal-waves. Rather than ambient sound, cognitive dissonance.
In my opinion, Elaine’s is part of the problem. Having found a place where everybody can be relied on to be almost as famous as everybody else, the trained seals of the syndicated pundit class, the talking soreheads of the cable blabbercasts, the indentured servants of the smelly glossies, the handicappers, jackalheads, hierophants, and flacks who write screen treatments of our “political process”—all those professional insiders addicted to what Joan Didion calls “the rapture of the feed”—are emboldened by each other to believe that they are the story, not Abu Ghraib, Medicare, Halliburton, stem cells, or assault weapons; not homophobia, corporate greed, reproductive rights, or economic inequality; not lousy schools, exploding prisons, Asian sweatshops, African famine, or ecocide.
“Even if it’s little more than a witty send-up of self-important documentaries, Tanner is worth it for Cynthia Nixon’s Alex alone.”
Fortunately, by the end of its first half-hour, Tanner on Tanner has decided to agree with me. A rough cut of the documentary Alex is making about her father’s failed 1988 campaign gets a frosty reception at a downtown indie-film festival. A member of the audience, Robert Redford (!), even suggests that there’s been too much handheld docudramatizing of apparatchiks. A battered Alex can either quit now and go buy a pair of Kenneth Cole shoes, or, with a new line of Dis-cover Card credit and the cameo encouragement of Al Sharpton and Harry Belafonte, start over again at the Democratic convention. So we’re off by bus to Boston—where one of Alex’s crew will be arrested for his Arabic racial profile while another reads One Hundred Years of Solitude—for jokes about Michael Moore and eggplant, Pamela Reed redux, and a Log Cabin Republican at Fox News.
Even if it ends up being little more than a witty send-up of self-important documentaries—as it were, A Mighty Wind—Tanner on Tanner is worth it for Cynthia Nixon’s Alex alone. A 19-year-old Barnard undergraduate in 1988, a 35-year-old documentarian and teacher of film in 2004 (with her very own student stalker), she is still a daddy’s girl who seems closer to a nervous breakdown than a Sundance-festival prize. While she’s pouring out her heart in the motel dark to the reader of García Márquez, you hold your breath and she takes it away.
From Altman and Trudeau we might have hoped for more than send-up. From Alexandra Pelosi, we don’t even get that. If Pelosi’s documentary Journeys With George was a loopy look at the co-dependency of a presidential campaign, as if Sandra Bullock drove the press bus, Diary of a Political Tourist (Monday, October 11; 8 to 9:30 P.M.; HBO) is too desperate for attention, like Joan Rivers at the Oscars, and too pushy on the perk pedal. Even though her mother is the House minority whip, Pelosi doesn’t have the easy access to the candidates in the 2004 primaries that she had to frat-boy George four years ago. In fact, her idea of R&R this time around is to fly back to Washington for a White House Christmas party where Karl Rove hugs her. Her film is all about the minutiae: So John Edwards drinks Diet Coke, Dick Gephardt eats humble pie, Joe Lieberman sings “My Way,” Martin Sheen likes Howard Dean, John Kerry “doesn’t give good plane,” and all of them eat deep-fried Twinkies at an Iowa picnic. If Pelosi ever asked a substantive question, it must not have been on-camera. But she seems not in the least interested in substantive answers. What she really seems to want out of this airheaded exercise is a place at the table at Elaine’s, and the same hug from the heavy hitters in the Democratic Party as she gets at faith-based White House barbecues. Four weeks before the election, she leaves us dumber than we were before.