The Really, Really Long Road To The White House

A little ditty about Jack and Bobby: Two American kids growing up in the heartland

Nothing offsets election malaise quite like a robust, optimistic political drama with the Thomas Schlamme imprimatur. Schlamme's latest offering has a few things in common with The West Wing, namely self- important theme music and a cast padded with respected character actors. (Fun gossip niblet: In addition to his work on The West Wing, Schlamme also directed So I Married an Axe Murderer and is allegedly a member of the "I Hate Mike Myers Club" West Coast chapter.)

In the case of Jack and Bobby, however, graying temples and filibusters take a backseat to youthful potency and Proactiv solution: Jack and Bobby are pretty teenage boys, and we learn up front that one of them is destined to be president. It's up to us to guess whether Jack (yummy!) or Bobby (pensive!) will assume office in 2037. A series of flash-forwards drop clues as to which boy is POTUS material. The show uses this clever what-if premise to pose a tough question: What nascent qualities suggest greatness later in life? (Answer: perfect cheekbones. See: Lowe, Rob.)

Jack McCallister (Matt Long) and his younger sib Bobby (Logan Lerman) seem ordinary enough. (They don't even have freaky Kennedy teeth, despite their cutely referential monikers.) Jack is a chiseled, nonthreatening jock who manages to attract both a tousled blond tramp (Keri Lynn Pratt) and a studious ice queen (Jessica Pare) in a romantic conundrum not seen since Dawson's Creek and...oh, lots of other shows. Little brother Bobby is an offbeat genius who can spout facts about the space program like most kids recite Hoobastank lyrics. (Bobby may be presented as the smarter of the two brothers, but we're supposed to sense a frisson of brilliance beneath Jack's facade of mediocrity.)

Jack and Bobby's respective teen crises are astoundingly dull fare. Bobby buckles under peer pressure when confronted by the hoodlums in his accelerated science course; Jack throws a party while his mother is away at a retreat; Bobby's new teacher is "a tool." Despite their occasional forays onto the Naughty List, both young boys are so overwhelmingly decent that we can't imagine either one holding the highest office in the land.

Also, the dialogue between the teen characters is painfully stiff; I haven't heard teen banter this unrealistic since that chick on Degrassi freaked out on Ecstasy. "Am I interrupting something?" Tramp coos as she approaches Jack and Ice Queen during a cram session. "Just chemistry," Jack replies.

Fact is, Jack and Bobby isn't really about the titular characters. Rather, the show seems to be a valentine to Christine Lahti, who plays the boys' mother, a strident, ball-busting professor. (The fact that Lahti is married to Thomas Schlamme in real life should come as no surprise.) They should have called the show Jack and Bobby's Badasssss Mom!, because Lahti chews scenery like Britney chews Skoal. As I watched Prof. McCallister humble a stammering grad student with a vicious verbal beatdown, I actually stood up, brushed the stems and seeds off the front of my shirt, and applauded. This is wish- fulfillment TV for those of us who secretly want to be earth-tone-wearing, politically enlightened, thesis-grading harridans.

A subplot about plagiarism at the college trumped anything relating to Jack and what's-his-name in terms of dramatic potential, and Lahti's shameless hamming infuses the show with much needed brio. I smell Emmy! Oh, wait, that's just a Croissant Pocket burning. Never mind.

Certainly a program with such an ambitious (and dubious) premise has to follow through with a vengeance. It remains to be seen whether Jack and Bobby can transcend an awkward setup and seduce the American people into a second season. My main issue with Jack and Bobby is the fact that the hotly anticipated plot twist is 30 years away. Thirty years! How do the producers plan to keep the show fresh? How will a little show about political aspirations compete for ratings in the 2015 sweeps season with holographic porn and Frances Bean Unplugged?

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