"Commander In Chief" may live on in a telefilm at some point, but for all intents and purposes, it died on Tuesday with the announcement of ABC's fall schedule. Surely the demise of a show that had amazingly high ratings for several weeks and was gone within several months is odd and newsworthy, but I can't help but feel baffled by the way the pundits are blathering about it.
I can't believe that I'm the only one this happened to and yet it hasn't been mentioned in any article I've read on the subject: "Commander In Chief" premiered just before FOX was on the verge of its annual playoff baseball hiatus. That meant that "House," the most competitive show in that time period, particularly among the exact group of intelligent young-ish viewers ABC would have needed for "Commander," spent around a month off the air. With playoff baseball done on the West Coast by early evening, I was able to tune in for the first three or four episodes of "Commander in Chief." If "House" had been on, I'd never have considered skipping it for "Commander" and when "House" returned, I dropped "Commander" like Nixon dropped Agnew. The show was OK, but it was never smart enough or compelling enough to make me give up on "House," but for a couple weeks, I'd been willing to give it a shot instead. I believe if you look at the dramatic ratings fall for "Commander," it coincides directly with the increased and renewed competition. But even if "House" had moved to Mondays in January, as was initially planned, I still wouldn't have gone back to "Commander," because I'd have gone to "Earl" and "The Office," which were still in the Tuesday 9 p.m. time slot at that point. Viewers who wanted "smart" had too many choices at that time and "Commander" just wasn't "smart" enough.
Instead, all the buzzmeisters want to talk about is ABC canning Rod Lurie and bringing in Steven Bochco. This is a rhetorical question, because I don't imagine that many people read this blog who aren't at least vaguely media savvy, but seriously... How many casual viewers out there -- and if 17 million people watched the second episode of "Commander in Chief," some of them must have been casual -- would actually be able to sit down with you and explain the differences between the Lurie episodes and the Bochco episodes? How many of them would even be able to tell you that they knew a change had occured or noticed a shift in paradigm?
Everybody talks about how a good showrunner brings a "voice" to a series and then we become smart enough to recognize an Aaron Sorkin show or a Joss Whedon show or a Mutchnick/Kohan comedy simply by the speed of the dialogue, the funny made-up language or the cheesy punchlines. For most of us, the difference between John Wells-era "The West Wing" and Aaron Sorkin-era "The West Wing" was like the difference between "According to Jim" and "Arrested Development." But for a ton of viewers, I suspect that the difference is perceived as something closer to the gap between, say, "Original Flavor CSI" and "CSI: Miami." For people who didn't read the trades and who don't pay attention to opening credits, I'll bet there was a lot of, "'The West Wing' doesn't seem so funny anymore" style commentary. But the ratings for "The West Wing" were already in freefall when Sorkin was booted and they just continued down afterwards. Most people left because they'd tired of the show and its quality and not because they felt a change in authorship and were annoyed by the difference.
This is just my way of saying this: ABC could have been more patient with Rod Lurie and not taken "Commander in Chief" out of his hands and I don't believe for a second that the ratings would have been any different except that the extended hiatuses prompted by different creative turnovers wouldn't have existed. Viewers were turning away because they show never lived up to its potential and because they had better options.
I just wanted to get that out.