Last week’s television Upfronts, where the five major broadcast networks unveiled their lineups for 2009-10, were short on surprises, although it could be worth noting that the CW will continue down the path to revived 90’s soaps, adding Melrose Place to a menu that already included 90210. Or we could make fun of NBC’s attempt to take late-night to primetime, serving Jay Leno five predictably dull hours per week. However, the Upfronts were even shorter on predicted new hits. If you cut the spin of the presentations and press releases, there were, as far as I can tell, not a single show that was expected to break out. Of course, CBS’ NCIS spin-off is unlikely to fail, and Fox comedy Glee garnered some positive buzz, but other than that, analysts and media journos held their predictions.
Which brings me to the real reason I’m writing about this. We could take our time being concerned about how a decline in real-time viewership (which means DVR technologies are excluded from the ratings), could eventually result in fewer good shows, because the profit margins of the television industry have gone down. Today, demographic scores seems to have taken on even greater importance, if only because there are no juggernauts anymore (except for, basically, American Idol, CSI, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Dancing With The Stars). This then, suggest that a modestly popular show like Fringe should be considered a hit, because of its standing with 18-49s. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that if this current trend continues, and those aforementioned juggernauts continue to slide, we could end up with nothing in between. This is the backdrop for why people are tamping down expectations. Several shows will underperform anyway, and it becomes harder for every year to create a new hit show.
Or, I could let my mind wander back to May 2004, when television writers were trying to handicap that year’s Upfronts. Consensus seemed to form on singling out three shows as pretty safe bets for ratings- and critical acclaim come fall; ABC’s Lost, UPN’s Kenny Hill and the WB’s Jack & Bobby. Desperate Housewives was in the mix too, but according to Medialife magazine the female-driven soapy comedy had cooled a little when presented at the Upfronts. And here’s the point: We should not necessarily bemoan the lack of clear predictions about the 2009-10 slate, because high expectations tend to make it harder for a show to succeed. They get blamed for all the viewers they don’t draw, instead for being recognized for their actual viewership. Kenny Hill and Jack & Bobby, good shows both, thus failed not because their ratings were particularly poor compared to other UPN or WB shows, but because the bar had been set all too high.
To this day, I’m convinced that the WB (today’s CW was founded when UPN and the WB merged in 2005) was not the ideal platform on which to launch Jack & Bobby. Sure, it had its share of smart teen angst – far more, actually, than I remembered from watching it the first time around – but it was still basically a drama about what makes people go into politics. Formed as part 2004 coming-of-age story, and part 2048 documentary retrospective on the McCallister presidency, the show offered generous opportunities for semi-Freudian takes on how our backgrounds and environment shape our political beliefs, or for dissertations on the interconnectedness of destiny, determination and chance. The most surprising thing of all, however, was that it worked just as well as a political drama and as a drama about the dynamics of families and teenagers. Still, with that premise, it would probably have been better served by airing on the notoriously older-skewing, and more importantly, more patient, CBS. The schizophrenia, being a teen drama about politics, never lay in the show itself, but in how it clashed with the overall profile of the WB’s other programming.
I suppose what made me love Jack & Bobby (apart from its premise, a superb cast, and for introducing me to the by-now very handsome Logan Lerman), was how it dared to be optimistic to the verge of sentimentalism. In a way, taken together with the struggling liberal idealism of The West Wing‘s Jed Bartlett, Jack & Bobby could now be read as an early indication of the philosophical turnaround culminating in the election of Barack Obama. Sure, J&B‘s less-than-hagiographic portrayal of liberal academic/activist/feminist Grace, the highly imperfect matriarch of the McCallister family, would seem to make the show’s ideological leanings somewhat blurred. On the other hand, one could argue that Grace, a pot-smoking, at times self-absorbed history professor so intent on passing her values of independence, skepticism toward authorities and support of liberal orthodoxy onto her children that she’s often ended up standing in their way, was merely meant to provide Bobby with an interesting background on which to understand his moral compass. Whichever it was, the presidential retrospective portrayed Bobby as an unrepentant idealist, one who may have struggled with balancing what’s right with what’s politically possible, but you never doubt his intentions. If that makes this story of a Republican-turned-Independent president seem left-leaning, that probably has to do with how the post-Nixonian (with the possible exception of the first president Bush, the last influential (which excludes Ford) moderate Republican president) the GOP seems to have labeled idealism as equal parts ideological rigidity (cough, Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s first terms, cough) and just plain weakness. In 2004, the best moderate-to-liberal candidates in American politics were fictional. In 2008, Barack Obama was the real deal.
Apart from its unambiguous embrace of the hope that there exists some fundamental decency to the presidency, the most striking thing about the political perspective of Jack & Bobby was how it tried write to a new historical narrative. By looking back at our century from the middle of it, the writers used several contemporary hot-button issues to imagine how the U.S. might change in the future, both domestically and internationally. Here, again, cynics would probably balk at how much of that history(-making) is attributed directly to the words and actions of president McCallister, thus pushing a slightly hagiographic personal narrative, but in this particular context, that criticism is not very interesting. When someone has the nerve to dream up a whole (quite reasonable) new global world order, you do best just shut up and give it some thought .
We now turn to the teen drama angle. When it wasn’t busy looking for a governing philosophy in the everyday challenges a young Bobby faced, Jack & Bobby simultaneously managed to say something relevant both about the white lies and self-delusion that are sometimes a painful necessity in keeping a family together (I couldn’t illustrate this point without spoiling a major plotline in the first eight or so episodes), and about how teenagers interact with each other. Thus, Bobby playing chess with the university president, or how he instantly connects with girls much older than himself, could be interpreted both as a setup for showing how exceptionally intelligent, curious and mature he is, even from a young age, or simply as an example of geekiness. It’s interesting either way.
It was in observing competing expectations and social roles like these Jack & Bobby was at its very best. My favorite, and one that meant a lot to me as a not-yet-aware gay man, was the episode Lost Boys. in which Jack has to come to terms with the suicide of a gay friend, Matt, who had a crush on him. Jack is ridden with guilt, and the way he struggles to balance his personal insecurities with the attitude expected of a sports jock is actually almost as painfully poignant as Matt’s emotional desperation. That choice, to tell the story from both a gay and a straight viewpoint at the same time, gave an already serious storyline some added depth. I remember I was deeply moved by it, but I couldn’t quite figure what it had to do with me. I would love to watch it again.
No matter which angle you preferred, Jack & Bobby had enough nuance, charm and ambition for everyone. Being a nostalgic by nature, it might not be so bad after all that the show was cancelled after only one season. Its premise was never allowed to feel strained or clunky, and it still left enough room to imagine alternative outcomes. Even if have to honor the memory of Jack & Bobby by word of mouth alone, I’ll happily sign up. While I’m out doing that, I believe U.S. readers can access streamed episodes through the WB website.