Jack & Bobby is the new series that proves there is life beyond Fear Factor and the Donald on Planet Television this fall. Fine acting and eloquent writing make for characters worth caring about - and a rich viewing experience that resonates with big, muscular, American themes about opportunity, integrity and leadership like no series this side of The West Wing.
The WB drama, which makes its debut tomorrow night at 9 on WNUV (Channel 54), tells the story of two teen brothers, one of whom will become president of the United States. The boys (Matt Long and Logan Lerman) live with their mother, Grace McCallister (Christine Lahti), an outspoken college professor, in a small midwestern town. Set mostly in contemporary times, the series regularly flashes forward to 2049 with historians and former colleagues assessing the McCallister presidency as if being interviewed in a documentary.
Lahti, the wife of executive producer Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing), is terrific, imbuing the role with such nuance that Grace McCallister instantly becomes one of the most multi-faceted, compelling and contradictory characters in prime time. While she struggles to be a good parent, she also worries her sons by smoking marijuana. And, despite being popular with her students, she seems to go out of her way to insult and alienate her bosses. Though fictional, she comes across as more believable and real than any reality contestant television offers this fall. She is a ballad to both the sadness and the joy of being a single parent.
The pilot opens in 2049 with a Harvard historian assessing the McCallister presidency (2040-2048). As the talking head begins to analyze a black and white photograph that came to characterize that administration, the screen fills with a succession of memorable black and white images of presidents dating back to Franklin Roosevelt. The clever use of the documentary technique by director David Nutter lends an instant sense of authenticity to the drama co-created by former Pikesville resident Steve Cohen.
From that black and white opening, the series cuts to the color image of a teenage boy running down the leafy main street of a small town that is identified at the bottom of the screen as Hart, Mo. This is the mythic heartland from which our leaders come.
The boy is Jack McCallister (Long), the athletic and popular older brother of the geekier Bobby (Lerman). The period when both boys were in high school is identified as "modern day." The shifting of time, which continues through the hour, is handled so deftly that the viewer is instantly provided with the kind of expanded point of view more natural to the novel than television. It is much like the near-omniscient feeling one has when reading great biography.
The drama quickly settles into its modern-day present tense in the McCallister household with Bobby starting high school and Grace demanding that a reluctant Jack take his younger brother under his wing to guide Bobby through this passage. The pilot is primarily about passages that Grace and the two boys are navigating - with and without each other's help.
While the large, public themes about American character and national life are the ones that elevate the series in a literary sense, it is the depiction of the private, family struggles in the McCallister household that give it such a warm and glowing heart.
Jack & Bobby has my vote as the best new drama of the fall season. Here's hoping enough of the Nielsen electorate agrees to make it a ratings winner.