Director's Cut

It's a rare TV rerun that can both inspire nostalgia and impress with its prescience. Tanner '88 fits the bill -- a "documentary" miniseries that follows the presidential campaign of fictional candidate Jack Tanner (played by Michael Murphy) against the real-life likes of pre-Donna Hart Gary Hart and pre-Viagra Bob Dole. The series owes part of its present-day resonance to its scheduling: Its 11 episodes air on a timetable that mirrors the arc of the 2004 campaign season nearly perfectly. We can watch a crowd of primary hopefuls running against a Republican named George Bush on the Sundance Channel on Tuesdays at 9 -- and then flip to an oddly similar scenario on network TV.

Crafted by director Robert Altman and "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Tanner '88 keeps the time warp in check with its oh-so-'80s signifiers: the monstrous banana clips, a campaign manager in a power pantsuit, all that chain-smoking. Tanner's campaign room is a swirl of chatter and big hair, his staffers sitting around and critiquing a video biography of their would-be candidate, shoveling snow and sitting by a fireplace in a Mr. Rogers cardigan.

"He's such an intellectual!" says the obligatory ditzy-girl staffer.

Others don't think so. Tanner staffers herd together a group of New Hampshire natives for a bit of polling: "There's a black guy, we got everything," a Tannerite says with anticipatory glee. But the locals don't share their enthusiasm, sending polling dials plummeting with every Hallmark moment. One argues that all the footage of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. just makes a viewer wonder, "Where are his ideas?" "Yeah!" says another, delivering a remark that plunges the staffers into despair. "He's the perfect vice president."

Tanner and his idealistic college-age daughter, meanwhile, spend their days being pursued by a reporter who looks like a bear in a sleeping bag and is trying to capture the "figures and events that help shape the candidates." "Oh," says offended daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon). "Which am I? A figure or event?"

These scenarios unfold in typical loose-limbed Altman fashion, amid polyphonic banter and characters moving in and out, obscuring our vision. What eventually emerges is a sly depiction not so much of Tanner -- a figure with the bland good looks of a toothpaste-commercial actor -- but of the media machinery that has become an integral part of our political process. The staffers agonize over how to package their candidate, the reporter is looking for his narrative angle, drawing the ire of Tanner, who erupts, "Oh, by the way, I learned to drink to please my father, who I wanted to murder, so I could then marry my mother," in response to nosy questions about his divorce and family.

In the days of nonstop speculation on candidates' wives and Howard Dean screams, Altman's depiction of the porous boundaries between the press, politics, and private lives seems especially pointed. What's more, the director has updated each episode with a segment that sharpens his themes -- present-day monologues performed by different characters. At the beginning of this first episode, an older, wiser, and more cynical Tanner fixes us with a half-humorous, half-rancorous gaze and says that he hired a detective to see what he'd done. "Preemptive dirt-digging," he says. "You gotta bust yourself first."

Tanner '88 is a shrewd, manufactured "real world" -- a nice piece of fakeness that sheds light on our own media-generated simulacrum of reality. It also succeeds where that stinker K Street didn't. With its much-hyped approach of having politicos star as "themselves" -- in other words, loud, brassy collections of tics and idiosyncrasies that bear no resemblance to real people -- K Street became a singularly undemocratic, smirky, self-referential freak show presided over by that barking carny James Carville. But by making Tanner something of a hollow center, and having its real-life celebs appear only briefly, Tanner '88 spotlights the impromptu dialogues, flare-ups, and on-the-fly decisions that mark the creative process of "branding" and identifying with a candidate -- and of making a piece of collaborative art.

The approach doesn't work all the time. Sometimes the endless nattering just seems like endless nattering, a maddeningly diffuse fog through which we're forced to wander before we get to the zingers. But when we do get them, they're worth it. At the end of the first episode, Tanner embarks upon a speech to inspire his team -- a would-be rousing oratory that one young staffer, intent on making a "neorealistic film documentary" of the campaign, furtively films under a glass coffee table. The speech is stupefying, but the campaign manager smells gold -- Tanner's passion, his conviction, his firmly mouthed platitudes. She rejoices silently, not even listening to Tanner's words. They don't really matter; it's the resulting clip and slogan ("Tanner: For Real") that are important.

In their world, and perhaps ours, real is only as good as the plastic it's in.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor.

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