Magazine article The New Yorker

Tanner Revisited; on Television

Magazine article The New Yorker

Tanner Revisited; on Television

Article excerpt

In her new documentary, "Diary of a Political Tourist," Alexandra Pelosi, who spent nearly two years chasing after the Democrats who were themselves chasing after the 2004 Presidential nomination, asks Howard Dean, as he's hurrying down a New York City street in 2003, why he's carrying his own bag. Can't he get anyone to do it for him? she says. Dean replies cheerfully that it's a point of pride with him. Pelosi's film is a follow-up to her 2002 "Journeys with George," a self-consciously goofy, boys-on-the-bus romp through George W. Bush's campaign, and it will air on HBO next week, at around the same time that another political sequel will be shown on the Sundance Channel: "Tanner on Tanner," Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau's four-episode follow-up to their 1988 HBO series "Tanner '88," premieres October 5th. In a scene in "Tanner '88," the story of a fictional Democratic Presidential candidate named Jack Tanner, an aide points at a wire photo of Tanner carrying his luggage and declares, "Carrying your own bag is the wrong symbol at the wrong time. It says that you either can't, or won't, delegate. It says Jimmy Carter." Suffice it to say that such parallels and instances of overlap among all four works abound, partly because, while political campaigns may be endlessly interesting, the number of things that can be said about them is finite, and the targets they present for criticism, satire, and humor are fairly obvious, even to outsiders. It's what you do with the material that counts.

Pelosi seems to have made her second film because the success of the first one gave her the opportunity to do so; Altman and Trudeau also had opportunity on their side, provided both by the critical success of their earlier series and by their reputations and connections. But they benefitted, too, from having an idea that still held possibilities after sixteen years. "Tanner '88" was a blend of fact and fiction; in addition to its cast of actors--which included Michael Murphy as Jack Tanner, Cynthia Nixon as his daughter, Alex, and Pamela Reed as his campaign manager, T. J. Cavanaugh--the series featured actual politicians, Washington insiders, journalists, and celebrities playing themselves as characters in Trudeau's story, which itself made use of the real-world campaign and its trajectory. (Trudeau has the writing credit for both series; Altman directed both; and the two share executive-producer billing.) "Tanner '88" set the table for "Tanner on Tanner," but the latter is not exactly a continuation of the story, although we do find out what has happened to the characters in the intervening years. While the first series was a fictional documentary, the second falls under the heading of what has come to be known as a mockumentary: a documentary about documentaries, a sendup of our current mania for watching ourselves watch ourselves.

Alex, who was a college student in "Tanner '88," and a helper, and sometimes an impeder, in her father's campaign, is now a documentary director and film teacher, and she is making a movie about her father's defeat; at the same time, one of her students is filming her for his documentary. As she was sixteen years earlier, she is self-absorbed, bad at reading people, and, despite being a devoted daddy's girl, prone to putting her father in embarrassing situations. Though she describes her documentary to a reporter from Us as "a deconstruction of the campaigning process from my father's perspective," by midway through the series it's clear that the movie is all about her. We all know that the filming of an event can change the way the event unfolds, but, in the case of Alex's project, her hysteria and her social inappropriateness tend only to stop events in their tracks. In the third episode, she shows up at a gym hoping to shoot her father playing squash with Al Franken. Franken, caught by surprise, won't cooperate. In a scene at the Democratic Convention, which is wincingly, painfully funny--it overflows with Larry David-style awkwardness and bad vibes--Alex and John Kerry's daughter Alexandra, who is also filming a documentary, vie for face time with Ron Reagan, who finally loses patience and walks out. …

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