Tanner on Tanner

Synopsis: Off the record, on camera.

“Everybody’s making pictures,” observes Martin Scorsese in this sly sequel to Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s Emmy Award-winning satirical miniseries, Tanner ’88. Sixteen years after Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) ran for president, his filmmaker daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon) is making a documentary about her dad’s dark horse campaign. At least, that’s the plan – until a disastrous screening sends Alex back to the drawing board, and on to the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Tanner on Tanner 6.75

eyelights: Barack Obama. the Convention floor activity.
eyesores: Alex Tanner. the unfocused script.

Sigh… despite having read the synopsis in the past, I walked into this mini-series (and sequel to ‘Tanner ’88‘) without the correct perspective. I expected a follow-up or a reminiscence on the 1988 campaign by Jack Tanner and his daughter.

Unfortunately, this was not to be.

If anything, ‘Tanner on Tanner’ turned out into a satire of documentary filmmaking (i.e. Alex is making a documentary while one of her students is making one on her at the same time), in the wake of Michael Moore’s success with his popular polemics. From what I understand, this was not really Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s original intention – it just happened this way.

The first problem is expectation. If one wants something akin to the original series, then this will surely disappoint: it’s nothing like it. The second problem, at least for myself, is that the focus is on Alex Tanner, not Jack Tanner, this time around.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I rather enjoyed the character of Alex in ‘Tanner ’88’ and I also like Cynthia Nixon. However, Alex has been turned into an annoying, whiny basketcase. I hated watching her have little fits, and imposing herself on others, oblivious to how rude she was.

She was also constantly making terrible life decisions, whether it was living off of credit cards or erratically changing gears midstream about her documentary, her professional commitments, …etc. It was so frustrating to watch her run around like a headless chicken; to me, it was more pathetic than funny.

The only thing that more or less redeemed her was a moving confession that she made about her marriage. In that brief instant, as she recounted the uncertainty with which she’s lived for three years, Nixon was able to channel raw emotion that wasn’t at all grating. One couldn’t help but feel empathy for her.

Meanwhile, Jack Tanner became a sideshow. Altman and Trudeau brought him back through Alex’s documentary, called “My Candidate”, which focuses on Jack’s 1988 Presidential run. In so doing, they found an excuse to have him mingle with politicians at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But the focus remained his daughter.

Episode 1: It’s 16 years later than in ‘Tanner ’88’ and Alex is now a documentary filmmaker and film school teacher. In this episode, we basically revisit and reminisce with the previous series’ characters – there isn’t much focus. There is a terrific cameo from Robert Redford at a screening of Alex’s doc as well as amusing, if vacuous, appearances by Martin Scorsese and Steve Buscemi.

Episode 2: After getting some unexpected and much-needed financing, Alex takes her crew on a trip to the 2004 Democratic National Convention to gather footage with which to finish her documentary. The highlights of this episode was the reality, not the fiction: the speeches by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jimmy Carter, which were all gripping, if not rousing.

Episode 3: This episode starts with a fiery speech by a certain Barack Obama. No wonder he was the talk of the town and then became President. What presence! The show continued with some light banter with Howard Dean, a small bit with Michael Moore, and appearances by Al Franken and Janeane Garafalo. The biggest dramatic part was an interview with Ron Reagan jr. that Alex Kerry and Alex Tanner shared. It was meant to be funny, but it was incredibly frustrating.

Episode 4: In the finale, we got a taste of John Kerry’s speech, which the show purports Jack Tanner helped write. That was an inspired, amusing touch – one of the few of the series, really. There’s also an interview of Jack Tanner by Charlie Rose, which shows Tanner selling out for a position in the Kerry Administration (if only he knew!). This disappoints and hurts Alex and she gets hysterical in her usual way. She is so volatile that she becomes an irritant – she acts like a total dummy. Finally, she gives her students a speech that is a blatant message to Americans from Altman and Trudeau.

In fact, throughout the show, it’s so clear that the filmmakers were pro-Kerry. I personally don’t mind: George W. Bush was hardly a stellar President (okay, that’s an understatement…) and Kerry might have been an improvement. However, the episode plays like thinly-veiled campaign ad for the Kerry campaign, with the backgrounds filled with posters and slogans. I’m not sure if they were supposed to be subliminally influential, or if Altman and Trudeau simply wanted to put so much of it that it couldn’t be ignored, but I found it to be too much to be enjoyable.

Actually, this particular series lacks much joy and direction, unlike the original, which had a clear throughline from start to finish. This one feels like a half-assed attempt to revisit a previous success. Perhaps the intention was to inspire people at a time when a lot of hope had been drained from the country, if not the world, but it failed to highlight the issues and provide any real answer other than “Vote for John Kerry”. Honestly, if I wanted to hear this, I’d have watched the convention at the time. Or gone to it.

‘Tanner on Tanner’ also only flirts with reality this around, instead of blurring the lines the way that ‘Tanner ’88’ had. That alone changed the tone of the series and removed much of its appeal. At least for me. But it is, after all, a completely different show, quite unlike the first one. I just wish that I had known this ahead of time and set my sights accordingly. If I wasn’t so averse to watching Alex having fits, I’d re-watch it with a whole new perspective. But I can’t be bothered to endure her further.

Date of viewing: October 30-November 1, 2012

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