Non-site-specific? Nearly two decades ago, Gary Trudeau and Robert Altman made what may be the most experimental television mini-series ever. Tanner ’88 is fucking great (and I’ve only seen two episodes). You could say it combines Doonesbury with Nashville (shades of Hal Phillip Walker), but that would be unfair to both artists. The writing is funny and politically engaged, and the direction is trademark Altman, complete with wandering cameras, overlapping dialog, half-heard remarks, and abrupt editing. And although it's a comedy, there's no laugh track, lending the series an eerie silence, like the spooky ambience of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. On the television screen, this initially seems sloppy. I’m sure it was received as such in 1988, when The Thorn Birds was still the standard-bearer, but now that TV audiences have suffered through years and years (and years) of reality television, what once may have seemed incoherent now looks like the deliberate control of a master filmmaker. Michael Murphy plays Jack Tanner, a fictional presidential candidate making a run for the Democratic nomination in the 1988 primaries. The series is set against the actual primary contests, so real political players like Gary Hart, Pat Robertson, Bob Dole, and Al Gore show up as characters and make cameo appearances. The theme song (“Exercise your right to vote…”) is performed differently each episode, and is embedded within different scenes. In the pilot episode, which takes place in New Hampshire, the theme music is performed as an upbeat military march. When the campaign moves to Tennessee, a bluegrass band performs its own version at a campaign rally. Altman employs unusual camera shots throughout the series; one five-minute shot is framed entirely from beneath a glass coffee table, obscuring and distorting the image as Tanner gives a passionate speech about American values, the baby-boomer generation and who the best Beatle is (the right answer, he concludes, is John Lennon, godammit). This shot, ostensibly made on the sly by a member of Tanner’s campaign team, is later refashioned into a commercial, and is the impetus behind the Tanner campaign slogan: “For real.”
Later, a reporter will ask Tanner’s campaign manager: What happened to the old slogan ‘The Future is Now’? ‘The Future Is Now’ was then, she answers, and ‘For Real’ is now. The Sundance Channel is showing new episodes every Tuesday at 9pm, Pacific. It will be interesting to watch the fictional and real campaigns as they unfold over the next few months.