On WB’s ‘Jack & Bobby,’ Two Brothers Will Grow Toward a Special Fate
By A.J. Frutkin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 9, 2004
Walk into any gift shop at Dulles International Airport and chances are you will find a pint-size T-shirt with the words “future president” printed on it. For many tourists visiting the capital, it is a must-have souvenir. But whoever thought it would serve as the seed for a TV show?
Premiering on WB next season, “Jack & Bobby” is that show. It is a family drama about two teenage brothers, one of whom grows up to be president. Traditionally, TV networks don’t reveal their the next season’s lineup until mid-May, but WB has already ordered 13 episodes of “Jack & Bobby,” making it the first new series officially picked up for the fall.
The series is partly filmed like a documentary, in which colleagues of the fictional president are interviewed on camera. Ostensibly set in the future—2049, to be exact—the action then flashes back to today, when the two brothers are still in high school.
And therein lies the show’s premise. “Right now, out there playing with his iPod, is some kid who’s 15 years old who’s going to be the president,” says executive producer Greg Berlanti, who also created the WB family drama “Everwood.”
Matthew Long stars as the handsome, athletic and socially adept Jack McCallister. Logan Lerman plays the younger—and geekier—Bobby. As to which of the boys enters the White House, Berlanti says he would like to keep it a secret for as long as possible. But he adds that the show doesn’t hinge on who becomes president as much as how that president becomes who he is. By focusing on the boys’ formative years together, “Jack & Bobby” underscores how life’s seemingly insignificant events can “have ripple effects on the future that are exponential,” he says.
Not surprisingly, two writers familiar with Washington’s dramatic underpinnings dreamed up the idea for the show: Brad Meltzer and Steve “Scoop” Cohen. Meltzer is a best-selling novelist, and many of his books are political thrillers set in the nation’s capital. Cohen served as deputy communications director in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s office during her husband’s tenure on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 2002, Meltzer and Cohen pitched the idea to Thomas Schlamme, an executive producer on “The West Wing” at the time. When they subsequently pitched it to the WB, Cohen says he and Meltzer brought along some of those souvenir baby shirts to use as props.
It worked. “It was such an intriguing concept for a show, I just had to have it,” says Jordan Levin, co-CEO of the network. Once WB signed on, executive producer Schlamme enlisted Berlanti, who brought in “Everwood” colleague Vanessa Taylor to write the pilot script.
Throughout “Jack & Bobby’s” development, many in Hollywood believed the project was based on the Kennedys. Not so, Meltzer says, adding that the program’s title was simply a clever—and somewhat calculated—hook. “This was the easiest shorthand to convey that the show’s main characters are brothers, and that one will be president.”
More accurately, the show’s creators say McCallister is an amalgamation of several leaders. For example, the idea for the series partly stemmed from Cohen’s travels with the Clinton staff back to Hope, Ark., where he saw the former president’s childhood home and met the people who had an influence on him.
President McCallister, like any leader, has his flaws. In that sense, Taylor says, he parallels Jimmy Carter’s arc: Although McCallister comes to his calling with “a greater intelligence,” that intelligence also would be his undoing, because he may not “have the practical savvy or the hard edge he needs to make him tough enough.”
For Berlanti, McCallister’s shortcomings align him most closely with Lyndon Johnson. “He was so close to greatness,” Berlanti says of the 36th president, noting that despite his vision for a “Great Society” and his focus on civil rights legislation, “everything is overshadowed by Vietnam.”
As much as past administrations play a role in “Jack & Bobby,” so does the current one. Grace McCallister, the boys’ single mom, may appear to be modeled after Clinton’s mother, Virginia Kelley. But Taylor says the character was conceived more in reaction to the White House of George W. Bush.
While writing the pilot, Taylor says, she was troubled by the Iraq war and its justification based on a failed search for weapons of mass destruction. “I just feel that we’ve come into an era in which there’s a certain brazenness about lying to the American public,” she adds. “Which, in turn, has fostered a certain degree of cynicism and apathy.”
Played by Christine Lahti (Schlamme’s wife), Grace is an outspoken History professor, with a penchant for smoking marijuana. The character, Taylor says, “is in part a response to that apathy.”
Berlanti observes that Grace might be an even more important character than her sons because the series “is not so much about who we become or what our destiny is, as much as who affects us in getting there.”
But Grace doesn’t steer the future president toward a particular ideology. In fact, the words “Democrat” and “Republican” are never uttered in the pilot, and neither label is likely to be applied to President McCallister; when his political affiliation is mentioned, it’s likely to be a fictional party, and the president will be revealed as more centrist than either of those tags might allow. In so doing, the Berlanti hopes to avoid criticism of the series based on partisan politics.
Which is not to say that “Jack & Bobby” will avoid taking stands on issues. “If you’re going to do a police show, you can’t have a cop carry a gun and not shoot the criminal,” Schlamme says. “So if you do a show about politics, you better show what those politics are.”
With “Jack & Bobby” set to premiere before the presidential election, WB’s Levin believes the show’s timing may serve to boost its relevance. “One of the things TV does very powerfully is to frame societal questions through the prism of storytelling,” he says. “So in a political season in which character, integrity and family history will be front and center in a nationwide debate, ‘Jack & Bobby’ offers viewers the opportunity to further that discourse.”
Ultimately, “Jack & Bobby’s” creators seem less concerned with foisting their own political beliefs on the audience than they do with inspiring viewers to become involved in the political process, perhaps even to enter the political fray themselves.
Cohen says the notion that anyone could grow up to be president is fundamentally American. But after the 2000 election, in which both major candidates—Bush and Al Gore—were essentially groomed for office, having been born into political families, he adds that such a notion “is one we’ve gotten away from.”
Meltzer also notes that the show’s initial premise revolved around a candidate who began his presidential campaign as a teenager, anticipating a run for office later in life. But he and Cohen soon threw out that idea, fearing such blind ambition would alienate viewers. “No one likes the kid who wants to be president,” he says.
Thrusting greatness onto a less suspecting citizen, however, was a concept they knew could work. “Making it anyone’s game is what makes America great,” Meltzer says. “Everyone can relate to that.”