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TV Preview: 'Tanner '88' returns in time for '04 race

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

HOLLYWOOD -- If you tune into "Tanner '88" tonight, it won't feel like you're watching a relic, even though it is a 16-year-old television series. Instead, it feels entirely relevant, what with Richard Gephardt falling short on the presidential campaign trail and Democrats trying to recapture the White House both then and now.


"Tanner '88"

When: 9 tonight on Sundance Channel.
Starring: Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon


A dark comedy, "Tanner '88" aired on HBO during the 1988 primaries. Written by Garry Trudeau ("Doonesbury") and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Robert Altman ("Nashville," "The Player"), the series follows fictional Democratic candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) as he stumps for votes and interacts with real-life candidates. The fact-meets-fiction intertwining presaged last fall's HBO flop, "K Street."

Now "Tanner" is back, with cable's Sundance Channel airing the original 11 episodes with new introductions featuring the characters in 2004 reflecting on their 1988 experience. Trudeau and Altman again collaborated to create these additional scenes, which feature series stars Murphy, Pamela Reed as Tanner's campaign manager and Cynthia Nixon ("Sex and the City") as Tanner's flighty daughter.

The Sundance Channel (digital plus Channel 505 on most local Comcast systems; digital plus Channel 164 on some local Adelphia systems) will air the show Tuesdays at 9 p.m. through April.

"The only thing worse than the indignity of campaigning back then is the horror of campaigning now," Tanner says in a present-day reflection. " '88 was the year the curtain on our private lives got pulled back. That was the year the media took down Gary Hart for having a mistress. After that, everyone, everything became fair game."

That attitude reflects the feelings of Altman, who said what's most surprising is how little presidential campaigns have changed since 1988.

"The cell phones are smaller, but other than that, the process is the same," Altman said at a press conference last month. "The people are basically the same, the bugaboos are the same. That's the strongest thing I got out of that. ... [The show] has a very au courant feeling about it."

Altman said "Tanner" airs every few years in England, but that no American network wanted to revisit it until now. Paola Freccero, senior vice president of film programming for Sundance, said she felt differently about the limited-runs series.

"By the time we were actually talking about negotiating a deal on this, it was clear that 2004 was going to look strikingly like 1988, particularly the Democratic primaries," she said. "So rather than feeling old, it actually felt before its time. Like maybe we weren't ready in 1988 to handle the level of commentary or analysis on the elections. ... I don't know if we'll be ready to handle it in 2004, but having lived through the last 16 years we seem more ready, perhaps, as a country to deal with that level of analysis than we were then."

The dark humor of "Tanner" is just as resonant today, particularly the episode where a drunken man is mistaken for an assassin targeting Tanner, which gives the candidate a higher profile.

Tanner is shown learning to be a better candidate as he goes through the series, but he also loses track of who he is and what he stands for.

"As you move through the process, you're told how to behave, to appeal to the maximum number of people," Murphy recalled. "So you have a guy like Howard Dean today, who comes out and says what he thinks and takes Bush on head-to-head, and he's told he's too grumpy. Why shouldn't he be grumpy if that's the way he wants to be? But no, he can't be elected if you don't stop that and behave in a more traditional manner."

Altman said in re-watching "Tanner," he was most struck by how the candidate becomes more compassionate on the campaign trail.

"They're trying to move him another way, to make him more available to more people down to the point where he says, 'We just boxed ourselves into a corner where we couldn't win.' That's the lesson that should resound out of that and it's amazing to me that in '88 and today with the Seven Dwarfs [in the current campaign], it's almost the same scene."

A Sundance executive said reviving "Tanner" is an effort to curate an interesting, groundbreaking project. Altman said the way the series was made -- following the '88 campaign across the country and filming episodes just days before they aired -- was unique and remains one of his favorite projects.

"I've just started pre-production on a film I start shooting in March, and I'm more excited about 'Tanner' and the chance to expose it again than anything I've done," Altman said. "I think it's probably the most creative work that I've done in my whole career."

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions about TV to under TV Q&A.

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