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Best Show in Town

In the tradition of Freaks and Geeks and Frank's Place, this fall's best new series won't be renewed for next year. Another great drama, whisked away with the storyline at its most meaty, and right as I'm forming emotional attachments to all the characters. But, strangely enough, this time I'm willing to let the series end.

If you haven't caught Presidential Election 2000 yet, you'd better tune in quick (check your local listings, or just randomly tune to any channel). The writing is rapier sharp, the cast is passionate, and you should see the character development from day to day. One moment a character is smug and self-assured, the next he's shell-shocked and fighting mad. True, the next time you tune in, the characters might have reversed themselves, but you're so sold on the roller-coaster plot, that you actually buy their reactions--if not always their motivations.

The plot of Presidential Election 2000 is lightning fast, so once you tune in, you can't skip a day, lest you be forced into reading the recaps in Soap Opera Di--er, Newsweek. New twists and turns occur daily, sometimes hourly, always followed by characters' brilliantly-scripted reactions. (Occasionally, though, the dialogue shows signs of clumsiness, such as when all the Republican characters are assigned a set of stock phrases --"Judicial Activism", "Changing the Rules After the Game Has Ended", "Constitutional Crisis" -- and made to repeat them endlessly, apparently for fear that the viewers won't otherwise get it.) The writing is especially sharp in scenes involving press conferences and judicial decisions, where characters often seem on the giddy edge of complete breakdown, barely able to restrain themselves from open hostility or despair.

The lead characters are admittedly somewhat flawed in their execution, which led to early-series tuneout; Al Gore, who polarizes viewers Richard Hatch-style, is a weak link in the cast. Despite a truly amazing story arc, his character comes off as wooden and virtually unchanged throughout the series, failing to convey the passion of his plight or conviction. George W. Bush, on the other hand, really puts everything he's got into his role as a cocky bastard. Possessing the most pointed smirk since Larry Hagman, he evokes an immediate, almost visceral reaction from the viewer. Unfortunately, he's absent from many episodes, ceding his lines to an impressive supporting cast, most notably James Baker. Baker is a vicious marvel; after slogging through such moderate hits as Bush Presidency 1988-1992, Baker is on full throttle here, consistently delivering fierce, compelling speeches, as when he deliciously calls a George W. Bush setback "sad for our nation--sad for our democracy." So completely does he seethe with barely-checked rage, you halfway expect his head to come off. With his calculated, spiteful language, Baker plays nothing short of a saint or Satan role in the drama. (A complete turnaround from his role as Buck Strickland on Fox's King of the Hill.)

Other impressive players include Bernard Shaw and Jeff Greenfield, who make Dennis Miller's color commentary seem slate-gray. Jeff Greenfield leads viewers through self-described 'nightmare' or 'doomsday' scenarios like a giddy schoolboy showing off a Gila Monster. He smiles brightly while noting that, "If this election was an amusement park ride, it would be shut down due to safety concerns," and that, "I'm not predicting rioting in the streets... yet." Shaw doesn't pack quite the punch of Greenfield, but his urgent delivery gives even more life to the rest of the cast, as when he describes Baker as "bristling with contempt and controlled anger."

Just as we occasionally (well, once) tuned into the Geena Davis Show to catch a glimpse of Freaks and Geeks alumnus John Francis Daley, we'll no doubt see some of our favorite Presidential Election 2000 players in the near future. Greenfield will no doubt turn up in mid-season replacements like "Senate Bill 482" and "Assistant Housing Secretary Confirmation Hearing", and it seems likely that at least one of the principals will return for the inevitable sequel in a few years. (Didn't anyone watch AfterM*A*S*H?) However, none of their work will likely ever live up to this dramatic masterpiece, and, quite honestly, that's fine by me.


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