Tanner On Tanner, rehash on Sundance

Oct. 13, 2004, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 19 years, 8 months ago

Of all the institutions in this pop culture of ours, there is none more insidious than the sequel. It constantly amazes and puzzles me that some of the finest directors and producers we've ever had are so eager to sacrifice their very souls at the altar of the sequel. They so eager to betray their original artistic visions in order to score fat checks and box office buzz. From George Lucas the world received the cinematic atrocities known as the Star Wars sequels; from Francis Ford Coppola the laughingstock that was Godfather Part III; from Steven Spielberg, a convoluted second visit to the world of Jurassic Park. But selling out is good business; Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World had what was at the time the highest grossing opening weekend in movie history.

All of this is why Robert Altman and Gary Trudeau's Tanner on Tanner, the sequel to 1988's Tanner '88, is puzzling even by sequel standards.

The show airs on the Sundance Channel, a commercial-free digital cable
channel whose highest budget original feature is the somewhat sparse Anatomy of a Scene, leading me to believe that this movie couldn't possibly have been about the money. Altman and Trudeau somehow had the idea that adding four totally gratuitous episodes to their iconic miniseries was a good idea.

How wrong they were.

For the uninitiated, Tanner '88 follows fictitious Democratic presidential candidate Jack Tanner around the country as he runs for his party's nomination. Along the way we meet his campaign manager, his family, the press corps, pundits ranging from Chris Matthews to Art Buchwald, politicians including then Nebraska Governor Bruce Babbit and, memorably, Kitty Dukakis (wife of eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis). The new sequel follows Tanner's daughter, Alex (played by Cynthia Nixon) as she and her father shoot a documentary about the '88 campaign at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where the elder Tanner interacts with this year's democratic candidates.

Unlike the original, whose story was driven by the 1988 presidential campaign, complicated subplots and an artful blending of fact and fiction, Tanner on Tanner has no intriguing plot devices, is disappointingly straightforward and strikes no humorous balance between reality and unreality. Tanner '88 accomplished these goals through its guest stars, and one of its best moments was a run-in between the candidate (played by Michael Murphy) and republican Senator Robert Dole prior to the New Hampshire primary. Dole has next to no idea the contingent of advisors and journalists following Jack Tanner through the New Hampshire snows are in fact actors in an HBO miniseries.
Tanner on Tanner looks to duplicate the patent feel of the original,
which remained timely through the candidate's veiled commentary on Ronald Reagan and the occasional mention of Democratic opponents Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart and Mike Dukakis. The sequel is far more blatant. The Bush bashing isn't disguised by rhetoric or implication like the Reagan-bashing of its predecessor. Instead, it's beat to a bloody pulp by none other than former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who spends a good five minutes trashing Bush's foreign policy while former congressmen Tanner listens diligently nearby.

Tanner '88 had more tact than this sloppy sequel. But more importantly, it gave its viewers something to think about. Jack Tanner was a complicated
man whose idealism was gradually crushed by the realities of what he called "the political game." Perhaps in that respect, the Tanner campaign served as a fitting microcosm of the entire post-Reagan era of American politics when, as Tanner rightly observes, Americans became preoccupied with "being a nation that wants to feel good instead of a nation that can be good."

Tanner on Tanner has no such depth. Like almost every other sequel
ever made, it's a rehash, an imitator.

Or, in the great (albeit somewhat altered) words of 1988 vice presidential candidate Lloyd Benson, "I knew Tanner '88. And you are no Tanner '88."

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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