Friday, Sept. 10 , 2004
The premise of Jack & Bobby, the new WB series premiering this Sunday (9 p.m. ET), reminds me of nothing so much as that old Saturday Night Live skit about a sitcom pilot with the title "What if George Washington Had A Robot Friend?" Jack & Bobby must be the result of a similar pitch meeting. Both shows are high-concept, yet pointless. This kind of "what if?" conceit begs a go-nowhere answer: Wow, that would be really weird.
The meeting is easy to imagine: What if there were two brothers named Jack and Bobby McCallister, and we knew watching the show that one of them would grow up to be president? But check it out: What if the story of these two brothers had nothing to do with the Kennedys? (This disclaimer was anxiously issued in every press release and preview about the show.) The show could be set in the present day, in the fictional college town of Hart, Missouri, to reinforce the point that, really, it has nothing to do with the Kennedys. And hey, what if the other characters—interviewees from some future Ken Burns-style documentary glimpsed in occasional flash-forwards to the year 2046—reflected on the irony of the McCallister brothers' first names, even though their offbeat single mother, pot-smoking college professor Grace McCallister (Christine Lahti), insisted that she named the boys after their mysteriously absent and much-mythologized father? What if, in short, we capitalized on the name recognition of two tragically assassinated politicians to stir up some interest in our latest teen TV soap?
The obvious question that arises from Jack & Bobby's hijacking of the Kennedy mystique is: How is this gimmick is supposed to retain viewers after the pilot? Once it's clear that Jack & Bobby aren't, well, Jack and Bobby, this is just another WB show about some good-looking high-school kids with the odd talking head thrown in for gravitas. Sunday's pilot revolves around the mystery of which brother will end up as president—the handsome, popular jock with a way with the ladies, or the brainy, awkward mama's boy with a yen to start a school Space Club. (Perhaps the answer depends on who you vote for come November.) But by the end of this first episode, it's already been revealed which sibling will grow up to be the leader known as "the Great Believer," and which one will end up—well, I'll leave something for you to discover on Sunday night. As the season goes on and kids (this has to be the target audience, right?) begin to get into the story arcs about freshman cliques and dates for the homecoming bonfire, where does this leave the whole time-traveling political narrative? As we become ever more involved in Jack, Bobby, and Grace's banal present, the portentous voice-overs about President McCallister's grandiose future will come to seem like an unwelcome civics lesson. Jack & Bobby would seem to have built in the formula for its own demise.
Then again, you never know. Another series in the great tradition of "What if George Washington Had A Robot Friend?" was CBS' Early Edition, which asked the scintillating question: What if there was a guy who got tomorrow's newspaper … today? I never watched the show, but I always used to crack up at the opening credits, in which the hero unfolded his morning paper, learned of some imminent fire or robbery only he could prevent, and ran out the door with his breakfast still on the table. How he must have prayed for a slow news day, just once, so he could finish his coffee! Early Edition seemed doomed to run out of plotlines, yet it ran for four whole seasons before getting canceled, and is still popular today in reruns on the PAX network. Maybe Jack & Bobby will be such a hit it will even catch up with its own time-travel conceit. What if the series was still running in 2040, the year of the fictional President McCallister's election? That would be really weird. 12:03 p.m.