NEW YORK - How time flies!
It was 16 years ago that Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau joined forces to create a Democratic candidate for president, along with a satirical comedy series - "Tanner '88" - that documented Jack Tanner's imaginary run for the White House.
And it was eight months ago that Sundance Channel retrieved this series from the Reagan era and gave it a fresh airing.
Now Sundance is premiering "Tanner on Tanner," a sequel that revisits Tanner, his daughter, Alex, and others from so long ago as a four-week follow-up in this election season.
In "Tanner '88" (just released on DVD) the primary target for satire was politics. But with "Tanner on Tanner," it's the media - self-absorbed, self-deluded and all-invasive - that gets most of the lampooning.
Former teen Alex Tanner is now a documentary filmmaker living in Manhattan and (like Cynthia Nixon, reprising the role) all grown up. She's completing "My Candidate," a film tribute to Dad (again played by Michael Murphy) who, now a university professor, looks back on his quixotic race with a mix of pride and dread.
"When my students ask about '88," declares Tanner in a clip from his daughter's film, "I always tell them the only thing worse than the indignity of campaigning back then is the horror of campaigning now."
That doesn't mean Tanner isn't itching to attend the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
And so is Alex, who, as we see in the series' first half-hour (Tuesday at 9 p.m.), is dismayed to learn that "My Candidate" needs major repair after it flops at a New York film festival.
Rallying her bare-bones production crew, she will hit the road for Boston on next week's episode to shoot new footage of Dad with other veterans from campaign wars. She even aims to wangle an interview with John Kerry!
Then things fall apart. While Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, Tom Brokaw and Al Franken are among the real-life players in the "Tanner" narrative, Alex has trouble grabbing people for her camera.
The last straw is when she finds out Kerry won't be available. It's a crushing blow, especially since, in the "Tanner" tradition of reality intertwined with make-believe, Kerry's campaign manager is T.J. Cavanaugh (in an encore performance by Pamela Reed), who ran Tanner's '88 campaign.
"Do you know what I went through to get here?" explodes Alex, who, in her desperation to finish her film, is charging everything on her Discover card.
Fires back T.J.: "Do you know what John Kerry went through to get here?!"
Often funny, sometimes poignant and always shrewd, "Tanner on Tanner" finds Alex no less stymied in her chosen field than was candidate Tanner by the campaign process 16 years ago. Now, as before, scriptwriter Trudeau and director Altman tell a tale of dashed dreams and good intentions gone awry.
"Alex is an honorable character," says Trudeau, "but she has many flaws, and life hasn't worked out for her in many ways."
The chance to explore Alex, circa 2004, happened only by accident. When Sundance opted to re-air the 11 episodes of "Tanner '88," it was decided that some brief comments by the characters today would put the series in historical perspective.
"I banged out the scripts," says Trudeau (whose regular gig, of course, is drawing "Doonesbury"), "and, in assigning life roles 16 years later, I inadvertently made Alex a documentary filmmaker." Then, when talk of a sequel arose, "we realized that a way into a new story would be to show Alex's travails in trying to make a film about the '88 campaign."
To reunite the "Tanner '88" troupe (which also includes Matt Malloy and Ilana Levine) was a thrill for Altman, the 79-year-old director of such films as "M-A-S-H," "Nashville" and "Gosford Park." He calls it "an irresistible and fascinating nuisance - the most exciting thing about the project for me."
The project also let Altman reprise the shooting style he pioneered with "Tanner '88." As it did then, the script defers to improvisation when its story crosses paths with real-life VIPs. In the opener, they include director Martin Scorsese, actor Steve Buscemi and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. "I told them, 'Say anything you want, because we're responding to you, we're not expecting you to respond to us,'" explains Altman.
In Episode 3, a scene was cooked up where a scheduling snafu lands Ron Reagan Jr. in a one-on-one interview with both Alex Tanner and Alex Kerry (who actually is making a film about John Kerry, her own real-life candidate father).
For several heated minutes, rival Alexes conduct dueling interviews with the put-upon Reagan. It's a hilarious display of improv by all three of them. And from Trudeau's vantage point, it confirmed his theory of media saturation.
Setting up in that sky box at Boston's FleetCenter, he recalls, "We had our film crew. We also had Alex's phony film crew." There was Alex's film-school student (played by Luke MacFarlane), making a film about Alex. Also, Alex Kerry's film crew. "Then Ron Reagan walked in with his MSNBC film crew - and he was also being trailed by a film crew for another news show."
Trudeau remembers thinking, "I hope we get out of town with the right film."
As the audience for "Tanner on Tanner" will love discovering, they did.
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EDITOR'S NOTE - Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org
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