Tanner's back, 16 years older

It’s not often that you have a 16-year gap between the first and second seasons of a TV show, but “Tanner on Tanner” — directed by Robert Altman and written by Garry Trudeau — shows that it can be done and done well.

courtesy of sundance channel
Michael Murphy, Mario Cuomo and director Robert Altman on the set of “Tanner on Tanner”

The original show, “Tanner ’88,” documents the campaign of fictitious Democratic presidential candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), who is out campaigning among his real 1988 counterparts — Dick Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. In “Tanner on Tanner,” Tanner returns, this time as the subject of a documentary film being produced by his daughter, Alex Tanner (Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City”), who is now a professional documentary filmmaker and teacher.

In the first episode, “Dinner at Elaine’s,” Tanner arrives in New York for the premiere of Alex’s documentary, “My Candidate.” The screening itself is a complete disaster, saved only by the cameo appearance of Robert Redford, who tells Alex to make a film with “Tanner talking to his fellow warriors.” In the next three episodes, Alex sets out to do just that, by taking her father and crew to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Like the original, “Tanner on Tanner” resembles a home video, making the whole show seem somewhat slapstick and amateurish. The sound and picture are both fuzzy, the shooting is clipped and awkward and the acting is so straightforward and human that it is almost uncomfortable to watch — the characters fumble over words, they break things, they talk about doing Atkins and having kids. In some respects, it resembles a reality TV show, but it is a whole lot better because it doesn’t come off as choreographed, and you sympathize with the characters.

In four episodes, the show offers a comical and thought-provoking perspective on the 2004 presidential race. It might be slow for your average “Survivor” junkie — there’s a reason it’s on the Sundance Channel — but if you tend toward artsy flicks and politics, it is worth your time.


Altman: ‘Television for thinking people’

Q: So what inspired you to do the second season?

Robert Altman:
The original show was political, I mean, we ran him for president ... and then this show, 16 years later, is really a satire about filmmaking.

Everybody has a camera now. Anybody with $1,500 and a computer can make a film, and they all do. They go out there with no thread, no passion, no idea, no anything. It’s like during the ’60s with the guitar — all you have to do is get off the bus in Nashville with a guitar and you were a songwriter.

When we got on the floor in Boston, we had about 12 or 13 in our crew, but there were 40 other crews there. That first morning we were there, there wasn’t anybody on the floor except crews, and they were running around and shooting each other!

Q: How did you choose the actors who appeared in the show — Robert Redford, Cynthia Nixon and Steve Buscemi, for example?

Robert Altman: Cynthia Nixon was in the original. She was 20 years old, and played his daughter. All of our permanent cast is from the original cast 16 years ago, and the triumph of this conceit — and I don’t think it’s ever happened before — is that 16 years later, we had the same cast, playing the same parts. They’d all aged, so there [were] no makeup problems. You didn’t have to make them older, so it was quite exciting.

And all the politicians, the real people, we didn’t script them at all, nor would we help them. Mario Cuomo said, “Well, what do you want me to talk about?” “Mario, you’ve got about six minutes here and you can use it any way you want. You could sit here and belch, and it’s OK with me. I’m not going to tell you what to talk about. You can take any tack you want.” And they all did that.

Michael Murphy: He [Altman] doesn’t have a problem lining up actors! (laughs) And they were dying to do it.

I mean, I think the timing was wonderful, had it not been an election year, they [Sundance] might not have been as enthusiastic. But we had to find a way to get into it that was different [from the original] — buck it up — we wanted to rekindle the relationships. So the idea was that Cynthia Nixon would make a documentary about all politicians and what [campaigning] was like for them.

Q: What are you hoping that the audience takes away?

Michael Murphy: I just hope it reminds you of what good television really can be! I mean, you deal in this stuff every day where everything is vetted, they strap ’em to the heart machine and they check everything: Do you understand that? Do you get it, do you get it, do you get it? And it’s got to have a happy ending. We don’t do any of that stuff. Bob makes the movie, and it goes on the air.

It’s really television for thinking people — the audience has to work a little bit. We’re not used to that anymore!

I think it’s just exemplary television. I’m proud to be in it — I’m lucky to be in it, I mean, it’s just way out of the ballpark in terms of what you normally see.

Robert Altman: You have to pay attention, or you miss it. It’s like most real things.

Michael Murphy: The guys in Hollywood, rather than trying to do something that would attract your attention, now they just make it louder. I mean, my favorite way of watching TV now is with the clicker, so then if there’s just a second I don’t like — SHWACK — it’s gone! (laughs)

Q: So who do you think will be watching your show?

Robert Altman: We’ll get the viewers we get. It’s on the Sundance Channel, which most people can’t find.

We didn’t really have an agenda, but we wanted to stimulate an audience to the point of where they’d react with, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” or “Was that really? ...”

The press is interested in this and that’s because there is so much you can’t write about because the players that you’re dealing with — everything that comes from them is so vetted, you might as well get it on a handout.