No Name on the Ballot 

Robert Altman's political satire Tanner '88 holds up alarmingly well

Robert Altman's political satire Tanner '88 holds up alarmingly well

In an interview about Tanner '88, the satirical 1988 TV series that fielded a bogus presidential candidate on the real campaign trail, scriptwriter Garry Trudeau says he had no interest in writing for television back in 1988. He only said yes to HBO on the condition that the cable network hire Robert Altman to direct, figuring that it wouldn't happen.

Remarkably, it did. Having spent the bulk of the decade making low-budget adaptations of theater pieces, the director seized on the stoned cynicism of Trudeau's teleplays and found in them something sprawlingly comic and pungently bitter. Over the course of 11 episodes, Michael Murphy's naggingly vague Democratic candidate Jack Tanner jockeyed with the likes of Michael Dukakis and Gary Hart for the party's 1988 presidential nomination and revealed, via his bland responses to sincere questions, why modern politics lacks real leaders.

Criterion has released a new double-disc DVD collection of the Tanner '88 episodes, which reveal just how little has changed on the campaign trail. Even the show's relentless theme song "Exercise Your Right to Vote" reflects the stingless MTV slogan "Choose or Lose": a nonpartisan call to action about as inspiring as the post office's reminder to register for the draft. But what's most striking about Tanner '88 is the way Altman makes visual poetry out of flat video images, turning a succession of hotel rooms, backyard barbecues and makeshift offices into layered, prismatic habitats for scattered minds.

Just in time for the spookily similar 2004 presidential campaign, the original Tanner '88 creative team has returned for the four-episode Sundance series Tanner on Tanner, in which Murphy's character becomes the focus of a hall-of-mirrors documentary by his daughter Alex (played by Cynthia Nixon). Tanner on Tanner ditches the vibrant style of its predecessor for a more direct approach, keyed to Alex Tanner's open worry that people remember her father only as an ineffectual loser.

Taken together, the two Tanner series constitute one continuous ache for hope. It's no accident that Murphy—an Altman regular—has a speaking voice a lot like the director's, or that Tanner shares Altman's habit of staying close to his family by working with them. (Altman's children have peppered his credits since the '70s.) Both Tanner '88 and Tanner on Tanner are grounded in the real world, using found interviews with real politicians and celebrities, and cultural ephemera like the flurry of dance remixes that popped up in the wake of Howard Dean's "on to Washington" meltdown speech. But the subtext of both is how people herd together to stave off despair.

In Tanner on Tanner, those herds have picked up cameras and are making each other's lives into art—allowing Altman to comment on the proliferation of political quickie docs, and the army of indie filmmakers who pay homage to his maverick style but sometimes want more from the director than he has to give. The Tanner series aren't as masterful as Altman's peak theatrical features like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, but in their own poignant, pointed way, they're among his most personal work.

—Noel Murray

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