I’m going to assume that most of the people reading this haven’t watched or heard of Tanner ‘88. I hadn’t heard of it myself before doing research for this blog. So my goal with this post is to convince you in no uncertain terms to WATCH TANNER 88. Right now. Or as soon as possible. Or over summer vacation. Or whenever you can get your hands on a Hulu Plus account.
Tanner ’88 is a one season political mockumentary directed by Robert Altman. First broadcast by HBO during the early stages of the 1988 U.S. presidential election, it goes on the campaign trail with former Michigan U.S. representative Jack Tanner, during his bid to secure the Democratic party’s nomination for President of the United States.
Tanner is an unknown liberal Democrat who struggles to find a voice and make a name for himself during the early stages of the democratic primaries, until his campaign manager, T.J. Cavanaugh, uses an unscripted but passionate hotel-room speech caught on camera to produce an advertising campaign focusing on Tanner’s authenticity. After the success of the ads, which use the slogan, “For Real,” Tanner takes the lead in the polls and begins competing with two high profile, (real life) candidates: Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis.
So what is it exactly that makes Tanner ’88 amazing? For one thing, it provides striking commentary about the artificiality of modern political campaigns, and the truly backbreaking effort involved in taking an obscure politician from low-level public figure to 1600 Penn. For another thing, it’s hilarious.
Tanner is marketed as an honest, authentic, “what you see is what you get” candidate. His campaign slogan, “For Real,” is slapped on posters, stickers and television ads. However, viewers also get to see all of the focus groups, image consultations, and strategy work that are meant to shape him into a candidate that could actually get elected. Midway through the series, Tanner wearily says, “I feel like I’m becoming an innocent bystander in my own campaign.”
The show also refreshingly depicts something that isn’t typically covered on television: the political campaign. This might at first seem like dull subject matter, but in the unglamorous, bus-touring world of primary elections, you really get a glimpse into the heart of politics. Because at this stage in the game, the work isn’t always fun and odds are that a candidate is not going to win. Every single campaign is a bootstrap operation and a level playing field at the beginning, with both seasoned politicos and still-green unknowns traveling all over the country, trying to get a leg up on the competition.
Furthermore, with its faux-documentary style, Tanner 88 really gets at what it means to produce excellent political comedy and satire. A few weeks back on the blog, we discussed the satirical shortcomings of Veep. But it wasn’t until I watched Tanner ’88 that I realized exactly what Veep was missing; Tanner and Veep have many of the same absurd political foils- (image issues, groveling politicians, harebrained staffers, etc) but the verisimilitude of Tanner 88 really raises the stakes and gives the satire more bite. Jokes are the funniest when they’re making fun of real life. And Tanner 88 feels so real that it even fooled Bob Dole.
In fact, while campaigning in New Hampshire in 1988, Republican candidate Bob Dole ran into an unfamiliar Democratic candidate who was walking around with his daughter and a camera crew. Dole did not recognize the candidate, but because there were cameras around, he greeted the man like an old friend, pretending to know him and wishing him luck before walking away. Unfortunately for Bob Dole, the unknown democratic candidate was Jack Tanner, and Dole had unwittingly earned himself a cameo on the show’s pilot episode.
It’s this kind of near magic moment that makes Tanner feel like a modern political comedy, despite the scrunchies, pantsuits, obsessive Reagan references (and a young Joe Biden,) that would otherwise make it feel hopelessly dated.
Conceptually, it feels like The Office or Parks and Rec, with its guerilla documentary shooting style and deadpan commentary. And all of the political issues being made fun of in 1988 are still very relevant today. The modern election process tends to force candidates to become absurd caricatures of themselves.
The downside of Tanner 88 is that it only ran for one season. We should have more shows depicting the saga involved with getting someone to the Oval Office. Too often we have a tendency to hide the blood, sweat, and tears that went into major accomplishments; the 110 pound starlet feigning an aversion to the gym and boasting a diet heavy in pizza. The Dean’s List Johns Hopkins student self-consciously downplaying hours spent in the library before acing a midterm exam.
Sometimes in life, as in presidential campaigns, you have to spend some time in the trenches in order to win the war. And if you can’t laugh at yourself while you’re doing it, well then, I think I’ve got some House of Cards episodes left on my DVR with your name on them.