Before The West Wing, before The Office, before reality TV, there was Robert Altman and his video cameras. Tanner ’88 For Real was an HBO miniseries directed by Altman and written by Gary Trudeau, about dark horse Democratic presidential candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), and his quest for the 1988 Democratic nomination. The show features cameos from big-name politicos like Bob Dole, Pat Robertson, Ralph Nader and an especially heartfelt scene with real-life failed presidential candidate and future Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
Here’s what gets me the most about the show: since they were dealing directly with real people and real news and wanted to remain as up-to-date as possible, Trudeau would still be writing the episode as they were shooting it. This is one of the first episodic TV shows to shoot on video, so that they could take their rushes to the editing suite and air them quickly—sometimes only a day after they were shot.
There’s an oddly soap-opera-esque vibe to the whole show; an artifact of the analog format and radio microphones.
Perhaps one of the best fourth-wall violations I’ve ever seen in film or television comes at the end of episode seven, when Tanner, after delivering a stirring practice speech in a media consultant’s office and eliciting raucous applause from his staff, looks directly into the camera and announces, “I am somebody!” and then, after a pause and brief freeze-frame, “I am somebody?”
The series comes to a climax at episode #10, during the nominating convention. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole show. All I could think was, “Man, if Tanner had won this primary, Bush might have never been elected.” Not that Tanner was a particularly strong candidate, but hey—neither was Bush.
Altman said that Tanner ’88 was the most creative work he ever did, and I believe him. It’s not necessarily my absolute favorite from the canon of his work, but it’s up there, and it’s definitely Altman. Apparently Trudeau agreed to only do the show if HBO agreed to hire Altman to direct, thinking that there would be no way they could actually get him. Good thing for us he was wrong. Altman also said he was prepared and eager to continue the show past the convention, with Tanner running as an independent (and indeed the last episode leaves Tanner’s independent candidacy an open question), but unfortunately HBO decided not to extend the series. Altman revisited the show in 2004 with the mockumentary series Tanner on Tanner (good, but not great, and not nearly as explosive as the original show), and the Sundance Channel re-aired all the old shows under the tag line “Once more in ’04,” with introductions by many of the show’s characters, reflecting back on their experiences 16 years later. Criterion (and really, can we ever thank Criterion enough for the great service they provide to film scholars, -makers and -lovers alike?) released a DVD compilation of all eleven episodes with the newly-minted introductions.
Yes, it’s cheesy in spots. Yes, it’s low-budget and sometimes seems a bit incoherent. But it’s also recommended viewing for political junkies and Altman fans.