Glorious timing, in the midst of the presidential campaign season, when we’re pickled in the arcana of two public lives – their boyhood choices, family influences, favorite cookies – to debut Jack & Bobby. The WB series about the portentously monikered McCallister brothers, popular sophomore jock Jack (Matt Long) and Bobby (Logan Lerman), a nerdy sweet heart of an eighth grader, piques on the promise that in 2041, one of them will become president. (Which brother nabs the Oval Office is a secret The WB would prefer that critics keep.)
Thus, what could have been a simple coming-of-age story gains the heft of a political biopic, or a clever mystery: What choices and influences land this kid in the White House? What kind of boy becomes a president? In our deeply analytical world, the series is resonant in another way: On a grand scale, ”Jack & Bobby” reflects the American obsession with picking apart our childhoods ad nauseam for clues to the adults we become.
Interspersed with flash-forward, circa-2049 interviews with insiders like President McCallister’s VP (Tess Harper) and campaign adviser (David Paymer), the modern-day story is set in the boys’ hometown of Hart, Mo. Created by a fitting consortium of ”The West Wing” and ”Everwood” execs (Thomas Schlamme and Greg Berlanti, respectively), ”J&B” nails the perverse, political world of high school, where conformist kids are paid off with popularity and engaged oddballs like Bobby end up at lunch tables alone. Credit the players, too: Long, with his gently frayed cockiness and stony face, can almost pass for one of those flawless, flaccid, cool kids until he reveals his own well-tended hurts. For his part, Lerman lends Bobby a bedraggled optimism in the vein of ”E.T.”’s Henry Thomas. (The show’s one major school-yard misplay was the introduction of a clove-smoking bully so cliché you expect him to kick sand in Bobby’s face.)
The pilot episode is, on the surface, a basic week in the life: Bobby courts permanent nerddom by starting a space club during his first week in high school; Jack meets his first love (Jessica Paré). But these boys’ lives are not, naturally, that normal. Blame – or credit – their spitfire of a mom, played by Christine Lahti, whose wiry presence is so vibrant she practically hums. As Grace, a single mom and local-college professor, we first see her lecturing Bobby on the banality of television and the human beings who watch it. By the time she convinces the kid that he wants a keyboard instead of a TV for his birthday, we know we’re dealing with a woman who has a viselike love grip on her young son. We also know we’ve got one of the tartest and most opinionated female characters to bang against the small screen since Roseanne. (Think of Grace as the très educated, non-yowling version.) Here’s a woman who harangues stoic, confident Jack as ”an all-American automaton” and dismisses Bobby’s only friend as a bore who’ll ”grow up to be an accountant.”
But Lahti plays Grace with such a thwarted, injured energy – and the insults are so dead-on – you can’t help but dig her. Unless you’re a staunch Republican, in which case you’ll probably see in Grace the sort of liberal elitism (distaste for the mainstream, fondness of pot smoking, aversion to organized sports) that’s been a trigger point in the culture wars for so long. Not that in-name-only Democrats should feel safe: Her diatribe against the limp campus Kerry boosters (yes, John Kerry) in the second episode will sting quite nicely. But here’s hoping that in the future Grace’s acerbity is directed at less predictable targets than the college’s new dean (John Slattery) with whom she shares a too-cute meet-cute more suitable to a teen romance than this bright show.
Thankfully, the pilot’s end reveals which son is White House-bound, making a rewatch necessary to catch all the sly hints and slyer misdirects. The choice to nip the gimmick in the first episode is a hopeful hint in itself: ”J&B” is packed with enough personal tangles – family lies, favoritism, and a complicated sibling rivalry – that it doesn’t need that political twist. Even Lahti’s skeptical Grace would deem ”Jack & Bobby” smart TV.