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Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Garry Trudeau and maverick filmmaker Robert Altman teamed up in 1988 to create one of the sharpest television satires of all time. Here’s a look at their series Tanner ‘88 and the follow-up series Tanner on Tanner.

Back in 1988, when Ronald Reagan was about to exit the presidency, a world-famous cartoonist and a legendary filmmaker teamed up to make one of the most singular television series in history. G.B. Trudeau, creator of the political comic strip Doonesbury, and Robert Altman, director of films such as MASH and Nashville would collaborate to create an HBO television series called Tanner '88.

Tanner ‘88 followed the campaign of one congressman, Jack Tanner (played by Michael Murphy), as he and his campaign crew work to get him nominated as the democratic candidate for President. The show presented a behind the scenes look at the workings of a political campaign. Trudeau, well known for his political satire since his Doonesbury characters first met Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. With Tanner ‘88, Trudeau would be able to write directly about the upcoming campaign featuring real players in the midst of a live drama.

It was a one of HBO’s first original series, before The Sopranos or Sex and the City, and a first in many other ways as well. Robert Altman, long known as a maverick filmmaker, pioneered the use of handheld video camera for television. The roaming video-eye technique would be improved upon decades later on Arrested Development. All this happened in the years before digital video, when cameras were much bulkier than those in use today. Of course, Altman was going to push his technology to the limits, not to mention his actors.

For this show to succeed in the way that Altman and Trudeau intended, they needed a cast that was quick, talented and ready-for-anything. Alongside Michael Murphy was Pamela Reed as Jack’s tough-talking, chain-smoking campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh. Ten years before she found fame as working single mom Miranda on HBO’s Sex and the City, Cynthia Nixon played Jack’s idealistic daughter Alex Tanner (in the mold of Amy Carter). Ilana Levine bubbled as the delightfully green assistant Andrea Spinelli. Matt Malloy made trouble as hack cameraman Deke Connors. These actors were going to have to inhabit their roles in a way previously unseen on television screens or anywhere else. Altman, known for his improvisational approach with actors would allow his players into the real world of the 1988 Presidential campaign.

Balanced between scenes of behind-closed-doors politics, Jack Tanner and his crew were going to walk the political beaten path, running into real-life rival candidates Bob Dole or Pat Robertson while campaigning in New Hampshire or getting campaign advice from country music legend Waylon Jennings. Altman occasionally placed his actors on camera with current political figures, leaving them to improvise with the people who were following the same path in the real world.

The plot had to mesh well with realtime events. Trudeau, who’d been writing and drawing his syndicated Doonesbury strip for nearly twenty years, was an old hand at spinning yarns that paralleled current happenings along the nomination trail. As he prepares for a debate with Jesse Jackson, Congressman Tanner gets media tips from news host Linda Ellerbee. As Henry Kissinger once said about appearing in Trudeau’s Doonesbury: “the only thing worse than being in it would be not to be in it.” The show continued to find more celebrities and politicos alike from Democratic dropout Bruce Babbitt and the frontrunner’s wife Kitty Dukakis to starlet Rebecca Demornay.

Of course, the outcome to Jack Tanner’s campaign was inevitable. Since the action took place during the contemporary presidential election of 1988, Jack Tanner could not actually be nominated for Democratic candidate. There was discussion of continuing the series with Jack running as an Independent. Instead, the series was cancelled after its eleventh episode only to win an Emmy award, TV’s highest honor.

Sixteen years later, in the heat of the approaching 2004 election, Altman and Trudeau teamed again. The four episode follow-up series, Tanner on Tanner, was produced for the Sundance Channel. This time the auteurs would focus on Alex Tanner, now a documentary filmmaker and college instructor. Alex struggled to compile a documentary about the 1988 Presidential campaign, with a bit of help from her father, now teaching at a University. After Alex’s film fails at the Rough Cut film festival, she’s given some advice by a surprising film lover and put on the path to create a stronger film of her own.

The new series saw the return of many of the players from the original series. Andrea Spinelli sixteen years later had become Alex’s battle-hardened film producer. Tanner on Tanner featured cameo appearances by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi, Mario Cuomo, Michael Moore, Janeane Garafolo, and modern day Washington figures Howard Dean, Ronald Reagan, Jr. and Alex Kerry (the last two in a terrifically awkward predicament). Alex Tanner’s short-lived follow-up series carried just as much satirical bite. Even though Tanner on Tanner lasted for only a short time, it was a worthwhile visit to many groundbreaking characters in a world that parallels our own.

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