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A likable president, but not quite credible

One of the tossed-off subtleties on ''24" -- and they've been rare on the hyper action series -- was its black president. Without heavy breathing, the show normalized an image -- a man of color as the leader of the free world -- that many Americans surely find threatening. ABC's ''Commander in Chief" similarly tweaks social prejudices and fears, giving us a vision of the first woman president and arguing that the middle syllable in ''commander" is just a coincidence.

But there is a lot of heavy-breathing on this earnest series, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 5. When Republican president Teddy Roosevelt Bridges dies, most of his staff does not want Geena Davis's Vice President Mackenzie Allen to take office. For one thing, she's an Independent. For another, as Donald Sutherland's sexist Speaker of the House tells her, Islam will not respect a female leader. Her mission -- and the mission of the show -- will be to prove she is indeed equal to the task despite that ''once-a-month-will-she-or-won't-she-push the button" question, as she puts it. And her struggle is presented with all of the manipulative underdog idealism of the show's progenitor, ''The West Wing."

''Commander in Chief," created by Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed ''The Contender," is the kind of drama that will polarize viewers. It's an intelligently written show that looks a lot like ''The West Wing." The White House sets are carefully lit, the camerawork is graceful, and most of the action is verbal and accented with swelling music. As Allen's political foe, Sutherland promises to make an absorbing antihero, with his snowy hair and power-hungry eyes. When his Nathan Templeton warns Allen, ''People who don't want power don't know how to use it," Sutherland projects an almost demonic intimacy with the dark side of human nature.

But some viewers will be put off by the many unbelievable aspects of ''Commander in Chief," and not least of all by Geena Davis. Davis is likable enough as a lead, with her gentle mien. She projects wisdom and patience. But despite efforts to hold herself with stateliness, she's miscast. Just the fact that she has to work for gravitas and savvy undermines her performance. Naivete leaks through her facade. It doesn't help that Davis looks so young, with those glam lips. I wasn't buying her.

And as written, the role is hard to make fly. Although Allen once spent four years in the Senate, she's primarily an academic who's uninterested in politics. She's even ambivalent enough about working in government to initially respect President Bridges' dying wish that she resign, to make room for Templeton as president. And yet by the end of the episode she has suddenly decided to buck up against the most powerful of Americans in order to take command. Out of what looks like spite for the naysayers, she's going to charge ahead and become a powerhouse who puts the Cabinet in its place.

And wasn't it silly of President Bridges to have chosen her as his running mate in the first place, since he ultimately wants her to step down?

Meanwhile, Allen's husband, Rod (Kyle Secor), is ushered into a pink office, where he is expected by his First Lady staff to preside over menus and -- in one of the premiere's recurring jokes -- not to behave like Hillary Clinton. As the more comic side of the show's gender reversal, this subplot doesn't hold much potential for development. Neither do the subplots involving Allen's children, a pair of teens who have varying feelings about their mother's new role and an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes preteen who will probably be kidnapped in season five.

Toward the end of ''Commander in Chief," the drama hints that it's probably just going to continually contrive situations in which Allen will triumph no matter what. Allen is giving her acceptance speech when the Teleprompter mysteriously dies. Naturally, she is forced to speak from the heart; and, naturally, she goes on to earn the respect of the nation, even those who are against her. In that obvious moment, ''Commander in Chief" loses much of the credibility it needs to be truly culturally provocative. It almost crosses the line into fantasy.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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