Tanner '88

Tanner '88

Series DVD cover
Created by Garry Trudeau
Starring Michael Murphy
Pamela Reed
Cynthia Nixon
Kevin J. O'Connor
Daniel Jenkins
Jim Fyfe
Matt Malloy
Ilana Levine
Veronica Cartwright
Country of origin United States
No. of episodes 11 (list of episodes)
Executive producer(s) Robert Altman
Garry Trudeau
Camera setup Multiple camera
Running time 1-hour premiere, all others approx. 30 minutes
Original network HBO
Original release February 15 – August 22, 1988
Followed by Tanner on Tanner

Tanner '88 is a political mockumentary miniseries written by Garry Trudeau and directed by Robert Altman. First broadcast by HBO during the months leading up to the 1988 U.S. presidential election, it purports to tell the behind-the-scenes story of the campaign of former Michigan U.S. representative Jack Tanner during his bid to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for President of the United States.

The story is told from a number of different points of view, including Tanner, his campaign staff, the small army of news reporters that constantly follow the candidate, and volunteers. Many political figures of the time appear (some in cameos, some extended), including Bruce Babbitt, Bob Dole, Kitty Dukakis, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, and Pat Robertson. Trudeau and Altman revisited the story 16 years later in Tanner on Tanner.

Plot summary

Representative Jack Tanner of Michigan (Michael Murphy) is an obscure liberal Democratic politician who struggles to find a voice in the early 1988 Democratic primaries. His campaign manager, T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed), uses an unscripted, impassioned hotel-room speech caught on camera as part of an advertising campaign focusing on Tanner's authenticity and integrity. Using the slogan "For Real", Tanner emerges from a wide field of contenders to battle for the nomination against two high-profile and better-funded candidates: Jesse Jackson and eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

With Tanner are his college-aged daughter Alexandra (Cynthia Nixon), whose illness was why he earlier left politics and who has left college for the duration of the campaign, and his girlfriend Joanna Buckley (Wendy Crewson), Dukakis' deputy campaign manager. Others who appear on camera are Emile Berkoff (Jim Fyfe), a compulsive statistician with a crush on Alexandra; Deke Conners (Matt Malloy), an East Village filmmaker hired to produce Tanner campaign ads; and Andrea Spinelli (Ilana Levine), T.J.'s innocent and ditzy but well-meaning assistant. The candidate's father, General John Tanner (E.G. Marshall), who has a contentious relationship with his son, also occasionally appears.

Although Tanner does not win the nomination, he does run a serious and credible race. The series ends on a cliffhanger after Dukakis officially becomes the Democratic candidate and Tanner considers a third party run.


Several members of Tanner's prospective cabinet are mentioned, with several making statements to the press accepting the appointment should he become president. Those mentioned include:[1]


No.TitleOriginal air dateProd.
1"The Dark Horse"February 12, 1988 (1988-02-12)1A/1B
On the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Congressman Jack Tanner and his daughter visit with potential voters, while his first campaign commercial is evaluated by a focus group.
2"For Real"March 14, 1988 (1988-03-14)2A
Tanner's passionate "For Real" commercial generates new interest in his campaign as he heads for Nashville. There, an apparent attempt on his life produces publicity and qualifies him for Secret Service protection.
3"The Night of the Twinkies"April 12, 1988 (1988-04-12)2B
Jack seeks the advice of an old friend, a civil rights activist, about how to reach African American voters.
4"Moonwalker and Bookbag"May 2, 1988 (1988-05-02)3A
After offending his friend, a Baptist minister, with an attempt at an impromptu press conference on the steps of the church, the campaign begins to freeze out media manager Stringer. At the same time, Tanner and his daughter must learn to cope with the constant protective presence of Secret Service agents and Berkoff interviews Tanner's father, exposing an unusual family dynamic.
5"Bagels with Bruce"May 16, 1988 (1988-05-16)3B
Tanner meets with fellow candidate Bruce Babbitt, who recently ended his campaign. Tired of being on the outs with the campaign, Stringer considers joining the Dukakis campaign where he discovers Tanner's girlfriend Joanna is a staff member.
6"Child's Play"June 6, 1988 (1988-06-06)4A
Tanner attends campaign events ranging from appearances at day care centers--where he talks to young children about tax abatements--and a Hollywood pool party. Afterward, a recently dismissed member of the Dukakis campaign approaches Tanner for a job, exposing Tanner's television and speech weaknesses.
7"The Great Escape"June 20, 1988 (1988-06-20)4B
Tanner attends a debate with Dukakis and Jesse Jackson where his comments about drugs become news. Mechanical troubles on the campaign plane lead to a stressful flight for everyone. Later, a reporter breaks the story on Tanner and Joanna's relationship, angering T.J., who did not know about it.
8"The Girlfriend Factor"July 11, 1988 (1988-07-11)5A
The campaign runs into problem after problem when they head to Detroit, including Tanner looking bad when "confronted" by a robot and looking bad kissing babies on camera. Meanwhile David Seidelman, the reporter who broke the Tanner/Joanna story, finds himself in the campaign's doghouse. Later, Tanner spends an afternoon at a Detroit community meeting speaking to people about drugs and America's future.
9"Something Borrowed, Something New"July 17, 1988 (1988-07-17)5B
Alex plans Jack and Joanna's wedding, stressing over the minutest of details, only to have them call it off after General Tanner makes an inappropriate speech and Deke Conners swoops over the proceedings in a helicopter. Afterward, despite his being nearly out of the race, the campaign reads an article speculating on Tanner's would-be cabinet appointments.
10"The Boiler Room"August 11, 1988 (1988-08-11)6A
Having both lost at the Democratic National Convention, the Jackson and Tanner campaigns try some last minute trickery, with T.J. calling in coordinator Billy Ridenour (Harry Anderson) to work some "backroom magic". Unfortunately, the Jackson campaign's need for plausible deniability prevents Ridenour from speaking directly to Jackson and winds up costing Tanner.
11"The Reality Check"August 22, 1988 (1988-08-22)6B
Despite not winning the Democratic nomination and his former campaign's finances now being audited, rumblings of Tanner running as third party circulate through what is left of the campaign. T.J. investigates the possibilities and the series ends with Jack not answering Joanna's query that it would be obvious for him to endorse Michael Dukakis and instead ruminates on his possibilities.

Home release

DVD name Release dateRegionDiscsEpisodesBonus Features
Complete Series
Criterion Collection
October 5, 20041211
  • 2004 Sundance channel introductions
  • Essays by film critic Michael Wilmington and culture critic Gary Kornblau
  • A "video conversation" between Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau.[2]

The miniseries was produced and first broadcast on Home Box Office, scheduled irregularly over the real-life seven-month campaigning period from February through August 1988.

In 2004, the Sundance Channel rebroadcast the series, adding new one- to two-minute preludes created by Trudeau and Altman to each episode "in which the actors reflect, in character, on the '88 campaign from the perspective of the present day"[3] That October Sundance produced a four episode sequel, Tanner on Tanner.


The hybrid of fiction and reality that came to be the miniseries' trademark was initially accidental.[4] Trudeau described the concept behind the miniseries as wanting to "let the audience feel they're eavesdropping, to create a sense of authenticity by observing the process, to follow campaign culture in all its tribal ritesnot to make a topical movie about 1988."[4] Tanner evolved during production, becoming, as Altman put it, "two-thirds scripted and one-third found art."[4] Trudeau and Altman intended to make more episodes, but HBO did not extend the run of the series.[5]

Reception and Influence

Reviews for the miniseries seem to improve over time. In one of the earliest reviews of the pilot episode, The New York Times called the show an "interesting misfire" that "insists too much on its own sophistication about politics".[6] The same paper held the second episode in higher esteem, calling it "humorous cinéma vérité" that's "slick and occasionally witty."[7] In its "Best of 1988" look at television, Time magazine called it: "the year's definitive satire of media politics."[8]

In a 2003 review of K Street, the New York Daily News said "Tanner skewer[ed] brilliantly the insanity and inanity of presidential politics."[9] By 2004, Slate was saying:[3]

More than a decade before the ascendancy of reality television, the series slyly blended fiction and documentary, with real-life political and media figuresBob Dole, Bruce Babbitt, and Linda Ellerbee among themcrossing paths with, and commenting upon, Tanner's grass-roots campaign. But Tanner's formal complexitya loose, layered blend of group improvisation, scripted set pieces, and the intervention of pure chancemanages to point up not only the laziness of reality shows like Survivor and The Bachelor but their moral and political vacuity.

While the two shows are stylistically very different, Aaron Sorkin has acknowledged that Tanner had an influence on The West Wing, which he created over a decade later, in its underlying idealism and in its view of political staffers as people who at least struggle to do the right thing.

In 2004, Altman said "I think it's the most creative work I've ever done."[10]


Altman won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series for the episode "The Boiler Room." Reed won an ACE Award for Best Actress in a Dramatic Series.


  1. "Something Borrowed, Something New"
  2. "Tanner '88". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved July 15, 2013.
  3. 1 2 Stevens, Dana (2004-02-04). "Primary Colors". Television. Slate. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  4. 1 2 3 Harmetz, Aljean (1988-05-18). "Like a Real Candidate, Tanner Falls Flat in Hollywood". Arts. The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  5. Altman, Robert; Trudeau, Gary (2004). Tanner '88 Complete Series (DVD). The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  6. Corry, John (1988-02-15). "TV Review; 'TANNER 88,' A SATIRE ON PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS". Arts. The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  7. Corry, John (1988-03-15). "Review/Television; 'Tanner '88: For Real,' a Campaign". Arts. The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  8. "Best of '88". Time. 1989-01-02. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  9. Bianculli, David (2003-09-16). "Been Down this 'Street'". Entertainment. New York Daily News. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
  10. "A candidate to believe more than ever". Entertainment. CNN. 2004-02-02. Archived from the original on Feb 13, 2004. Retrieved 2008-11-01.
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