||Josh: You're listening to me, but you're not understanding
||Toby: No, I'm disagreeing with you. That doesn't mean
I'm not listening to you or understanding what you're
saying. I'm doing all three at the same time.
House Staffers, Josh and Toby displaying
a certain amount of mental multi-tasking.
ONE: An Introduction
the obvious question needs to be asked so let's ask it up
front. How did a superbly entertaining, politically savvy
and left leaning, liberal TV show about its own country's
power players, survive in a country presided over by a man
whose idea of a good time used to be a whoopee cushion (trust
me, I did not make that up)? Does the 'used to be' let him
off the hook? He was in his twenties. Granted, the American
idea of left wing is galloping conservatism on these shores.
Announce you're a Marxist in most US states and you'll be
lucky to cross the county line with one functioning lung.
There's only one thing worse than a left winger in the US
and that's an atheist. God bless America. And let's hope
The God Delusion author, Richard Dawkins,
currently on tour in the US, gets out alive...
every West Wing fan quietly (screw it,
very loudly) wished that Martin Sheen were actually
president (I am not that naïve but the wish is a genuine
one), one that could easily imagine Leo, Josh, Toby, Sam,
CJ and Donna actually working on behalf of their country?
Sheen is a politically active liberal and has a police record
to prove it. In short how does sophisticated ice stay ice
in a cultural desert? Well, the man whose brains a certain
Joss Whedon once confessed he'd like to eat, West
Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, has made it so. Despite
his departure after the fourth season, Sorkin's machinery
was in place for other huge talents to set light to the
is so obviously hyper-smart and hugely experienced when
it comes to matters of the White House that the DNA was
in place for a groundbreaking show. The bigger surprise
was Sorkin's extraordinary talent for affecting drama. Let's
not forget his flame keepers, the creative minds' talents,
those who helmed the fifth to the seventh season. It's not
as if Sorkin hadn't sowed certain seeds (see The
American President and A Few Good Men for evidence. "You can't handle the truth," is
a Sorkin line). There are moments in the series that make
you want to punch the air – simply celebrations of rationalism
and smarts over entrenched dogma and quite breathtaking
all too common nonsense and destructive stupidity. In the
real thing, it seems these attributes are reversed – at
least to the public via the media. When did a once proudly
secular nation inherit a cabal of right wing fundamentalists
as its leaders? Mr Dawkins, I wish you luck.
TV is a complete and utter bastard to make shows for. I
mean that in the nicest way. It's uniquely challenging and
in about a month I start a similar challenge. I'm sure the
discerning readers of this site know why at a crucial part
of the drama, Captain Kirk's face faded to black and faded
up again – this time on a wide shot of the Captain's perilous
predicament. The BBC bought Star Trek so
commercial breaks – built in to the film drama itself –
were something of a mystery to UK viewers. The extraordinary
ways you have to twist a narrative to provide a 'tease',
a 'hook', a 'first act intro' with a tease at the end to
lead the viewer into the second act etc. It's narratively
alarming but if the commercial shoes fit, American TV programme-
(sorry, program-) makers have to squeeze into them. It's
only never craft-constrained when it's tailor made for the
US TV structure. In other words, don't make a great movie
if it's going to have to be split into acts – movies are
a different animal. Make the 'split into acts' version from
the get-go. The West Wing seemed to wear
this cumbersome dramatic straitjacket and make it look cool;
not only cool but almost as if that tortuous commercial-minded
structure was the only way to go.
||Bartlett: Sweden has a 100% literacy rate. 100%! How do they
||Leo: Maybe they don't and they can't add.
West Wing was a revelation.
show screamed, in bright neon, something hitherto whispered
in hushed tones in TV executive boardrooms across the pond.
It showed that immensely sophisticated and complex (dare
I utter the word 'intellectual'?) stories and characters
could exist on an American network. Seven seasons are evidence
enough. If US TV shows do not show advertising profit they
are discontinued. Seven years! Joy! This means that out
there somewhere are intelligent people – and among 300 million
souls, this counts as a plus. So what force stopped them
from voting against Bush in the last two elections? Come
on! If you're endorsing a fictional democratic president
like Jed Bartlet with your remote control calloused fingers,
then exercise a little common sense by getting rid of the
Texan Terrorist by marking your X against anyone other than
him. Yes, we've had intelligent TV in the past but nothing
quite like this.
like House, had built in medical life and
death drama. Six Feet Under dealt with
death (duh) and a family trying to stay cohesive. The
West Wing – heavens! – was about politics and no
more exciting subject is there on the planet except for
every single other one. The West Wing can
be unsubtly summed up as one hundred and fifteen hours of
smart people talking to each other. Yes, there were moments
of what I'd call standard action (assassination attempts,
kidnap rescues etc.) but the spine and heart of the series
was verbal conflict, debate and decision-making. So why
was the series so damn riveting?
West Wing took up residence in an entertainment
vacuum, a ratings space, one that catered for the more discerning
viewer. How it ever got commissioned is beyond even Stephen
Hawking's mental abilities. This is not meant as a cruel
and crude remark about the sophistication or lack thereof
of the great American unbathed (or even those lathered and
showered). It is, however, a cruel remark about what American
TV commissioning editors think of their audience. I do a
great deal of work for US commissioning editors and the
phrase 'dumbing down' doesn't do justice to how work is
presented and targeted. Remember that for every one West
Wing, there are two dozen Survivors.
A 24:1 ratio doesn't bode well for the intellectualising
of an audience but then perhaps we really do get the television
we deserve. In the case of The West Wing,
we must have been a very good audience the day Jed Bartlett
strolled into being.
more photo-friendly of the two turkeys gets a Presidential
pardon and a full life at a children's petting zoo;
the other one gets eaten.
||Bartlet: If the Oscars were like that, I'd watch.
an ensemble show, each character having a specific job,
character and relationship with every other character. It's
a dramatically satisfying show, ticking off the TV structure
necessary to survive on US TV and yet it still manages to
be viable and unforced. It's also about the way the biggest
super power on the planet exudes its power and the results
are often illuminating. As bizarre as this sounds, the show's
UK counterpart has to be Yes, Minister
and Yes, Prime Minister. I'm not kidding
despite the fact that Minister's writers
Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay were most obviously writing
comedy. Both shows offer a slight insight into how we are
governed and the more we learn of politics, the more we
are astounded at the very primal nature of human beings.
The fact that President Jed Bartlet – a real mensch – always
tried to do the right thing (always a big honeyed bear trap
in any political environment) endeared him to us even more.
There is another interesting comparison. Hapless Jim Hacker
could have been either left or right wing, so self-serving
and insipid were his politics. In Yes, Minister,
his political allegiance was never stated. In The
West Wing it most certainly is.
the same token that right wing comedians are rarer than
P.J. O'Rourke's left wing credentials, Hollywood has installed
a democratic White House at the tail end of the Clinton
years. As a counterpoint to the reality after Bush snuck
in, the series has always seemed leavened by an almost fantasy
aspect – the real White House staffers appearing to be so
much more heartless, snide, hypocritical and unjust than
their fantasy counterparts. But then that's only what gets
reported. Let's face it. If Bush is Satan, Jed Bartlet is
the other guy. Take a look at this sublime show and pitch
the fantasy staff against the real thing. It's a loaded
statement. Hollywood TV has nothing to do with reality but
like Steve Martin's kiss in L.A. Story,
The West Wing may not be the truth but
it's what we wish were true... Enough of the soft soap opera.
Let's get down to business or as Bartlet would say "What's
||Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality
Jenna Jacobs: I don't say homosexuality is
an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.
||Bartlet: Yes it does. Leviticus.
Jenna Jacobs: 18:22.
||Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of
questions while I have you here. I'm interested in
selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned
in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks
fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was
her turn. What would a good price for her be? While
thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of
Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath.
Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death.
Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it
okay to call the police? Here's one that's really
important because we've got a lot of sports fans in
this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one
unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves,
can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can
Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really
have to be together to stone my brother John for planting
different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother
in a small family gathering for wearing garments made
from two different threads? Think about those questions,
would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking
this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass
Club, in this building, when the President stands,
Hullo POTUS! No, not a new focus-group inspired title for
a Cbeebies TV show. It's the acronym for 'President of the
United States', a little dramatic frisson used to extraordinarily
satisfying effect in Episode One, Season One of this groundbreaking
show. Why was it groundbreaking? It did – at the tail end
of the 90s – what Python did at the tail end of the 60s.
It liberated intelligence and threw it at an audience (American
or non-American), an audience that could not have possibly
understood every arcane word and deed. This is a political
show that rattles through its politics with nary a pause
for breath. These people are smart and watching smart people
communicate ups everyone's game.
the first six seasons, the democratic Bartlet administration
dealt with assassination attempts, threats of war, the kidnapping
of the President's daughter, the President's advancing Multiple
Sclerosis and a whole host of problems that any normal human
being cannot begin to comprehend. I see the US President's
job as being akin to sifting through the acorns, choosing
several and nurturing them in the vain hope that one or
two of them will produce a worthy oak. He/She is always
at the start of the domino run. They can flick the first
and hope the effect at the end of the long line is the one
they anticipated. In the middle of all this, they deal with
international incidents, national disasters and global war.
All anyone can hope for is that the biggest bully on the
block has the requisite brains to accompany his/her strength.
Yes, the PC 'his/her' thing is meant to signal one thing
and one thing only. This world needs – no, really needs
– a female president. This world needs a female uprising
in the Middle East to balance the veiled threat. Let's all
hope that Hillary C. and Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi can form
an alliance and end this global male rule bullshit once
and for all. I'm in fantasy land again, aren't I? Males
have the upper body strength, always have had. How sad.
But I am in fantasy land. Can you blame me?
||Bartlet: "We hold these truths to be self-evident,"
they said, "that all men are created equal."
Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in
history that anyone had ever bothered to write that
down. Decisions are made by those who show up.
OF PART ONE
here for Part 2 >