Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

What’s Next?

November 24, 2007

West Wing Season One

The West Wing: Season One
Created by Aaron Sorkin

lakelia says:

The West Wingmakes great television, and it makes even better six-episodes-a-night, four-nights-in-a-row DVD viewing. This show is set far apart from the majority of television, and even from many feature films, for the quality of its scriptwriting (both storylines and dialogue), by its acting and direction, by its characters, by its production (even the lighting is compelling and meaningful), and of course by how much I absolutely love it.

I love how fascinating it can be politically, philosophically, and personally all at once, and at the same time be funny and endearing. I love watching the relationships of the characters. All of the actors embody their characters brilliantly, and John Spencer stands out even among this group. He isLeo to me. I love when C.J. finds out her Secret Service code name is Flamingo; when they decide to nominate Roberto Mendoza to the Supreme Court; when Toby and Sam get so intent on producing a phenomenally worded “birthday message” to some assistant secretary. I love learning about the census, guns and drug policy, international issues, political maneuvering and image and retribution and the constant damage-control going on. I love when Bartlet paints a verbal picture of the worst-case scenario to impress upon Zoey how important her Secret Service protection is; when Donna tells Josh she was just looking at him with her regular face; when Leo tells Bartlet about the people so patriotic that they’d kill the President. That moment reveals the depth of their friendship as much as any of the other more emotional ones. After everyone wanting to make sure Bartlet didn’t hear about that comment, Leo brings it to the President as a friend, and makes him laugh. Their other shining, even electrifying, moment, is when the two of them make that decision: Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.

One more thing I love: being provoked to think about how and why policy decisions are made. It’s easy, very easy, to criticize United States policies and paradigms in domestic and international matters, and I do. And it’s very important to think about them from different angles and to develop a better understanding of the interplay of influences, inspirations, and constraints that shape these paradigms and policy decisions – which I don’t always do. I realize The West Wing is not necessarily the best place to learn about these things, but it’s certainly a valid source to include, if for no other reason than that I find it tremendously thought-provoking.

I admit though that I don’t really have any idea how realistic it is. It seems plausible, the show has political consultants, some people on the DVD special features said it was realistic… But still, how can you really say? I do know that it has romanticized American politics for me in an unrealistic way, like any compelling story of beloved characters can do for any way of life. And I do know that it’s something of a fantasy. It’s a fantasy about a White House full of people who, even if they are guided by their egos a fair amount of the time, truly care about public service, public debate, leadership, loyalty, right and wrong, and the continual development of a better and better country, for its citizens and for the world. It’s a fantasy that gives hope, even inspiration and a stronger fighting spirit.

At this point I suppose I can bring up the only two things that ever bother me about The West Wing. One is the music. The compositions themselves are fine, but I don’t like how they’re used. Thankfully we’re not in laugh track territory, but the music is sometimes almost that bad. Strings come in soft and swell just as something profound is about to be said, like a sign held up to a studio audience reading Be Moved. But, usually I am moved, so it’s not too terribly annoying. My other criticism is that sometimes, with “enemies,” I feel that the scriptwriters take the easy route to making them offensive. In the first episode a leader of the Christian right misstates the First Commandment and then heatedly demands to know what the commandment actually is. (This sets Martin Sheen up to make his first entrance, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt into a room full of suits, uttering the words, “I am the Lord your God.”) How likely is it really that a man in that position would mis-cite something that well known with such confidence? And even if it’s likely, doesn’t it seem a bit too convenient, having these people not know what they’re talking about just before we tell them off? The other example is when Charlie confronts the guys in the Georgetown bar who are harassing Zoey, and they start making inanely racist references to various hip hop artists, telling him to rap and such. It’s not totally implausible, but it does seem pretty unrealistic, and it’s an easy way to make sure we know these guys are jerks who deserve what they get. Of course, both of these scenes could happen, and they’re balanced out by plenty of occasions when the Bartlet crew make asses out of themselves or when political opponents are interesting and sympathetic characters with understandable arguments – so these few eye-rollers are not that big of a deal to me.

After every single episode, and especially after the cliffhanger at the end of #22, my sentiments could best be expressed in Bartlet’s own words: What’s next?

lakelia’s rating: 4.5 Stars

bakinakwa says: 

Watching The West Wing‘s first season, it’s hard to believe that this is television, let alone network television.  The quality of this show is easily on the level of most major motion pictures, and many it surpasses altogether.  For starters, there’s the set, which is monstrous.  I’ve never been to the White House, but this set certainly looks the part.  The music and lighting too represent a high-mark for television; these two elements, to paraphrase Martin Sheen, are like secondary characters.  The score, while at times manipulative, does an excellent job of translating what’s really going on inside a character into genuinely emotive music.  The lighting too provides a kind of psychological insight into the heart of a particular scene.  These three things make their presence felt peripherally: you don’t have to pay attention to them directly, but they work their magic on you all the same.

The fourth ingredient that makes The West Wingremarkable is Aaron Sorkin’s writing.  Sorkin has managed to create the most dynamic, compelling and flat-out watchable show on television.  This first season alone makes me incredibly eager to go back and discover Sorkin’s previous writing projects, like The American President and Sports Night.  One of the DVD extras makes a convincing argument for the symphonic nature of Sorkin’s writing, and while that may sound ridiculous it is definitely felt in the fast-paced, layered dialogue he supplies nearly every character with.  It’s almost surprising that the show was allowed to be made, such is the intelligence and depth of the writing.  The West Wing does not pander, does not assume the audience won’t be able to keep up, and those are two major differences to its credit.

The final ingredient, or at least the last one I’m writing about, is the quality of the acting.  I have never seen this level of acting on television, not from The Sopranos, not at all.  The fact that Sorkin and his casting department were able to rope in such quality actors across six co-leads is a miracle.  Much of the attention has focused on Martin Sheen, as well it should: watching him as President Bartlet feels like redemption for anyone who’s ever seen Badlands.  You might not know it from the numerous shitty roles he’s endured through the years, but Sheen is one of his generation’s truly monumental acting talents, and The West Wing finally gives Sheen a worthy outlet for that talent.  Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney are all stunning as well, so stunning that it’s really hard to believe actors like this are out there, just lying around underused.  I say underused because most television, most films for that matter, are sadly not employing this caliber of actor, and no one stands in contrast to that fact more than John Spencer.  Spencer as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is the definition of brilliance.  In nearly every episode he manages moments of indescribable emotion with the most economical of means, simple movements and unique phrasing.  A glance sideways here, a dropped syllable there, a pause, a voice barely raised and Spencer has created one of the richest characters I personally have ever been introduced to.  lakelia and I are going to have a John Spencer marathon down the road, such is the excitement with which his performance on The West Wing inspires one to discover his body of work.  Rob Lowe is the weak link among the major characters: a testament to how great his colleagues are more than a criticism of his own ability, which is to say he holds his own.  The reality is this The West Wing is an ensemble piece to end all ensemble pieces, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve already grown extraordinarily attached to each character.

Ultimately, however, The West Wing still somehow manages to be more than sum of its parts.  Its consistency is mind-blowing: episodes like “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” and the season finale “What Kind Of Day Has It Been?” take the cake, but there’s nary a dip in quality throughout the whole first season.  If for no other reason, I know that The West Wing is unique “entertainment” simply for how provocative it is.  Provocative, in fact, is the number one word I would choose to describe it.  Never have I felt more challenged, moved or inspired to really think and feel than I am regularly by this show.  The issues raised through the first season are meaningful enough to warrant deep consideration and thought, but it’s the degree to which I feel inspired beyond watching to go out and get involved in this great experiment known as democracy that says the most about the quality of The West Wing.  Granted, I can see how the show might come across to some as escapism; it is fantasy, the fantasy of hope, the fantasy of wanting and demanding more from government so badly that one is willing to take matters into their own hands.  At the end of the day, it’s less about politics than it is about the fundamental needs and desires that lead one to get involved in the first place and that not only cuts across party lines, it cuts across all lines.  I dare say, it’s universal.

bakinakwa’s rating: 4 Stars