Monday, March 12, 2012

West Wing: Why I'll Be Running for President Someday

Now I know what you're thinking. "Carvan! You're British! You can't possibly run for president of the United States!" Well, gentle reader, in reality the president is only a minister of the royal family, given that the United States are a colony of the British Empire. I will petition her majesty for the position and move into the White House at once to begin governing, once the redcoats finish putting out the fire of course.

I think the place is rather CHAR-ming.

But I am getting ahead of myself, so let me begin this by explaining what I fear may become a standard trope of my posts: I'm usually several years behind the times. My frugality (or as Kalpar calls it "Being a cheap bastard") leads me to postpone many of the joys in life until they come down in price. This usually relates to video games, films, etc, and as such I will likely tend to discuss things which have been out for ages already. This must be clearly understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to tell.

When I was still but an undergrad in college, 10 many many months ago, I was given something. It was a small box containing a number of discs; these discs were of great value and importance so naturally when I received them I was warned against their misuse or abuse. I took the box in my hand and the warning still rings in my ears as I remember the event. She looked my in the eye and said "If you lose or damage these, I'll hunt you down and kill you." And so began my journey through the West Wing series.

If this were an episode, this would be the point where the title sequence would begin

West Wing began airing on NBC in the fall of 1999 and ran for seven seasons, ending in the spring of 2006. It was created by Aaron Sorkin, whose recent works include The Social Network about the rise of Mark Zuckerburg, and Sports Night. Sorkin left the show after the fourth season, and it does show a little in the writing, but the show still holds up as an excellent witty and dramatic series across the board. The series also has a strong cast led by Martin Sheen as President Josiah (Jed) Bartlet, and other cast members such as Allison Janney, Dule Hill, Bradley Whitford, Rob Lowe, Kristen Chenoworth, Jimmy Smits, and Alan Alda.

I'll stop paraphrasing Wikipedia now.

West Wing follows the events surrounding Democratic President Josiah Bartlet's two terms in the executive mansion, and how Bartlet and his staff deal with the crises which arise when one attempts to govern one of the most powerful nations on the planet. The show brilliantly mixes the events of being a world power with events in the characters' lives, pacing out the character development and story development very nicely.

The series begins in Bartlet's second year in office, and progresses to the end of his second term as the series ends with he and his wife flying back to their home state of New Hampshire. During his term, the Bartlet Administration deals with legislative issues, military police actions, an assassination attempt, sex scandals, medical scandals, the deaths of members of staff, terrorism, re-election and campaigning, information leaks, foreign policy issues, threats and kidnapping, the post-Bartlet campaign, and Alan Alda.

I'd like to think he is just playing Hawkeye on this series too, and like many other veterans, he decided to run for president.

As you might have guessed from that list, the series is largely dramatic and has many expertly crafted moments of tension, grief, or conflict. That said, there are some very light tones at points in the program and the banter between the characters is exquisite. The writing of the series is one of its strongest points. Sorkin's first four seasons have a definitely witty tone to them and the character interaction is pulled off to near perfection. The pacing is there, the delivery is there, the dry wit/sarcasm/deadpan humor is there. I have a hard time not singing praises for this. For example, take 57 seconds out of your life (you're reading this blog, so I assume you have time to spare) and watch this clip.

I hope you see what I mean. In addition to Lord Marbury being one of my favourite cameo characters in the series, the interaction between the characters is nearly flawless. As much as it requires strong actors (of which West Wing has many) to play dialogue like this well, the pith and power that most of the speech carries is extremely well crafted.

The acting and characters themselves add so much to the show. Sorkin and the writing crew tend to put a lot of silence in a few of the episodes and the actors use that silence to the fullest. Subtle actions, looks, gestures and all number of tricks convey immense emotion without endless dialogue. In short, they SHOW things without always having to TELL them. Furthermore, the characters themselves each have their own arc carved out over the 7 years of the show and even minor characters become likeable or despised in the short time they have on screen. Each has a distinct drive and motivation and a distinct way of looking at the world which sometimes creates enough drama without having to deal with a national or global crisis.

In addition to the technical aspects of the show itself, one thing which I greatly enjoy about the series are the little tidbits and references which crop up from time to time. Those of you who are history scholars, or who just really enjoy the musical 1776 might notice that President Bartlet shares his name and home state with one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it is mentioned that President Bartlet is a descendant of said individual. Bartlet's wife is named Abigail, and throughout the series she is a strong first lady who supports her husband in his actions; she is clearly not just arm candy. Abby Bartlet is a force to be reckoned with in her own right, cowing her husband at times with her intellect and insight. Abby is also shown to be an avid proponent of policies like education and womens' issues. In my humble opinion, she bears a striking resemblance to first lady Abigail Adams who shares her name and many of her character traits and policy goals. This one you could also pick up on from being a history buff or really liking 1776. I happen to fall into both camps, so I can't really judge you either way.

History is fabulous

However, nothing is wholly perfect. One of my biggest gripes with the show is the somewhat "revolving door cast" they have for some of the minor characters. People will disappear for whole seasons or simply leave the show without explanation. I understand that the White House is busy and that often the show is juggling a number of plotlines all at once, but the tendency for characters at times to vanish without a trace and then appear months later is a little irksome.

A second problem the show suffers from is the occasional deus-ex-machina. In West Wing, this usually takes to form of one character holding onto a particular piece of information or course of action for the duration of the show, only revealing it to the audience at the end of the program as a magic wand to solve the problem. The dramatic tension that is ended when the magic wand comes out feels a little hollow and cheap, and smacks of "we wrote ourselves into a corner". I wouldn't say that it doesn't make sense in the context of the episode because everything does fit neatly together, it just seems a little lazy at times.

Thankfully instances of this issue are rare, and tends to happen with larger government issues like foreign policy or key legislation where one side is playing the other, however a much more common problem is that Bartlet seems to always win. Seldom does the audience have to deal with instances where Bartlet doesn't always come out on top. He seems to solve so many problems in the country and abroad within his eight years that my suspension of disbelief gets a little stretched. He is the protagonist and we are supposed to root for him, but I struggle to think of more than a few instances where Bartlet has to face a no-win scenario or does not ultimately come out on top.

These flaws aside, West Wing is an extremely solid TV series which I would heartily recommend to anyone with a penchant for higher brow material. It definitely helps to have an interest or understanding in history or public policy, but they do things in baby steps enough that a general audience could watch and enjoy the show. Mixing drama and wit and wordplay the show is intellectual for sure, but it will be a breath of fresh air for anyone seeking a witty series.

And it just goes to show, if running for President in one series doesn't work out just star in a John Candy movie that will let you be in charge

God Save the Queen

- Carvan

1 comment: