This is a big deal. maybe a bigger deal than most people realise. Literally years ago – before I even started watching ‘The Sopranos’, my good friend Pete recommended it to me. I had heard of it briefly, but I did not know, necessarily, what to make of it. The idea of ‘politics’ and ‘good drama’ is not the most interesting of mixes – but then, I guessed, that was its unique appeal – ‘The President – up-close-and-personal’. Woo hoo. So, he gave me the whole first season to watch – but it sat on the shelf. For many months. he eventually took it back, insulted at how I could be so ignorant. By this point I had formed a negative opinion on it – assuming the people who watch it are wannabe-politicians who desperately wanted someone to show them that politics is fun when, deep down, we all know its all a little bit boring. The people who actually think its fun or in anyway enjoyable often study politics or work in politics or are, in fact, politicians. Watching ‘The West Wing’ won’t make you more politically aware because, the fact that you are watching it, probably means you are already politically aware. You don’t need Josh Lyman telling you that. But Josh does tell it, interspersed with humour and, after forty minutes, you can turn it off – fully confident that you have spent time learning politics, when you haven’t really, you’ve watched a gossipy and fleeting programme that is pretty much a sitcom – but is arrogant enough to think that, just because its based in the Oval Office, its above it all and not as shallow as a sitcom. Its so funny, there is something that I completely despise about this programme but I just can’t put my finger on it. Now as a TV series – before I mock every scene one-by-one (you could do it…), I shall do some sort of summary … I have one episode to watch conveniently, so there will be a prologue post-watching the last episode of series 1…
Summary of Series 1…
Each episode generally consists of some political issue – responses to conflicts, death penalty, gay rights, established and expected rules within American politics – and going against these rules in the name of freedom. The only continuing political issue that sustains the entire series – kind of – is liberals sitting on the fence to the point that [shock] the President can’t sleep at night. eventually he decides he has four years to make a difference and reinvigorates his team and they set to change the world,
But, underneath all the actual important political context there is something more interesting going on …
1) Sam (Rob Lowe) sleeps accidentally with a high-class call girl – this is an interesting start, until about four episodes in whereby this story is dropped for the opportunity to expand on another relationship Sam is having with his bosses – Leo’s (John Spencer) daughter. Quite a player. But then – for no real reason, that story is dropped also – and turns out Sam is still ‘hooking’ up with the prozzie. Seriously, this prostitute story is suddenly brought up again in the second-to-last episode … will it be a part of the finale …
2) CJ (Allison Janney) – the White House Media face – fancies a guy called Danny – a man who works in the media – this is toyed with for a few episodes, until they kiss, banter, kiss a little more and – surprise surprise – their seems to be some sort o conflict between their two jobs. Didn’t see that coming. Currently prior to the last episode, post-fall out, we are watching CJ and Danny try to mend their [boo hoo] broken relationship.
3) Leo had a drug and alcohol addiction. He is over it now, but it might look a tad bad for the President but it hasn’t come out in a way that it has affected the White House too much so, at the moment he just harps on about it every now and then – “Whats your view of an alcoholic?”, “The problem is, I don’t want one drink – I wasn’t ten”… now I understand alcoholism. Thank you Leo.
4) Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) begins the story as the wonder boy of the White House, who has previously dated Mandy (Played by Moira Kelly, who initially appears to be the catalyst for some crazy events – crazy rock music rather than orchestra – in the White House, but alas – as she is an incredibly annoying character – she simply seems to disappear of radar until some old ‘memo’ discredits the democrats and she is shoved out from the inner circle…) and then does a lot of self-analysis – he feels bad carrying a card that would save his life in the event of a nuclear attack, he reflects on the nature of his job on a TV show, etc – until a new relationship is possibly begun in the character Joey Lucas, and the banter and flirting continue over at least 4 episodes.
5) Charlie (Dule Hill) is hired very strangely to become the Presidents personal aide and ends up dating his daughter. We are then subjected to many issues involving Charlies African-American roots – Can the Presidents aide be a young black man? Can the Presidents daughter date a black man? Charlie previously worked at an elitist executive club as a waiter and was racially discriminated against – or so it is implied.
6) Toby (Richard Schiff) and President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) are simply perfect people to some extent. Toby is passionate and cynical to a big degree (passionate, cynical … target audience … ) and, obviously, delivers all his lines perfectly making very few – if any- mistakes. President Bartlett though brings the whole gang together – mixing all the crews liberal views together in some big melting pot and pulling out a spoon of the perfect solution. But, more importantly, everyone is very happy with his final choice anyway. He’s the president after all.
So, the politics are sidelined generally for the sake of, lets see, prostitutes, relationships with bosses daughters, conflicting jobs affecting relationships, drug addiction, alcohol addiction and racism. All these threads are the only ones which continue one-episode-after-another. Only in one instance – something about a conflict in India which lasted two/three episodes – did something other than generic-programme situations come about – albeit an edgy programme that shows after the watershed, but importantly, generic.
What I reckon …
My view is very clear by this point. I was mocked for stating to a friend that I was ‘in awe of myself’ – but seriously, I was spot on before I even watched the programme: It dances over the politics, but focuses on the banter and relationships, akin to any generci programme. Highlights from what I said a conversation with friends about the programme – obviously I was telling this to friends who liked the programme who even went so far as to say that the opening credits were good… but here are a few of my primary points:
“It is trying to be a cross between a serious political drama (akin to John-Grisham-novel-based-movies or JFK or Frost/Nixon) but, without the budget and the horrendous music, it often appears like a cheap-TV-series or, dare i say it, soap. Now, serious-political-drama crossed with a soap has so much conflict. How can you take a soap seriously … you can’t.”
“The music … completely jars – not to mention the awful title sequence. Add to that the ‘funny’ ‘quirky’ attitudes they have … ‘oh, look, the president is high on pills’, ‘oh, how funny Sam and Toby banter about their credit on his speech’, ‘oh, how funny CJ and Mandy caress Leo’s pearls for his wife’ … i hesitate to use the word, but big cheese is what it is.”
“You DO NOT get such cheap shots for comedy in Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Life on Mars …”
“considering the nature of the programme, this [trashy] sit-commy style and cheesy music undermines the intentions of the programme makers”.
“The case on the left [may] need to be told – but [the programme is] so arrogant about it, thus not being ‘fair’ about its views and invalidating its point. See Michael Moore for someone making the right point about the right issues but fudging up the delivery by twisting words – you don’t need to lie about Bush, he is wanker and there is real evidence to prove it.”
“Choices over ‘proportional responses’ and the relevance of an – and I quote Toby – an ‘archane constitution’, this is relevant even now and interesting even now, it is the [prostitute plots, etc]which are a bit – as I have said – cheesy and sit-commy.”
So you can see the main problems – awful cheap tone, arrogance of characters, quirky-comedic-situations and the horrendous music.
To finish on a lighter note – my problem is people taking the programme so seriously- but, if people didn’t take it seriously there are many great things going on:
The roaming camera while talking really really fast is actually quite fun, its so fast-paced it can catch you out of breath because clearly the characters aren’t going to take a breather, they just keep walking and talking. On the plus side, if you miss something, they almost always clarify.
The characters are so likable, you do want to see what happens. Toby – though cynical and passionate (hmmm) – is played so well. He’s like some fuzzy bear with the beard. Strangely enough, as a ridiculous Jurassic Park fan, I was well aware of Richard Schiff’s previous work – he was the guy torn in two by the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s in ‘The Lost World’ and also played Elijah Wood’s dad in pre-Lord of the Rings, ‘Deep Impact’. So, it will be interesting to see his character develop. I reckon he has a little thing for CJ – which – when CJ and Danny are passionately in love I guess – will be revealed. Josh is also very likable – the whole Josh/Joey relationship is so much more interesting than the Sam/Leo’s daughter/Prostitute debacle.
Also, for all the liberal-ness of the programme, it is worth noting that currently the staff of the White House, bar Charlie and the fella in charge of the military (big, black and could kick the shit out of you), there are very few black characters – let alone Asian or of any other descent other than white American. Then again, ‘Mendoza’ is Hispanic. But that’s it. Three. though they seem to go on a lot about characters Jewish roots – is the writer Jewish – yes he is. No homosexuals introduced yet – or not openly gay. The majority of female staff – Donna, Ginger, Mrs Lanigham – are secretaries to the men in authority. Then again, maybe that was the way it was in 1999. So that last point could be scrapped.
Specific high points: Ave Maria playing while Josh and CJ talk, Bartlett telling his daughter how she could get kidnapped (though ruined in both cases by the awful music at the end of each scene) and the episode on the death penalty.
Overall, I reckon if people didn’t big it up as some important programme I would have been more impressed. But, is it worth a watch? Yeah, I guess so – and I am, to some extent, keen to watch the second series (even before watching the final episode) but I won’t because I have so many other programmes that I am invested in and want to finish. No offence intended, but I am keen to watch Series 6 of 24 which has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, and I have yet to watch the last two series of Frasier – all programmes that aren’t set in the White House (24 a little actually … ) but programmes that don’t take themselves too seriously and are just a load of fun. Maybe I will miss the banter (opposed to missing the deep discussion on American politics which, for all intents and purposes, is not really deep in any way, shape or form – maybe a brief glimpse of American politics would be a better way to summarise) and therefore will come back to the West Wing and, if I do, you will surely know about it …
Right, predictions on the first seasons finale … I saw a gun on the DVD so, clearly someone gets shot. I’ll put my bet on the Presidents daughter…
For gods sake. They decided not to choose who is shot/killed until episode one, series two. Who
could it be. They were so aware of how obvious the shooting-finale was, that they preempted the whole thing and showed us the end in the first opening and then flashed back to fill us in. Its the final episode! You have had 21 episodes to fill us in! I still think the daughter may be shot – even killed. She seems expendable. Would also give the floundering President Bartlett even more cause to … continue what he’s doing, but with more passion. Charlie is going to be injured I reckon. Because the target was the daughter and, he was close enough. Maybe Leo. Maybe Josh. Hell I don’t know and obviously they want to keep their options open so whoever everyone reckons it isn’t they will choose to be ‘the one’. Cliffhangers … another feature of a generic programme. Just to clarify my meaning on the word generic:
generic adj. Relating to or descriptive of an entire group or class; general.
So, ‘The West Wing’ is a generic TV series. I’d even go so far as to say that the plot lines are the type of plots that appear in soaps. Yes. I said it. ‘The West Wing’ is akin to a soap opera.
To finish, as I said at the end of this overview prior to the epilogue, I have decided to go back to 24. Yes, its cheap. yes, it appeals to the lowest common denominator – but I’ll tell ya, I’m so much more gripped! Its exciting, its fast-paced. There are no stupid relationship troubles. This season we have terrorists who have got the President to cave into their demands. The context of the 24 hours is after 11 weeks of terrorist strikes and attacks on the USA. The value of life is decided by a bullet. I am five episodes into the series and I have held my hand over my mouth, aghast at the shock of some situations. Utterly gripped again. Though, I shall add, from all my banter of – is it Snuffy or something – who does the music for West Wing, Sean Calley is better, but not much. The music sounds very cheap on 24. I’ll save the review after watching the sixth series.
Quick note to Al:
Al stated that one frustration of 24 was that it spent 2 minutes at the start of each episode recapping the previous episodes, so that after the 24 episodes of the season, effectively, those 2 minutes would accumulate to – approximately – the same length of an actual episode. fair point …
The West Wing doesn’t spend as long recapping episodes – though it does – but has an additional 1 minute of [the most awful, embarrassing, cheap and rubbish] opening credits. So, its probably the same – if not more – time spent on not just recapping (which can be quite handy if you’ve been away or something) but also THE SAME SEQUENCE SHOWING PEOPLES NAMES. Do I need to know Rob Lowe is in ‘The West Wing’ 21 times? 24’s credits last 5 seconds. No ‘Keifer Sutherland is…’. We know who he is… he is Jack Bauer. Brother of Graham Bauer. Son of Phillip Bauer. Husband to the late Teri Bauer (now THAT was a finale), and Father to the stunning Kim Bauer.