big block of cheese, pt. 1

The first four seasons of The West Wing, all now available on DVD, simultaneously prove (if it needed proving again) that television can be as much an auteur’s medium as film (and maybe more so) and show why that can be an absolutely dreadful thing.

In the spirit of full disclosure: I own all four seasons of the Aaron Sorkin-controlled West Wing (he and fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme moved on before season 5, leaving John Wells (ER) as the primary producer and authority on the show), and I’ve watched them all many, many times. I am moved by the things that are supposed to move me, I laugh at the jokes even now. Sometimes I just put it on for background noise — it makes me feel like I’m thinking about serious things, even though I don’t have to concentrate as hard as I would on, say, NPR or BBC News. And I don’t mean that as a slam — The West Wing, like no other dramatic show on television, ever, raises issues about what it means to be a patriotic American. It examines most of the major issues of American public life, and tries to figure out how a serious, earnest person should deal with them. It anticipated by fully two years our public debate about the right reactions to terrorism and it supporters in foreign governments. This is a show whose first agenda is always to engage us in thought about our republic and the things that hold it back from spiritual greatness.

It is also undoubtedly a show formed primarily by the consciousness of one man. Although aided by a sizeable writing staff and several political consultants (including Peggy Noonan, Dee Dee Myers and Marlin Fitzwater), Sorkin wrote the majority of the episodes, and it’s clear from the repetition of certain themes from his Sports Night days that even when he wasn’t writing he had a hand in the story editing.

Moreover, whereas filmmaking is often dominated by strong directors and technical craftsmen, episodic television is a writer’s and actor’s medium. The technical aspects are professionally and gracefully handled, of course, but by the very nature of episodic production they must be to a large degree standardized. Thus even a show with elaborate stunts, like Xena: Warrior Princess, will tend to create well-defined sequences which it can use over and over again as building blocks for fight scenes. (Though Sammo Hung’s brief Hollywood experiment, Martial Law, was somewhat freer and more adventurous in this regard.) And even a flashy and strong-willed director like Quentin Tarantino can make only minor marks on a specific episode (as when he guest-directed on ER), because he must work within the physical confines of the set already built, with the technical crew already hired, maintaining a look already established, and utilizing performances rooted in past work.

The writers and actors, on the other hand, tend to benefit from the lengthy format; they can spread, make long-term decisions, add layers of difficulty or subtlety that are not available in two hours, or even the six- or twelve-hour format of the BBC’s famous mini-series.

Episodic fiction television has produced some brilliant auteurs: David Kelley, Mike Judge, Roseanne Barr, Joss Whedon, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Steven Moffat, Dan Milano and Spencer Chinoy, Marc Cherry, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, Glenn Gordon Caron, Michael Mann, and, in Sports Night, Mr. Sorkin himself. (We might also include Robert Altman in this group, although he was already quite established before Tanner ’88.) Yet because production of a television series lasts for years and demands thousands of pages of writing, the pressure on a single auteur can be tremendous, and it’s all too likely that a series of crutches or stylistic habits might emerge. This is more likely, it seems, if the show is a particularly ambitious undertaking. But it is precisely in a really ambitious and self-important show that these habits become the biggest flaws.

The West Wing works best in its small, throwaway moments, especially the comic ones. There is no doubt that Sorkin has added an extraordinary richness to the tired conventions of the workplace drama. While many shows have dealt with educated professionals — especially lawyers and doctors — few have made so much of the free, funny interchanges between highly verbal people who know each other intimately. Perhaps only NewsRadio has rivaled Sorkin’s shows for this kind of collegial wit, but where NewsRadio tended toward the surreal, Sports Night and The West Wing have constantly striven for naturalism. The latter adds to this a feeling of besiegement natural to its political setting. The long hours and isolation add to the intensity of passion, the ferocity of wit, and the tenderness of feeling among the characters. (This is underlined by the fact that none of the characters, with the exception of the President himself, is able to maintain a relationship or marriage.)

So the show has produced some of the best and funniest dialogue ever on television, especially in its smaller moments. Here are a few bits pulled from IMDB:

Danny Concannon: Hey, CJ.
C.J. Cregg: Hey, nimrod.
Danny Concannon: Look, I leaked your damn story for you.
C.J. Cregg: You leaked it for me, I leaked it to you, pal. I used you like so much… whatever.
Danny Concannon: Well put.

Toby Ziegler: He calls you and me the Batman and Robin of speechwriting.
Sam Seaborn: Well, I don’t think he does.
Toby Ziegler: He doesn’t but he should ’cause that’s what we are.
Sam Seaborn: Okay.
Toby Ziegler: We are Batman and Robin.
Sam Seaborn: Which one’s which?
Toby Ziegler: Look at me, Sam. Am I Robin?
Sam Seaborn: I’m not Robin.
Toby Ziegler: Yes you are.
Sam Seaborn: Okay, well, let’s move off this.
Toby Ziegler: You bet, little friend.
Sam Seaborn: Listen, we’re really not Batman and Robin.
Toby Ziegler: No, we’ll keep those identities secret. I’m Bruce Wayne and you’re my ward… Dick Something.

President Josiah Bartlet: [trying to wake up his wife] Abbie… Abigail… Abbie, the kids are eating sugar.
Abbie Bartlet: Uh…
[wakes up]
Abbie Bartlet: Oh!
President Josiah Bartlet: How you doin’? You know I gave the kids candy all the time, right?
Abbie Bartlet: Behind my back?
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes.
Abbie Bartlet: You bought their love.
President Josiah Bartlet: Well, it was for sale, and I wanted it.

President Josiah Bartlet: [reading from a prompter] I came to this hallowed chamber one year ago on a mission, to restore the American dream for all our people as we gaze at the vast horizon of possibilities open to us… in the 321st century. Wow, that was ambitious of me, wasn’t it?
Sam Seaborn: Leo.
Leo McGarry: Let’s take a break.
President Josiah Bartlet: We meant “stronger” here, right?
Sam Seaborn: What’s it say?
President Josiah Bartlet: [reading] I’m proud to report our country’s stranger than it was a year ago.
Sam Seaborn: That’s a typo.
President Josiah Bartlet: Could go either way.

But The West Wing also often lives up to its ambition in the large scenes, even in its big speeches. Perhaps no character delivers Sorkin’s big ideals more reliably that Toby Ziegler. Sorkin’s shows have a running undercurrent of righteous Jewish identity, and Toby becomes the release point for both the impassioned religious conscience and the Jewish method of rhetoric, with his rising, swelling voice and his aggressive sense of humor. It’s Toby who gets many of the good speeches. (It’s also Richard Schiff who, by dint of passion and commitment, is most often able to march on past speeches that don’t quite work.) It’s Toby who browbeats the President off dead-center at the end of the first season, who exposes the MS cover-up at the end of the second season, who plays stern schoolmaster when they’re preparing for the debates in the second election, and who pierces President Bartlet’s psychological defenses and makes him seek medical help in the third season. Toby is the moral center of the show, and he’s the most consistent in his political passions. He gets the big scenes, including several showdowns in the Oval Office with the President.

The President himself also frequently succeeds in articulating both the show’s ideals and the political realities that limit them. Here are two fine speeches, one public and one private. The first is from a flashback to Governor Bartlet’s early campaign:

[At a Q&A in Nashua, NH; a dairy farmer complained that Bartlett voted against a bill that hurt the farmer’s pocketbook “to the tune” of 10 cents a gallon:]
President Josiah Bartlet: Yeah, I screwed you on that one. You got hosed… I put the hammer to farmers in Concord, Salem, Laconia, Pelham… You guys got rogered but good. Today for the first time in history, the largest group of Americans living in poverty are children. 1 in 5 children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, back-breaking, gut-wrenching poverty any of us could imagine. 1 in 5, and they’re children. If fidelity to freedom of democracy is the code of our civic religion then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says we shall give our children better than we ourselves received. Let me put it this way: I voted against the bill because I didn’t want to make it hard for people to buy milk. I stopped some money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if you expect anything different from the President of the United States, you should vote for someone else.

The second deals with the Congressional censure after the President’s MS is made public:

President Josiah Bartlet: I was wrong. I was, I was just… I was wrong. Come on, we know that. Lots of times we don’t know what right or wrong is, but lots of times we do, and come on… this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset, but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything any more, we fuster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. “Everybody does it,” that’s what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone’s to blame, so no one’s guilty.

I’m to blame. I was wrong.

These are the moments that work — the moments in which the show finds its focus, finds its clear point of perspective. These are the moments in which the best ideals of our nation (and the best ideals of Sorkin’s obviously liberal ideology) are given a resonant, passionate, and mature voice. We should be grateful to have a weekly drama with such noble intent and such resolute purpose. I am not one of those who think art should not articulate the loftiest aspects of human nature for fear of looking foolish. I am glad when the show succeeds; I am not afraid to be invigorated or uplifted.

On the other hand, The West Wing doesn’t shy away from the moral ambiguities with which the President’s staff must sometimes live, nor the dirty political wetwork they must sometimes engage in, nor its costs. To cite one small example, in the second season episode “The Drop-In,” C.J. is sent to meet with a black comic, an old friend, who is scheduled to host a dinner the President will be attending. It turns out that back during the campaign, he once made a controversial joke at another dinner attended by then-Governor Bartlet, which had required distancing and damage control from the candidate’s staff. And now it falls to C.J. to ask him not to host this dinner, lest it stir up old controversy for the President. During the course of the conversation, a fine and subtle piece of writing, it becomes perfectly clear that C.J. is in the wrong — that she was wrong before to distance the candidate from the comedian, who has nonetheless graciously helped raise money and register voters, and that she is wrong now to ask him not to host the dinner. It’s clear that to use him to court the black vote and at the same time try to keep him separated from the President is tacky and disgusting. But she does it anyway, and the pain and cost this inflicts on their relationship is obvious. The script wisely lets us linger on this pain, without offering any salve. It damages our relationship with C.J., too, and that’s a risky thing to do in television, but it buys Mr. Sorkin and the show a great deal of credibility.

But there are plenty of moments that don’t work, and unfortunately these stem from Mr. Sorkin, too. And, worse, many of them become more apparent the more episodes one watches, or the more one becomes familiar with Mr. Sorkin’s other series, Sports Night.

Let’s deal with the latter issue first. When Sports Night first appeared in 1998, no one was quite sure what to make of it. It was a new thing in the world — an essentially dramatic series, but done in a half-hour sitcom format. It was brilliantly funny, but continuous in its narrative rather than returning homeostatically to equilibrium at the end of each episode. Critics loved it, and it found a small cult of followers, but in the end it was cancelled, weirdly a victim of its own artistic success.

But what seems fresh and astonishing when done once starts to look like either lazy dramaturgy or some kind of therapy when it’s done again in a radically different context.

For example:

In Sports Night Danny feels guilt over the death of a sibling and estrangement from his father, and ultimately seeks therapy for both. In The West Wing Josh feels guilt over the death of a sibling, while President Bartlet struggles with his estrangement from his late father; both eventually seek therapy.

In Sports Night Jeremy discovers that his father has been having an extramarital affair for 27 years. In The West Wing Sam discovers that his father has been having an extramarital affair for 28 years. Both are deeply disturbed by the discovery.

In Sports Night Danny is called “Hit-and-Run Danny” because he’s uncomfortable spending too much time in a conversation. In The West Wing Josh is called “Hit-and-Run Josh” because he’s uncomfortable spending too much time in a conversation.

In Sports Night, Sam Donovan is a recovering alcoholic; in The West Wing, Leo McGarry is a recovering alcoholic.

In Sports Night, Jeremy and Natalie fight over Natalie’s desire to go to fashionable clubs before their breakup. In The West Wing, Sam and his ex-fiancee had fought over her desire to go to fashionable clubs before their breakup. Also, in Sports Night, Casey’s decision to take a less glamourous but more fulfilling job precipitated the breakup of his marriage. Same thing with Sam and his engagement.

In Sports Night, Jeremy picks up a porn star in a bar and decides to try to have a relationship with her despite his discomfort with her profession. In The West Wing, Sam unwittingly has a one-night stand with a call girl he meets in a bar, then decides to befriend and reform her, despite societal censure of her profession.

And these are just on the level of major characterizations. There are literally dozens of other elements mirrored between the two shows, including comic bits, names, quotes from famous sources, and even episode titles (the last episode of the first season of each show was called What Kind of Day Has it Been?). There’s a fairly exhaustive 2-page list of overlaps here and here.

One could argue that, like Stephen King creating a fictional Maine whose historical and supernatural events are shared between novels, Sorkin is creating a special universe full of anomalous Easter eggs for his fans to find. But this would be more credible if the similarities were either in the nature of actual diagetic events shared between the two narrative lines, or else so trivial as to be mere jokes. Neither thing is entirely the case, and we are left with the feeling that, consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Sorkin is cannibalizing his earlier work. If consciously, we must feel that he is failing to properly respect his own imagination; if unconsciously, we may suspect that he is working through certain personal issues on our time and at the cost of good storytelling. And the latter comes to seem more likely if we consider the way that some of these themes fail as drama.

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