Monday, August 29, 2016
5 Thoughts on The West Wing
One of the things I've been doing a lot of in my week off from responsibility is watching a good deal of television, specifically two shows that I haven't seen in a number of years that, through Netflix or a lovely gift for my birthday, recently came into my life. I find that looking back on TV shows are mostly memories now but were once appointment viewing is a distinct joy, like seeing an old friend, and one that you genuinely liked After all, you're suddenly remembering certain scenes that were once part of your daily obsession, or realizing quotes that you say on a consistent basis are not of your own making, but instead have an origin. That's been the case with me for both of these shows, and so I figured I'd begin the week by talking through two shows (one today, one on Wednesday) that I have found myself watching, and what my reaction is over ten years after I last saw an episode in the series.
We'll start with the one I just finished back-to-back episodes on, The West Wing, which is still esteemed by pretty much every political junkie I ever find myself coming across. The show, centered around the presidency of the fictional Josiah Bartlett, was showered with Emmy Awards back in the day, brought a number of stars to major celebrity, in particular Allison Janney, and was a strong compliment both to the Bill Clinton administration and a counter to the Bush administration that seemed to run against everything the series had to stand for. At the time, I was a burgeoning political junkie, and this stoked the fire something fierce. Here's five things that stand out years later:
Much has been said of shows like The West Wing and its trademark Aaron Sorkin patter, particularly in the way that the characters talk like they are cartoons, wonked-out and brilliant like a DC-laden Gilmore Girls, and it's with good reason: Sorkin is a damn fine writer. The writing here, particularly the way that the comebacks and dialogue roll out are crisp and intensely quotable. Even when you approach the point where it can no longer surprise you (typically it's hard to shock the audience through writing after two seasons or so, which occasionally gives way to ridiculous plot holes), you are still in awe of the way that he can throw out bon mot after bon mot. It helps that he's aided by a relatively new concept of profiling the very centralized world of the West Wing (the show rarely sees these characters outside of the scope of their office lives, likely because that's all they seem to have time for), and so we get a cloistered, always interesting set of stories, but it cannot be undersold that the writing is exceptional, rivaled only by The Social Network in terms of the best thing Sorkin has ever done.
It's fascinating to see what issues, even only fifteen years or so ago, are on the minds of the Bartlett White House and what things the president seems to be willing to compromise on and which things he wants to dismiss. For example, topics like school prayer show up with deep regularity, despite the fact that no one talks about school prayer anymore in the public sphere, while immigration was just mentioned, perhaps for the first time that I've noticed, and I'm already three seasons into the series. The idea of a Democratic president not backing gay marriage is absurd in our current timeline, and yet here he's barely willing to buck Don't Ask-Don't Tell on this program. The show occasionally touches on issues that still resonate today, particularly around the topic of gun control and issues in the Middle East (though even there it's more focused on foreign issues in South America than we're accustomed to hearing), but by-and-large it's good the show had such wonderful and rich characters and writing, because the politics definitely bottle this into a specific time-and-place.
Perhaps because I was in high school when I was initially watching the show and hadn't really become aware of such a thing or perhaps fifteen years ago was truly a long time ago in the world of network dramas, but man does this show have a serious sexism problem. This is something that has plagued criticisms of Sorkin for years, so it's not hard to see that this may have been more the writer and not just the times they were living in, but the show's treatment of women is kind of appalling, both surface-level and if you peak below.
Take, for example, the most important female character on the show: CJ Cregg. A brilliant press secretary and pretty much every viewer's favorite character from the show, nonetheless upon further review she frequently comes up short in terms of getting to be as brilliant as the men around her. Frequently she's in conversation with Toby, Sam, or Josh and they are chastising her for not knowing about some arcane aspect of the Mexican economy or the periodic table. On a show that deals with such complicated issues as The West Wing, expositional dialogue (where they have to explain to the audience in an organic way the nuances of a specific policy topic) is inevitable, but it seems to nearly always be at the expense of one of the women like CJ, Donna, or Ainsley being lectured by one of the men, rather than nearly ever the other way around. And when it is the other way around, it's meant to come across as silly or emasculating, like when Ainsley destroys Sam in a debate and then it's stunning that a woman could overcome him, or Donna's breadth of knowledge being considered "cute" rather than impressive. Even Abby is frequently found being talked down to or put in her place by people, and she's the First Lady. And the comments about the women's appearance, particularly CJ's, is deeply insulting. It'd be one thing if Sorkin was doing this to try and illustrate how much harder it is for women in this overwhelmingly male environment, but Josh or Sam never actually acknowledge their casual sexism and are considered heroic for remembering an anniversary or firing two of Ainsley's coworkers for an over-the-top display of sexism that even in 2001 a lawyer would be smart enough not to do.
This sexism didn't quite destroy my memory of the show (I see enough movies to know that I have to adjust my expectations in this regard, however unfortunate that may be), but it did color my perceptions on some characters. When the show first came on, my favorite characters were consistently CJ, Josh, and Donna, in roughly that order, with the Bartletts coming up next. Looking back, now, though, it's hard not to see that Josh is only acceptable on occasion. It's likely due to the fact that Bradley Whitford's acting is really strong (the best thing I've ever seen from him), that I am able to not find Josh completely off-putting, but both he and Sam are hard to love when you see how they only seem to care about a few members of the staff, and the only people they really look up to are Toby and Leo, while people in their lives like CJ, Donna, and Mandy (yes, the women), are more props that occasionally challenge them. It doesn't help that they both feel like Sorkin surrogates on the show, and while Sorkin the writer is a genius, I find him maddening as a celebrity.
Meanwhile, several other characters have gone up in my estimation. I love Leo upon revisit, to the point where I'm kind of shocked I didn't name him one of my favorite characters at the time. Sturdy, consistent, and challenging to the president, you'd be hard-pressed to find a scene that he doesn't elevate, and it's heartbreaking that John Spencer saw this as his swan song, rather than lending his sturdy presence to more television decades to come (he passed away during filming). I also don't find Ainsley nearly as infuriating as I did at the time, perhaps because most of the issues she's espousing now aren't nearly as controversial (or have been thrown to the ash bin of political discourse), or because I see her as someone just trying to make a difference who is constantly being underestimated because of her appearance, but I think she's charming in a way. A Republican counterpoint that feels convenient (it's hard to imagine her today taking such a position nor it being offered to her), but a character with more depth than I recalled.
Then again, some things never changed. CJ and Donna remain my favorites, and I still have a soft spot for the complicated partnership of President and Dr. Bartlett, and some of the characters I initially couldn't stand I never really get even years later. At the top of that list is Oliver Babish, who is played by the deeply overacting Oliver Platt (not my favorite actor by any estimation), who is condescending, rude, and frequently being proven wrong but doesn't have any sort of humility or reverence for anyone other than his own voice. It's a bad character, one drawn too broadly and too filled with unearned ego, and one who is constantly being underestimated by strategy. He's the sort of person whom the writers constantly have to reassure you is brilliant because he needs to be for the story to work, and yet is constantly overridden and overestimated and proven wrong.
Here's where things get interesting for me, and will have some spoilers for fans of the show so watch out in that regard. Back when this show was on, it's hard to remember this but it was before most people had a TiVo or a DVR, including yours truly. As a result, you had to make a concentrated effort each week to turn in for your favorite show or at least reset the VCR to record the series. When it was so easy to drop out of a show, decisions on the series mattered, and I remembered thinking toward the end of the fourth season when (SPOILER ALERT) Sam was written out of the show and Aaron Sorkin was dropped from the series due to issues with substance abuse and conflicts with Warner Brothers. At that time, I decided (headed off to college myself) that it was time to retire the show as I simply didn't have the time to watch it and it didn't really feel as good to me anymore. I have read pretty voraciously in the years since both A) what happens to all of the characters so there's not a lot of surprise left for me and B) that the show did see a steady decline in the overall approach, even though it still gained generally favorable reviews. I'm about five episodes into the third season right now, so I don't have to make the decision for a while, but part of me is fine leaving off again with the Season 4 finale, never to see a time when Leo dies or we have to deal with a lame-duck Bartlett administration. For those that made it through-is it worth it? I don't want my memories tarnished, particularly if the characters become a-characteristic. Share your thoughts below in the comments!