|For Which We'd Forgotten To Ask: Aaron Sorkin's Better Angels|
|The West Wing started ten years ago|
Bored to Death. Is that it? Am I just projecting? Is that the actual title? I realized, after trying to like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bored to Death that ‘zany’ comedy only goes so far with me. Or maybe it’s just died within me as the ages pass. Hard to say, but surely ‘stupid’ doesn’t work for me anymore.
Watching Larry David feign agony trying to open plastic wrapped items, including a wrapped box cutter (the irony, you see…..), and being expected to find it funny pisses me off. Any adult male over 12 has experienced the problem and knows that, absent else, the car key will work, or a kitchen knife, or anything with a point. But we’re to howl with laughter at Larry David imitating Chevy Chase at his most god awful imitating gods of silent films whose humor – in any case - was based upon actuality, not supposition, as in ‘suppose Larry David couldn’t open some plastic encased item and was too retarded to think of the many obvious options! What a fucking riot!’
Like David’s Kramer in Seinfeld and George Costanza as well, I don’t know how these characters are expected to survive not being bludgeoned to death – and with reason – for being obnoxious beyond ken all the time.
So then, I was confronted with the painfully expensive fact I don’t find any of the current shows on HBO entertaining, about the only reason I have a television at all. Well, absent NFL games and news. And some PBS, but you know what I mean. I’m olde. Well, wait, True Blood I sorta like, but have to wait till next season. Entourage I do like since I was a booking agent, and thought Matt Damon’s cameo in one of the last episodes this year was hysterical. I like people who find themselves pompous and ripe for being laughed at. Given he is the producer, I have grown fond of the guy. The Informant clinched it for me. Well, so much for Damon. But, anyway, Entourage is in hiatus as well. But I was wrong, there are a few things I still like on HBO.
I watch Fox’s House and have grown to like it, primarily because Lisa Edelstein is gratuitously shown in profile so often, but also because of Hugh Laurie, a veteran of Black Adder, which in its time was the funniest show ever on television. I watch Bones because all three primary babes are smoking hot. I’m trying with Fringe because the three leads work well together, it’s an adjacent creation of the X-Files (even alludes to it) which I once had affection for and it has a guy from The Wire in it, than which no greater resume exists, along with Denethor from Lord of the Rings. And the blonde lead is good and sensual in a way no others are at present. She has a sense of quiet and presence. The father and son can be quite funny. It’s a comic book and totally derivative, but claims to be no more. It’s played down the pointless intricacies that doomed X-Files and Millennium because sustained thought contemplation did those series no favors.
So, having updated, that’s about it for me on television and HBO, which I still use for movies and that terrific sports show with Bryant Gumble. It truly is excellent.
But the days when The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, and some others shows I thought hysterical, are gone for good. Deadwood, for example. And Rome. The last two were popular but very expensive, so HBO canned them. A shame. Big Love and The Conchords leave me as cold as the American The Office. I have considered just dropping television, since the news is behind the web with alerts and major television anchors beg interviewees to cry on camera.
I’m a child of television, grew up with it, watched way too much till high school when I watched too little, and college and after when I watched nearly none. I don’t miss the terrible shows I used to watch. Except one. I miss one show. I miss The West Wing in its prime.
It’s ironic, given it was a hokey soap opera, corny and sanctimonious in turn. It was fiction with a capital F, but today, in the middle of the health care reform debate, and the worst factions of our society are out in force, including some KKK wannabe in Denver with his racist and anti-Obama signs, I’m enough of a child to yearn to see more of the better angels of our nature, and currently finding too few to support the view that replying in kind is the wrong way to go.
Last September, I heard a piece on the news about the spelling of Kadaffi, Libya’s dictator, when the bastard who set the bomb in that plane was released from Scottish prison to die at his home. Ten years ago, nearly to the day, Chief of Staff Leo Thomas McGarry screamed at his incredibly cool secretary, Margaret, to call the New York Times and tell them they spelled it wrong in the crossword. He’d previously tried from home without giving his name but they shined him on, and he was still mumbling mad about, making the rounds in the opening and impressive tracking shots of the series pilot. He had to deal with his assistant, Josh Lyman, who’d pissed off the Christian Coalition type group on a Sunday talking heads show. He had to deal with the press secretary, C.J. Craig, who was concerned about the President having ridden his bike into a tree (“an unexpected arboreal stop,” suggested McGarry), and he had to get Communications Director Toby Ziegler and his number two, Sam Seaborn, to deal with Cuban refugees trying to make it to Miami in crafts about as seaworthy as “Donna’s desk.”
As the group gathered for the Monday morning staff meeting, Seaborn wondered if the military shouldn’t handle it. After being jumped on for suggesting such a thing in a witty exchange (“I’m not saying I don’t like our chances….” deadpans Seaborn after Ziergler wonders if he heard him right, that he wanted to send the US Navy to confront rowboats) of the sort not heard on a television series for many a moon, the scene ended as they began to discuss what to do with Lyman’s temper tantrum against a conservative media preacher. Much more in that six minute scene of movement and substance that kept you bolted to the screen for its duration. I fell in love with the series and all the characters in that six minutes. I was fascinated that a show required you to know something to get it, and that you needed an attention span to follow it. On network television.
In the first year, it clawed out memorable major and minor characters and had hoaky plots and dubious events but also had truly moving writing, ensemble acting of the sort rarely achieved anywhere, and retained a sense of both drama and comedy through plot arcs short, season long, series long. It pulled in guest stars including Oscar winners and relative unknowns who were memorable and up to the dialogue. Although it was about politics, it was really about Lincoln’s focus on our better angels. It was compassionate and responsible liberalism as it’s never been, nor will be, but should be.
But, we only had a year of the Clinton administration to go, and when Bush was elected and did what I and anyone who’d paid attention pretty much knew he would do, The West Wing became weekly therapy for damaged souls. Democrats and liberals had little to cheer them in those years, and except for Al Franken, a few websites, it was up to The West Wing to keep the faith.
Aaron Sorkin may or may not be as original as I initially chose to think, but he knows how to write for specific actors and characters and most important, he gave good corn at need. Corny is easy to do at the level where everybody knows it’s corny and therefore immediately becomes camp and self-loathing and requires laugh tracks and audience reaction. But Sorkin’s writing was such it aided the actors doing it straight, and they rose to the moment at unexpected times and – I say with no blushing – choked you up.
The two episodes that open the second season, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, was probably as good a two hours as television has ever seen, both for the cleverness and deft use of flashbacks, the terrific dialogues, the depth attributed to the characters, and the excellent acting. It ended with a mumbled ‘what’s next?’ from a Josh Lyman returning from death’s door, which completed the episode circle in unexpected fashion and, because we often did not know what was going to happen, provided a graceful coda. It won an Emmy and should have.
TWW was famous for the excellence of the regular part time actors like Nichole Robinson, the looker and damned funny woman who played Margaret, McGarry’s brainy and somewhat insane secretary, and another who was elevated to star status at the end of the first season, Janel Maloney. Maloney played the absolutely delightful Donna Moss, Josh’s assistant and eventual, we assume in the last episode, wife. Beautiful and horsy by turn, witty and sometimes fact challenged, loyal beyond ken and someone we’ve all met and would like to meet again, Donna was still far from the heart of the series while encasing what was best about it. Given opportunity to do good after conning her way into the Presidential race in New Hampshire, she did real good, ending up as a valued campaign advisor to Matt Santos’ presidential campaign (Santos was based on Obama, as Lyman was based on Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s COS) Chief of Staff to the First Lady of the incoming administration at series’ end. You like to think good people are allowed to rise, are recognized, are rewarded, and rise to the occasion for all our benefit, both in government and, it turns out, the series.
After years of Bush trying to palm off nebbishes as Supreme Court nominees and Attorney Generals, telling palpable failures that they’d done a good job for New Orleans during Katrina, we wanted – Christ, we needed – to think our government had once and could again rise to levels of competence not currently apparent. It meant a lot to me to be reminded of things like that. Primarily that others felt the same.
Sorkin could preach and ‘heavy handed’ doesn’t really capture the clunkiness of some scenes. But if you could sit through “Shibboleth” – the Thanksgiving show with C.J. trying to deal with the pardon of one of the two turkeys in her office while Sam and Toby argued about a speech (Sam was trying to implant the idea the Pilgrims were crime solvers by night which caught the exact sense of humor that exhaustion brings on), and then President Bartlett being asked to pardon both turkeys and explain to their keeper why he really had no such power, and then Charley Young, his personal attendant, being given a carving knife from Paul Revere after a complicated lead in (this was so well done, and realistically moving) and all this being mere scenes around the main theme of Chinese Christians seeking sanctuary in this country, if you could sit through it and not be moved or laugh aloud, well…. you wouldn’t like me.
At the end, Bartlett sums up everything and goes forth to some kid’s ceremony saying ‘this is a great job!’ And so it seemed, and so we wanted it to be.
There was the ordered assassination during a musical made from Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays, the murder of C.J’s love interest (her secret service escort) in a punk robbery of a convenience store, there was hiring of a Republican attorney and her run in with her insanely liberal and overworked boss, who interrupted the President’s 35th take of his Saturday radio address when his wife and he were horny and trying to get some personal time, and there were the incredibly funny and numerous scenes of collegial affection between Josh and Donna and C.J. and Sam and Leo, their boss.
John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, died before the end of the seventh and last season. The last years were not the series’ best, since Sorkin had gone and the only remaining executive producer was John Wells, who wrote ER, a truly mediocre show that came to rely on Deus Ex Machina absurdities early on, say about the time George Clooney left. But Leo’s quiet schmaltz (only this character and that actor could get away with the silly yet annoyingly moving story of the guy in the hole, and the guy’s acquaintances passed by and wouldn’t help, but his friend jumped in the hole with him. He’d been there before and knew how to get out, you see. “As long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job” he said to a traumatized Josh Lyman. He pulled it off, and got him an Emmy then or later, I cannot recall.) was the heart of the show, and his poise and the excellence of performance are referential to actors hereinafter. Corn is tough to do well, and Spencer made it good. Very good.
So good, that Television without Pity, a website that had high regard for this series, took note of something I’d missed. In an episode where-in a car accident claimed the life of the President’s secretary, an elderly woman who’d known Bartlett as a teenager, the moment when McGarry is told the news brought him a long close-up where he did, essentially, an actor’s workshop using his eyes and minimal facial movement. He held the scene and rendered the episode memorable beyond what sheer plot shock might provide. Spencer was terrific all through, and he made everyone else, including Martin Sheen, who was excellent as well, better in it.
Leo’s fulminations with the British ambassador, a soused and somewhat insane Lord John Marbury, were two of the funniest episodes, along with the one where they wrote jokes for the President’s Press Club talk. There was the first Christmas episode where a homeless man, a former Marine, got an honor guard funeral, and the hurricane, and “24 Hours in America” where Toby, Josh, and Donna got left behind in Iowa and Sam wrote a great speech in a car on the way in, and a farmer got a return call from the White House about his daughter’s prospects for college. The President called one of Donna’s teachers to wish her well when she retired. Charley dating the President’s daughter. And John Larroquette, arguing with Sam over Gilbert and Sullivan and being introduced to a nicer version of Ann Coulter, thrills her with “You’re an idiot.”
The thing is, I know The West Wing wouldn’t work today. Obama’s election pulled the rug out of its premise, which featured a full amount of white liberal condescension to African Americans even though the National Security Advisor and head of the Joint Chiefs were both black. John Amos, another great casting, playing Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, looking fierce and noticing the coffee was different at crucial intervals. He called the female Security Advisor Dr. Strangelove because she was much more given to military action than he was. He worried if he knew peace from war anymore.
There was a White House butler who crawled out of Oscar Wilde to upbraid the taste in art apportioned around him, and who gave a Jew-baiting line to a Holocaust survivor who’d fainted seeing a painting stolen from her family on display. It would be worth more if we hung it for a while and then gave it back to you, he said. That wasn’t the issue. Subtle, but correct for the character. I thought it remarkable that anyone who’d been an English major (me) would be given access to a character’s inner self in so few lines. Have no clue who played him.
There were so many scenes that work as scenes alone, not requiring knowledge of the arc they were advancing or the series at all that it must be said Aaron Sorkin either had a LOT of stuff left over from the movie American President (which was claimed as the basis for the series) or a fertility of mind that humbles. He was nailed for drugs and later left the series at the end of the fourth season, and much that made the West Wing enjoyable left with him. What left was the dialogue and speed of thought that graced each of his episodes (I think he wrote all but one) and made the show distinctly above anything else on the tube at the time. I include the great Sopranos, which could wimp out with violence and sex, advantages the West Wing did not have. The Sopranos was a great show, but I don’t think anything, for sheer entertainment, approaches the first three and maybe first four years of The West Wing with Aaron Sorkin and his director at work.
I’m glad I don’t need it for succor anymore, but I miss the good feeling it left for being treated - on normally template-poor weekly drama on a broadcast network - to both surprise, pleasure, and - since Sorkin stole from Conrad anyway - the sense of well being and pleasure in our fellow citizens for which we often forget to ask.