Category Archives: Television

Quo Vadimus?

Here are some thoughts on the last few episodes of West Wing, and on Aaron Sorkin:
West Wing first. As most of you surely know, West Wing is going off the air at the end of this, its seventh season. Like I told calamityjon, the first four seasons of West Wing were sublime. Just terrific drama with vibrant characters, complex and rewarding storylines, and dialogue a step above that found in its prime time peers.

Then they fired Aaron Sorkin, the writer/producer/creator of the show–something about his week-long hallucinagen-fueled vision quests getting in the way of his turning in scripts in a timely manner. The show went to crap immediately thereafter, wherein it languished for a couple of seasons. Things got really bad when they put John Wells, the ER producer, on the case–all of a sudden every week somebody got caught in a car bomb or a helicopter crash or a kidnapping.

I kept tuning in, though, out of some misguided loyalty to its long dead or dormant greatness. After a year or two, ratings plummeted–probably because the show wasn’t enjoyable anymore–and I guess they gave up on trying to get people to watch and just get back to making a nerdy, politically-charged, drama about the White House. And unfortunately they were apparently right to give up on attracting viewers, because although the series improved a lot, getting back up to what I’d quantify as 70% of Sorkin-level quality, it continued to garner Arrested Development-level ratings.

Which is all a logorrheic way of saying: everybody stopped watching so they decided to cancel the show.

This season’s episodes have a lame duck feel to them, therefore, and the writers have apparently decided to delight the show’s long-time fans at the expense of bothering to maintain any kind of dramatic integrity. You know how lots of sitcoms and dramas have characters who have a huge amount of sexual tension, but if they ever got together it would be the beginning of the end? I’m thinking here of Sam and Rebecca, Maeby and George Michael, or, I don’t know, Brandon and Andrea. Anyway, on West Wing those roles were shared by both Josh/Donna and C.J./Danny, and the writers did a great job of maintaining the tension for the whole of the series run. Oh, until they found out the show was cancelled, at which point they managed to get both couples into bed together ASAP. I’m torn, because it is nice to see the characters happy and, you know, sassified, but come on. If it made sense for the characters not to get together up until this point, how reasonable is it for it to happen now? In my opinion, not so reasonable. But you know, this is basically fan-fiction writ large, a reward for those of us foolish enough to watch this show every week for seven years. I guess I can live with it.

Also, the writers had to deal with the death of actor John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry and was to have played a major role in the conclusion of the series. I think they did a good job with a tough situation, and of course his real death lent the show a bit of pathos that no artificial plot point could have.

As for Santos, the new Democratic nominee who won the election a couple of episodes back: who cares? I mean, as I understand it Jimmy Smits is a handsome man, and I’ll admit that he makes a decent jedi, but I find it difficult in the extreme to make any kind of emotional or intellectual connection to the fictitious future happenings of a world that I know will end for me in 3 weeks–especially the future happenings of characters I was only introduced to a year ago. Does anybody feel strongly about the fact that Santos edged out Vinick in an extremely close election that came down to Oregon? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

What do we care about? We care about the characters we’ve been following for the better part of a decade: Toby, C.J., Donna, Josh, Charlie and Jed–and, to a lesser degree, Abby, Mallory, Margaret, Amy, poor beleaguered Will Bailey, Huck and Molly, Joey Lucas, Danny Concannon, and Nancy McNally. Thankfully, it looks like the last few episodes will focus on these characters and their futures, which we will never see (barring an ill-advised spinoff).

Speaking of which, goddamn–it sure is great to see Sam Seaborn again. I know Rob Lowe felt he had his reasons for leaving, and considering the disaster that was Sorkin’s departure I can’t say he made a mistake; but the show was far worse off without him, and it’s not like he did his career any favors by leaving his most successful role in years to head some third-tier legal drama that collapsed in a month.

Okay, so I don’t have any solid conclusion to this rambling mess. I guess I’ll just say that I’m sad to see West Wing go, even if it is a shadow of its former self. And I’m gratified that so many characters that disappeared for years (hello, Ainsley!) are making brief cameos. And I’m disappointed, though not surprised, that Sorkin declined to play any role in finishing up the show that will probably be his greatest legacy.

Speaking of Sorkin: he is weird. Like, I love both Sports Night and WW, but when I get all psyched about introducing someone else to one or the other (especially Sports Night) and we’re sitting there watching, sometimes it’s almost painful. I am confronted suddenly with the awkwardness of Sorkin’s dialogue or the contrivance of his plots. And I notice how many of his jokes are about domestic violence, or how many of his characters have drinking problems. I recognize lines he liked so much that he used them again and again. I see the plaintive earnestness with which he has his characters mouth his own liberal opinions, and it’s discomfiting in the extreme.

And yet, I think that a lot of these flaws are made obvious only by familiarity. And each is outweighed by a concomitant virtue. So I’m glad that Sorkin’s got a new show coming out in the fall, and I look forward to hearing more of the same tired dialogue, the same character archetypes, the same endless pedeconferencing shots, the same musical montages, the same ardent sermons, and the same damn jokes based on saying some dumb phrase over and over until the words have lost all meaning.

Maybe if they brought back Sam.

This review of the live West Wing debate last night is hilariously biased (MSNBC and NBC are not entirely unconnected). Anyway, if you read the review and didn’t see the actual show you might think that it was entertaining, insightful, and went extremely smoothly. In truth, it was dorky, awkward, and filled with minorly-flubbed lines that indicate why live TV drama is the ratings-gimmick exception rather than the rule. I’m much more in line with this review from the Washington Post, which declares the episode “a failure, yet not a complete waste of time.”
Other thoughts: Where the hell was Josh–is it even slightly plausible that the campaign manager wouldn’t be at his candidate’s only debate? Alan Alda is a better live actor than Jimmy Smits, but for some reason Smits got the best dialogue. Oh wait, I know why–because the writers of the West Wing have given up on the idea of portraying a GOP candidate as other than a big jerk. How the hell is Alda supposed to sell his baby-killing anti-health care platform? Especially when they inexplicably stacked the audience with raucous democrats?

That reminds me of a huge Daily Show pet peeve–why don’t they tell the audience to shut up already? It’s pitiful to hear these sycophants mindlessly applaud John Stewart’s pedestrian statements and jeer even intelligent points made by right wing idealogues. I know it’s supposed to be a joke, but I think political humor works a lot better when it’s not fueled by unthinking partisan dogma.

I’m having trouble deciding whether I want West Wing to die peacefully or take another shot at relevance. This debate didn’t exactly encourage me of the show’s chances of the latter.

Donna Moss is the best.

West Wing is really getting pretty good again. Now that they’ve more or less given up on the cheap melodrama (car bombs, heart attacks, kidnappings) and gotten back to policy arguments and partisan bickering, the show is starting to resemble the program that I found so interesting 5 years ago. Wow, 5 years ago. Anyway, I’m impressed with most of the developments of the last few episodes, with the caveat that I think the writers are trying too hard to emulate the cadence and tone of Aaron Sorkin’s old scripts. His dialogue is one of a kind, and imitating it just ends up hollow and awkward.
The leak plot is coming to a head just as a real life leak investigation does the same (although the justification for the real life leak is quite a bit more sinister than the reason behind Toby’s behavior); the campaign stuff is interesting (and of course is very important, since it tells us who we’ll be watching for the next 3 or 4 years (unless the show gets cancelled, which it probably will)); I just figured out that Santos’s wife is played by the estimable Teri Polo, whom some of us remember fondly as Rebecca from Sorkin’s short-lived masterpiece, Sports Night; Janeane Garofolo is doing a very good job as Josh’s latest shrew/possible love interest (Mandy, Amy, Joey Lucas).

I am excited about the live debate coming up in a couple of weeks, as gimmicky as it may be. And I am very much looking forward to the inevitable return of Donna Moss, who for some reason just refuses to reply to my love letters. And now that he lost his own show, might we be treated to the return of the Boy King, Sam Seaborn? I’m just saying, it’s not like Rob Lowe’s got a lot on his plate these days.

So that’s what I think–West Wing is definitely watchable once more.

As long as we’re talking about my television obsessions, I might as well just include this Boondocks comic, which really hit home for me.

The OC and Arrested Development (and Reunion, for that matter) should return to prime time next week, once baseball stops happening. Huzzah.