Friday, February 5, 2016

Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing"

In short, I recommend watching The West Wing if you'd like to start looking at politicians as humans again, rather than the spoiled, disconnected creatures they're portrayed as in the media.

Spoiler-free review: the series focuses on the west wing of the White House, following the trials and tribulations of the administration of fictional President Josiah Bartlett. The show was praised for the relative accuracy of its portrayal of the White House, even if the characters and the show itself were overly idealistic. The first few seasons are must-watch TV, I would say. The later seasons, though enjoyable (especially if you're attached to the characters), lose some of the show's depth.

Anything further enters spoiler territory, though the show isn't really an experience that would be damaged much by spoilers.
Aaron Sorkin has a lot in common with Joss Whedon, I think. They're both big fans of snappy dialogue and movement, with a knack for making flawed, charming characters that many people grow attached to.

That said, at first I don't think I was terribly interested in most of the White House staff. They seemed mostly pretty petty and haughty, which is a pretty classic first impression given by liberals. But then Martin Sheen walked onto the scene as President Bartlett, and his character intrigued me enough to want to know more.

Over time, each character pulled me in, at least a bit. I was charmed by the friendship between the President and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. Communications Director Toby Ziegler won me over with the first Christmas episode, when he tried to track down the identity of a man who died near the Lincoln Memorial. And so on. Each of the characters had a quality that, more than simply redeeming them, actually made them compelling and worth emulating.

The staff also often reminded me of the Fangamer crew: a group of people who care for each other and who, for the most part, are kind of muddling through a job with very little guidance. We're expected to succeed, and somehow we do, despite our flaws. Sorkin is known for writing people who are good at their jobs being good at their jobs, but that gives the false impression that the people involved are supermen, and they're definitely not. Rather, Sorkin's ability is to do all of that and make it believable, which is the difficult part.

The show definitely has a hard liberal slant, specifically because it reflects there characters' perspectives. Interestingly, many of the conservatives portrayed on the show are portrayed as being very reasonable people, even when the protagonists don't see them that way. Likewise, many liberal characters are shown to be downright deplorable. Both of these concepts were brought to the forefront with the introduction of Ainsley Hayes, the Republican who joins the cast briefly as White House Counsel. She gave voice to some of the justified Republican criticisms of some liberal ideas, while also dealing with quite a bit of backlash for having the audacity to be an outspoken Republican working in a Democratic White House. I really appreciated this nuanced view that didn't demonize "the other side" unfairly. And Sorkin, obviously a liberal himself, is not afraid to criticize the liberal party in America. He is, after all the person who later wrote:
...the NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck, but [Republicans get] to hit you with it anytime [they want]. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?
That from a character who spends an entire (different) series trying to redeem the Republican party.

The West Wing often focuses on the disagreements of priorities within the Democratic party, and rarely feels the need to bring in conservatives as villains. And, usually, when a conservative is suspected of being the source of a problem, it's almost always a red herring.

Unfortunately, Aaron Sorkin left the show after the 4th season. Afterward, the show became less about hard choices and ambiguous solutions, and more about just letting us know what happened next. Characterizations became a bit more flat, and there was so much going on that we rarely got much chance to explore decisions and characters as much. There are still a few really good episodes ("Liftoff" from Season 6 comes to mind), but the lack of Sorkin was felt even before I noticed he wasn't writing the episodes anymore.

Again, that's not to say the show got bad--we're not talking about Twin Peaks Season 2 here. It's just not as good. Chances are, though, if you make it that far in the series, you'll probably want to keep going.

Anyway, I definitely recommend watching the show. At least get a few episodes in to see if you have a taste for it. It's a good show about good people, and you don't get that so much these days.

No comments:

Post a Comment