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Smartening Up

A region 2 DVD review of THE WEST WING – SEVENTH SEASON in 2 Parts by Camus
You're listening to me, but you're not understanding me.
No, I'm disagreeing with you. That doesn't mean I'm not listening to you or understanding what you're saying. I'm doing all three at the same time.
White House Staffers, Josh and Toby displaying
a certain amount of mental multi-tasking.


PART ONE: An Introduction

And the obvious question needs to be asked so let's ask it up front. How did a superbly entertaining, politically savvy and left leaning, liberal TV show about its own country's power players, survive in a country presided over by a man whose idea of a good time used to be a whoopee cushion (trust me, I did not make that up)? Does the 'used to be' let him off the hook? He was in his twenties. Granted, the American idea of left wing is galloping conservatism on these shores. Announce you're a Marxist in most US states and you'll be lucky to cross the county line with one functioning lung. There's only one thing worse than a left winger in the US and that's an atheist. God bless America. And let's hope The God Delusion author, Richard Dawkins, currently on tour in the US, gets out alive...

Hasn't every West Wing fan quietly (screw it, very loudly) wished that Martin Sheen were actually president (I am not that naïve but the wish is a genuine one), one that could easily imagine Leo, Josh, Toby, Sam, CJ and Donna actually working on behalf of their country? Sheen is a politically active liberal and has a police record to prove it. In short how does sophisticated ice stay ice in a cultural desert? Well, the man whose brains a certain Joss Whedon once confessed he'd like to eat, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, has made it so. Despite his departure after the fourth season, Sorkin's machinery was in place for other huge talents to set light to the characters.

Sorkin is so obviously hyper-smart and hugely experienced when it comes to matters of the White House that the DNA was in place for a groundbreaking show. The bigger surprise was Sorkin's extraordinary talent for affecting drama. Let's not forget his flame keepers, the creative minds' talents, those who helmed the fifth to the seventh season. It's not as if Sorkin hadn't sowed certain seeds (see The American President and A Few Good Men for evidence. "You can't handle the truth," is a Sorkin line). There are moments in the series that make you want to punch the air – simply celebrations of rationalism and smarts over entrenched dogma and quite breathtaking all too common nonsense and destructive stupidity. In the real thing, it seems these attributes are reversed – at least to the public via the media. When did a once proudly secular nation inherit a cabal of right wing fundamentalists as its leaders? Mr Dawkins, I wish you luck.

American TV is a complete and utter bastard to make shows for. I mean that in the nicest way. It's uniquely challenging and in about a month I start a similar challenge. I'm sure the discerning readers of this site know why at a crucial part of the drama, Captain Kirk's face faded to black and faded up again – this time on a wide shot of the Captain's perilous predicament. The BBC bought Star Trek so commercial breaks – built in to the film drama itself – were something of a mystery to UK viewers. The extraordinary ways you have to twist a narrative to provide a 'tease', a 'hook', a 'first act intro' with a tease at the end to lead the viewer into the second act etc. It's narratively alarming but if the commercial shoes fit, American TV programme- (sorry, program-) makers have to squeeze into them. It's only never craft-constrained when it's tailor made for the US TV structure. In other words, don't make a great movie if it's going to have to be split into acts – movies are a different animal. Make the 'split into acts' version from the get-go. The West Wing seemed to wear this cumbersome dramatic straitjacket and make it look cool; not only cool but almost as if that tortuous commercial-minded structure was the only way to go.

Sweden has a 100% literacy rate. 100%! How do they do that?
Maybe they don't and they can't add.

The West Wing was a revelation.

The show screamed, in bright neon, something hitherto whispered in hushed tones in TV executive boardrooms across the pond. It showed that immensely sophisticated and complex (dare I utter the word 'intellectual'?) stories and characters could exist on an American network. Seven seasons are evidence enough. If US TV shows do not show advertising profit they are discontinued. Seven years! Joy! This means that out there somewhere are intelligent people – and among 300 million souls, this counts as a plus. So what force stopped them from voting against Bush in the last two elections? Come on! If you're endorsing a fictional democratic president like Jed Bartlet with your remote control calloused fingers, then exercise a little common sense by getting rid of the Texan Terrorist by marking your X against anyone other than him. Yes, we've had intelligent TV in the past but nothing quite like this.

ER, like House, had built in medical life and death drama. Six Feet Under dealt with death (duh) and a family trying to stay cohesive. The West Wing – heavens! – was about politics and no more exciting subject is there on the planet except for every single other one. The West Wing can be unsubtly summed up as one hundred and fifteen hours of smart people talking to each other. Yes, there were moments of what I'd call standard action (assassination attempts, kidnap rescues etc.) but the spine and heart of the series was verbal conflict, debate and decision-making. So why was the series so damn riveting?

The West Wing took up residence in an entertainment vacuum, a ratings space, one that catered for the more discerning viewer. How it ever got commissioned is beyond even Stephen Hawking's mental abilities. This is not meant as a cruel and crude remark about the sophistication or lack thereof of the great American unbathed (or even those lathered and showered). It is, however, a cruel remark about what American TV commissioning editors think of their audience. I do a great deal of work for US commissioning editors and the phrase 'dumbing down' doesn't do justice to how work is presented and targeted. Remember that for every one West Wing, there are two dozen Survivors. A 24:1 ratio doesn't bode well for the intellectualising of an audience but then perhaps we really do get the television we deserve. In the case of The West Wing, we must have been a very good audience the day Jed Bartlett strolled into being.

The more photo-friendly of the two turkeys gets a Presidential pardon and a full life at a children's petting zoo; the other one gets eaten.
If the Oscars were like that, I'd watch.

It's an ensemble show, each character having a specific job, character and relationship with every other character. It's a dramatically satisfying show, ticking off the TV structure necessary to survive on US TV and yet it still manages to be viable and unforced. It's also about the way the biggest super power on the planet exudes its power and the results are often illuminating. As bizarre as this sounds, the show's UK counterpart has to be Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. I'm not kidding despite the fact that Minister's writers Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay were most obviously writing comedy. Both shows offer a slight insight into how we are governed and the more we learn of politics, the more we are astounded at the very primal nature of human beings. The fact that President Jed Bartlet – a real mensch – always tried to do the right thing (always a big honeyed bear trap in any political environment) endeared him to us even more. There is another interesting comparison. Hapless Jim Hacker could have been either left or right wing, so self-serving and insipid were his politics. In Yes, Minister, his political allegiance was never stated. In The West Wing it most certainly is.

By the same token that right wing comedians are rarer than P.J. O'Rourke's left wing credentials, Hollywood has installed a democratic White House at the tail end of the Clinton years. As a counterpoint to the reality after Bush snuck in, the series has always seemed leavened by an almost fantasy aspect – the real White House staffers appearing to be so much more heartless, snide, hypocritical and unjust than their fantasy counterparts. But then that's only what gets reported. Let's face it. If Bush is Satan, Jed Bartlet is the other guy. Take a look at this sublime show and pitch the fantasy staff against the real thing. It's a loaded statement. Hollywood TV has nothing to do with reality but like Steve Martin's kiss in L.A. Story, The West Wing may not be the truth but it's what we wish were true... Enough of the soft soap opera. Let's get down to business or as Bartlet would say "What's next?"

Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.
Dr. Jenna Jacobs:
I don't say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.
Yes it does. Leviticus.
Dr. Jenna Jacobs:
Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important because we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.

Hullo POTUS! No, not a new focus-group inspired title for a Cbeebies TV show. It's the acronym for 'President of the United States', a little dramatic frisson used to extraordinarily satisfying effect in Episode One, Season One of this groundbreaking show. Why was it groundbreaking? It did – at the tail end of the 90s – what Python did at the tail end of the 60s. It liberated intelligence and threw it at an audience (American or non-American), an audience that could not have possibly understood every arcane word and deed. This is a political show that rattles through its politics with nary a pause for breath. These people are smart and watching smart people communicate ups everyone's game.

Over the first six seasons, the democratic Bartlet administration dealt with assassination attempts, threats of war, the kidnapping of the President's daughter, the President's advancing Multiple Sclerosis and a whole host of problems that any normal human being cannot begin to comprehend. I see the US President's job as being akin to sifting through the acorns, choosing several and nurturing them in the vain hope that one or two of them will produce a worthy oak. He/She is always at the start of the domino run. They can flick the first and hope the effect at the end of the long line is the one they anticipated. In the middle of all this, they deal with international incidents, national disasters and global war. All anyone can hope for is that the biggest bully on the block has the requisite brains to accompany his/her strength. Yes, the PC 'his/her' thing is meant to signal one thing and one thing only. This world needs – no, really needs – a female president. This world needs a female uprising in the Middle East to balance the veiled threat. Let's all hope that Hillary C. and Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi can form an alliance and end this global male rule bullshit once and for all. I'm in fantasy land again, aren't I? Males have the upper body strength, always have had. How sad. But I am in fantasy land. Can you blame me?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident," they said, "that all men are created equal." Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in history that anyone had ever bothered to write that down. Decisions are made by those who show up.



Click here for Part 2 >

The West Wing
Season 7

USA 2005/6
957 mins
Christopher Misiano
Alex Graves
Andrew Berstein
Lesli Linka Glatter
Max Mayer
Paul McCrane
Lawrence O'Donnell
Martia Karrell
Mimi Leder
Steve Shill
Nelson McCormick
Debora Cahn
Martin Sheen
Alan Alda
Joshua Malina
Mary McCormack
John Spencer
Richard Schiff
Stockard Channing
Kristin Chenoweth
Allison Janney
Jimmy Smits
Dule Hill
Oliver Platt
Janeane Garofalo
Ron Silver
Stephen Root
Lily Tomlin

DVD details
region 2
1.78:1 anamorphic
Dolby stereo 2.0
Warner Brothers
release date
11 September 2006
review posted
24 October 2006

See all of Camus's reviews