The Art of the Watchable

I like good political TV. If done well, I like politics both as a theme and as a setting; arguably, a series such as the original BBC House of Cards looks like it’s about politics, but it’s really Richard III in a pinstripe suit, set in and around Westminster. It’s very much concerned with power and corruption, but does it tell us anything meaningful about politics? You may very well say think that; I couldn’t possibly comment. Then there are series such as The West Wing, and while may be something of a US-centric liberal fantasia, it is intensely concerned, and not a little in love, with the democratic process, which makes it a very different beast from House of Cards. Even if you look beyond conventional drama to genre TV, you’ll find politics: for much of its running time, I’d absolutely say that Battlestar Galactica (the Olmos/McDonnell one, not the ’70s extravaganza) was a deeply political series in both senses.

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Eagles on Pogo Sticks likes this.

Yesterday evening, before we went to the cinema, we were discussing David Fincher’s other films. Which did we like best? Which least? I came up with my personal Top Three films directed by Fincher (in no particular order): Seven, Fight Club and Zodiac, with Alien 3 receiving special mention. (It’s flawed but the bits that I like I pretty much love.) Seven is probably the moodiest of his films, Fight Club the most enjoyable and Zodiac is perhaps the most perfectly crafted Fincher film.

Since yesterday evening, I’ve added The Social Network to the Top Three (which therefore contains four titles now, risking a possible world-destroying mathematical paradox), albeit on probation. Will I still like it that much in a week’s time? In a year? Once I’ve seen it as often as the other films? (Zodiac I’ve only seen three times so far, but Seven was my film for bad moods for a while when I was often in a bad mood.) We’ll see, but for now I would say this: it’s Fincher at the top of his game (Ebert rightly calls the movie “splendidly well made”), working with a script that complements his considerable skills. This makes for an interesting comparison: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was decried by some because that film’s script pulled it in the direction of a mawkish sibling to Forrest Gump (scripted by the same writer, Eric Roth, not to be confused with Eli Roth). I thought that Fincher’s cerebral approach made for a fascinating film that was pulled in two different directions, namely sentimentality on the one hand (script) and a weird sort of Verfremdung on the other (direction), resulting in a tension that didn’t always work in the film’s favour.

Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network, though, is sharp and witty, with little trace of mawkishness. It’s not cold or unemotional in any way, but it doesn’t do the Spielbergian brand of emotion that requires heartwarming performances and a John Williams soundtrack so obvious it makes you feel a little queasy because the sentiment is laid on so thick. The film thrives on repartee and verbal barbs that is delivered at breakneck speed – I’ve rarely seen a movie that is so dialogue-driven and feels this fast (though not rushed).

I’ve seen TV series like this, though, especially one little known one about the president of some far away country. I think it’s called… let me see… The West Wing? Which, coincidentally, was also written by one Aaron Sorkin. Having watched the first four seasons of The West Wing (the ones during Sorkin’s time at the helm of the series), I find The Social Network‘s fictionalised Mark Zuckerberg a dark twin of Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff to President Bartlet. Lyman is more likeable because he’s got a strong sense of ideals and ethics, but he shares so many qualities with Zuckerberg: the sense of intellectual superiority that goes hand in hand with deep-seated insecurity, the way that every conversation is seen as a battle, the intense need to win, to be right, even if it means being a dick to others – the atrophied social skills and emotional immaturity that is fun to watch with Josh because he works in an environment and with people that ground him every now and then.

While the origin story for Fincher and Sorkin’s version of the Facebook founder is perhaps too simple – Zuckerberg basically gets started on the road to Facebook because of the Girl That Got Away, throwing his social dysfunction right back in his face – it makes for an interesting foil with Josh Lyman. Without his Girl Friday, Donna Moss, would he become increasingly insufferable as Zuckerberg does, ending up a sad, pathetic geek with a brilliant mind?

If you wish upon a star spangled banner

We’re slowly sidling up to the fifth season of The West Wing – apparently the one where most people agree things went down the drain. From what you can read on the web, it’s held in about as much esteem as Buffy the Vampire Slayer S6. Well, if that means that we’ve got The West Wing‘s “Once More With Feelings” to look forward to, I guess I can cope.

We’ve just seen the President decide not to stand idly by while a genocide takes place in an African country. The situation’s an obvious take on Rwanda, and on the United States’ mealy-mouthed reaction to that genocide, right down to the semantic games played to justify inaction. President Bartlet asks one of his staffers, “Why is a Kudanese life worth less to me than an American life?”, and the staffer replies, honestly: “I don’t know, but it is.”

Except that’s not good enough any more for the President. He decides that the US lose any justification they have to self-righteousness if they do not intervene. Basically, Bartlet does what Clinton, back in 1994, didn’t do, for various reasons.

Watching The West Wing now, years after it was first broadcast, I was a bit non-plussed by this storyline. As it developed, it felt very much like a “What if?”, but one that had strong elements of left-wing wish fulfilment. What if we could go back to 1994 and act differently? What if we’d lived up to the standards we set for ourselves, and the image we project of the United States? Nothing against a “What if?” scenario, but this one felt a bit like “Well, if we finally do the right thing in fiction, that must be worth something, right?”

Admittedly, this isn’t altogether fair to the series. For one thing, the storyline has only just begun, and I doubt it’ll remain as clear-cut. The series has never suggested that what ought to be done is easy or that it doesn’t have any repercussions. More than that, though, President Bartlet’s decision to intervene is obviously not entirely selfless – after all, the previous season’s final episode had him deciding to have the Foreign Minister of a Middle Eastern state assassinated due to his close ties to Islamist terrorists. While The West Wing has a weird habit of forgetting everything about characters it doesn’t quite know what to do with (Where’s Ainsley at? Where’s the girl, Jed? Where the fuck is Ainsley, huh, Jed? – Ah, to be honest, she can stay lost in the same place as Mandy, for all I care…), it doesn’t forget its characters’ transgressions – and hey, if there’s anything white liberals, especially of the lapsed Catholic persuasion, are really good at, it’s guilt, isn’t it?

On a very different note: when Donald Moffat turned up as C.J. Cregg’s dad a couple of episodes ago, my first thought was: “It’s the President!”  Moffat’s one of the US actors who have played POTUS (in his case in the Tom Clancy movie Clear and Present Danger) – which made me think that it would be fun to have a West Wing episode where all the guest stars are erstwhile presidents of the United States. Of course James Cromwell would beat them all… and a quick Google search has revealed to me that he may just turn up on the series. Guess what he’ll be playing…

You better show Don Bartlett some respect, paesan!

Ah, The West Wing. Part political drama, part Whedonesque comedy (replace the supernatural or sci-fi elements with politics), part character-driven melodrama, part actors’ showcase. Part pinko liberal wish fulfillment.

I enjoyed the series from the beginning, but after lots of HBO fare season 1 often looked pedestrian in comparison. Great dialogues, great acting, but does TV have to look like TV, namely drab, conventional, boringly shot? Even dialogues can be filmed more interestingly – and no, WFTF (Walk Fast Talk Fast) doesn’t make for interesting cinematography after the nth time it is used.

We’ve now arrived at the end of the third season, and while the series hasn’t aspired to the cinematic heights of The Sopranos or Carnivale yet, it has definitely had its cinematic moments – and none more so than the season 3 finale. Not only do we get Shakespearean scenes of plotting in the shadows (okay, that’s dramatic rather than cinematic – but the dark-light contrast still looks as good as it did when the German Expressionists used it), the entire ending takes not just a page but entire chapters out of the Godfather playbook. Jed Bartlett watching a rousing Edwardian song during a performance of The War of the Roses (entire US administrations could rise and fall during the time it takes to perform all of these plays) while US operatives ambush and assassinate a Middle Eastern defense minister… The only thing missing is a few strains of Nino Rota and possibly a horse’s head, although reports have it that there was a shortage of good horses, in parts or otherwise, during Shakespeare’s history plays.

For all the homages in “Posse Comitatus”, the one scene that stands out most in my mind is the one that is quintessentially West Wing:

Give me such a scene and I’ll become a US citizen just to vote for Bartlett!

P.S.: Was “Posse Comitatus” originally broadcast before every single series decided it needed a sad scene set to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah”?


As I’ve written before, I like The West Wing. Admittedly, season 2 lacks some of the urgency of the first season (except in the double episode that starts off year 2 of the series), but it’s still a witty, well written and acted, greatly enjoyable 42 minutes per episode. I appreciate its politics and the idealism of its characters, tempered as it is by an appreciation that there’s a gap between ideals and reality that needs to be negotiated almost constantly.

Every now and then, though, the series does something that strikes me as uniquely American, and it annoys the hell out of me: it goes into Pledge of Allegiance Mode. A typical example of this is at the end of the season 2 episode “Midterms”:

To give you a bit of context: after an assassination attempt by a white-supremacist group Toby, perhaps the character on the series who is furthest left-wing (and one of my favourites, the grumpy old Eeyore that he is), spends most of the episode desperately trying to find ways of legally restricting the constitutional rights of such groups. Obviously the Constitution is sacrosanct, this being the United States, but Toby’s take is that there may be things more important than a piece of paper, however old and revered that piece of paper is. By the end of the episode he comes around to believing that perhaps it isn’t all that bad that the government protects the rights even of those who try to bring it down. His “God bless America” is earned, it comes out of a process. I may or may not agree with the sentiment, but Toby’s not made this easy on himself.

The others, though? They’re basically joining in the choir, cheapening the sentiment. It’s not idealism in the face of ambivalence and reality: it’s facile, slogany patriotism. Now, I have to admit that patriotism is something my brain fails to comprehend in general, but I can accept that the main characters on The West Wing are patriots. At the series best I can almost grasp that when these people talk about the United States of America, they mean an almost mythical construct, a symbol of perfect democracy, and that they’re aware that there is, and always will be, a huge distance between the symbol and the reality. But when they go into cheerleading slogans, with everyone in the round repeating the words, there’s something disturbing about it to me. With every repetition it’s stripped of the self-awareness, meaning and complexity that a character like Toby brings to it and becomes something insultingly, childishly simple and chauvinistic. It’s this belief that the ideal, the symbol and the actual country are close enough to one another that allows for crusader-style action around the globe – hey, if your country is the embodiment of all that is good and just, then your actions must be good and just by definition, right?

To be fair, those moments on The West Wing are just that: moments. By and large, the series remains firmly aware of the clash between ideals and reality, and of the fact that it is practically impossible to negotiate the two without despairing that you’ll never get to where you’re going, that you’ll always be compromising your ideals in the end – but that, in the face of compromise, you can still keep fighting for your ideals and achieving small victories every now and then. I just wish they could do without the “Rah, rah, USA!” moments altogether, because they just feel tacky.

Okay, and after all this heavy stuff, dude, here’s a fun little something for those of you waiting for or already watching the final season of Lost. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers.)