28 May 2008

west wing it (1 of 2)

I'm going to do my level best to beat a very dead horse here today: The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin, is my favorite television program of all time. The first four years, anyway, where he was running the whole show (and right before he ran himself into the ground). A ridiculous confluence of events came to pass that made it absolutely, unquestioningly the Right Show at the Right Time (besides the fact that it was well-written, earnest, smart, idealistic, unpatronizing and challenging to its audience... besides the fact that it was just a good show... well, the Shrub. Without the Shrub, the show wouldn't have been what it was).

I remember hearing about it when I was in high school, and I knew, I just knew that NBC would be cruel enough to run enough episodes to allow me to get hooked on it, and then they'd take it away from me. Shows I love never last (with a few exceptions, like my beloved 30 Rock); I was ready to watch it, to love it, and then to wave goodbye to it, like a gorgeous woman that enters your line of sight and then disappears before you even have the opportunity to process what she might mean to you.

I remember the pilot episode, how the dialogue just flowed properly, but more in the way that David Mamet's dialogue flows than, say, that of a writer more explicitly concerned with representing the way people speak in real life. As my friend Mason put it, The West Wing (which I will henceforth refer to as "The Show") was a show written by a smart guy, for a smart audience, that featured smart people speaking smartly about smart things (that's a paraphrase - he may have used "educated" rather than "smart," but the sentiment's the same). I steal the following excerpt from the episode to prove my point (Bartlet4America.org, I am in your debt):


Press Secretary Claudia Jean "CJ" Cregg: Is there anything I can say, other than the President rode his bicycle into a tree?

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry: He hopes never to do it again.

CJ: Seriously. They’re laughing pretty hard.

Leo: He rode his bicycle into a tree, CJ. What do you want me to -- “The President, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop” -- What do you want from me?


I have never, in my life, met people who speak the way Josh, Toby, Sam, Donna, Leo, CJ, Charlie, Ainsley, Mrs. Landingham, Abbey and Jed speak to each other, but if I ever did, I think that would mean I had died and gone to smart people heaven (why would they let me in? I'll have to think on that). They weren't afraid of using polysyllabic words and phrases and paragraphs and monologues to get their point across; in sharp contrast to the man who has stumbled and fallen every time Josiah Bartlet would've risen to the occasion these last eight years, the more impassioned the characters became, the more complicated their speeches got. I steal this time from a website called MRC.org, a site whose politics (I'm just guessing here) aren't as in line with the show as mine are; this is from the third episode of the second season (it's called "The Midterms"):


President Josiah Bartlet: "Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality ‘an abomination.'"

Doctor Jenna Jacobs: "I don't say homosexuality is an abomination Mr. President. The Bible does."

Bartlet: "Yes it does. Leviticus-"

Jacobs: "18:22."

Bartlet: "Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had 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? [silence in the room] 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, 'cause 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."


She stands up, by the way.

Polished communication is an art form, just as virtually ever skill-based activity is, when it's done by a master. In season three, speaking about his old friend Jed Bartlet, Leo says that, "A podium is a holy place for him." Whether or not Sorkin drew Bartlet as a conscious, reasonable, ideal alternative to George II is probably something I'll never know, but he was. A man of religion (just as the Shrub claims to be - difference is, Bartlet was a moderate Catholic, with a tolerance and appreciation for faith and belief in all its myriad forms, while the Shrub decided he was going to wage Crusade-style, capital H, capital W Holy War against the Middle East, and replaced his drug addiction with the buzz that comes from righteousness), a man of ideas (one of my favorite stories from Richard Clarke's book Against All Enemies comes pretty early on, when he draws the best possible difference between George II and Clinton - Bill would stay up well past 3 a.m., voraciously consuming information, or batting around ideas with visiting scholars or dignitaries or anyone of ideas, whereas the staff that was staying on for the new administration was told a) that the President likes to go to bed early, so he won't be kept up for anything and b) he doesn't much like to read, so briefings and memos should be short and to the point - Bartlet, on the other hand, won a Nobel in economics), a man of consuming passions (I suppose they share this trait, for most powerful people probably do, but Bartlet's obsessions led him down the path of greatness, whereas if the Wrong Man hadn't been around at the Wrong Time, he would've been the most impressive lame duck president in history) and a man who believed in the greatness of America, not just as the most powerful country in the history of the world, but as an ideal, perfection that we as citizens, that the world should continually strive for, a place of justice, of brotherhood, of understanding, of love and of harmony, and he was surrounded by people that he was able to inspire to similarly lofty goals and heights (I have a tough time believing that George can inspire anyone to anything, except as an example of why you shouldn't live your life like a fuckup).

I adore this program for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the show, on multiple occasions, directly influenced the course in which my political beliefs developed. I was at the right age (high school) and just impressionable enough that I could seriously, honestly, sincerely take in what Sorkin was trying to say, digest it for myself, and, more often than not, come out a believer on his side. The best example of that comes from an episode in the first season called "Six Meetings Before Lunch;" in this episode, Sam Seaborn (Deputy Communications Director) has been arguing with Leo's daughter Mallory, a public school teacher. She's gotten ahold of a brief he wrote condemning public education in America. As a person who has spent the bulk of my educational career (13 years in private school vs 5 in public) in private (Catholic) school, I thought I knew the virtues of private school. I certainly had them crammed down my throat often enough at school. Mallory McGarry, as a public school teacher, took issue with Sam's position on public education, or so she thought. Turns out, Leo had Sam write the memo because, as he put it, they make the smartest guys take the other side when they're preparing. Sam dazzles Mallory (and changed my mind forever) with the following lines (thanks to Bartlet4America again):


Sam Seaborn: "Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes. We need gigantic revolutionary changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defense. That is my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet."


It's insane to call yourself a liberal and not be in favor of the big things that government can do for people. Government's not just there to raise an army and control the various relations between the states, leaving everything else to the devices of state and local government; this isn't the ideal nation of small farmers that Thomas Jefferson so dearly craved (though I think he'd be kind of impressed to see how far we've come). Government should do for everyone; it should take a defining role in the lives of its citizens. It should make things better for each and every citizen, and shouldn't just facilitate the lives of those who already have it good. Government should run education, health care, defense, transportation... anything that should be a basic service for everyone, and not simply a revenue stream (nothing against revenue streams, I just don't think corporations should be profiting off of making people feel better). If you want your kids' school to be better, the answer shouldn't be running off to create a better school for them and their friends whose parents make seven figures like you do, the answer should be figuring out how to improve the school for all the kids your child goes to school with, particularly the ones that wouldn't be able to pick up and leave for private school.

And that was what made the show so amazing. Everyone, every single character, was an idea and opinion delivery system, at their core. Never before, and likely never since, will didactic storytelling be so compelling. CJ and Toby could argue over affirmative action honestly, and attempt to come to some sort of resolution. Ainsley Hayes (hot, blonde... Republican?) could put a positive spin on lipstick feminism that didn't turn women into sex objects. The President could sit down with one of his Republican adversaries in the Senate, and after they were done explaining to one another why they would be enemies until their dying days, they decided to work together to promote campaign finance reform.

I am, literally, a child of Aaron Sorkin's mental arguments made flesh. That may be sickening, that an otherwise intelligent, reasonable person could be twisted so dramatically by a television show, but I don't think it is. The Show was about people reaching beyond themselves, putting aside their selfish aspirations, their "look out for number one" mantras, and genuinely trying to make life better for everyone (at least, that's what the good guys did. That's why they were the good guys). Here's what Ainsely said after she came back from (supposedly) turning down the White House's job offer (tv.com - "In This White House," Season 2):

Ainsley Hayes: "Say they´re smug and superior. Say their approach to public policy makes you wanna tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders. But don´t call them worthless. At least don´t do it in front of me. The people that I´ve met, have been extraordinarily qualified. Their intent is good, their commitment is true. They are righteous, and they are patriots. And I´m their lawyer."

I'm going to avoid restating what I feel the horrible problem was with The Show (TV = opiate... at least that's what Bill Watterson said; simulated reality on NBC got in the way of what might've been actual revolution against some truly evil people), and go right to how I think it could be fixed. The legacy of The Show cannot be that it allowed liberals to slip away into a fuzzy, warm place for a few years while George II and his royal court co-opted everything good and right about this country and twisted it for their own sick, mad, evil ends. The Show is too good, too sincere, too right for that to happen. Its legacy has to be in people that step up to the plate, that feel deep inside themselves what Bartlet said Ainsely felt: civic duty. Its legacy has to be in graduating classes of law schools, in undergraduate and graduate poly sci majors, in people who take a semester or a year off before getting their business degree to help campaign for someone who might really make a difference in their hometown, in the people who will in the future run for public office, and the people who staff their campaigns. The legacy of The Show must be that people saw the true opportunity that presented itself in public service, that life isn't just about getting a promotion that gives you enough money for a down payment on a vacation time share that you can eventually turn into a vacation home with enough promotions, along with the fast, awesome car and the badass watch. We're measured by the work we do not for ourselves, but for the people around us. Sorkin threw down the gauntlet, but it's up to us to pick it up.

That's enough for now. I'm going to go into detail on how I want to respond to his challenge at a later date.

1 comment:

jedibix783 said...

I really do need to watch this show... the chaplain at my college has all of the dvds and keeps offering them to me (She is on time watching #5) and I really need to get down to that.