Don't Stop

Dec. 21st, 2006 06:32 pm
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For those who haven't seen it yet (and I know there are West Wing fans on my friendslist who haven't seen it yet), I give you [livejournal.com profile] grahamsleight's latest piece at Strange Horizons:
It's absolutely clear to me that the true predecessor of The West Wing, the great science-fiction show that ended its seven-season run this spring, is the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
(Actually, SH reviews has had a good week this week, and I'd hate for good reviews to go unread just because it's almost Christmas, so here are links to the others: Dan Hartland on Alexander C. Irvine's collection Pictures From An Expedition; Paul Kincaid on Paul Auster's short novel Travels in the Scriptorium; and Nic Clarke on Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's latest anthology, Salon Fantastique. And of course there's been a story and a poem and a (christmas) article as well. Enjoy! And, you know, post comments. There, not here.)

The Debate

Nov. 29th, 2005 10:24 pm
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I've been watching a lot of The West Wing over the past couple of months. I had basically given up in disgust at the end of season five, on the grounds that the show had become a pale shadow of its former, Aaron Sorkin-helmed self: less nuanced, more sensationalist. But [livejournal.com profile] grahamsleight was braver than me and bought the season six DVDs, and watched them, and said they were a return to form. So when he lent them to me, I watched them as well.

It wasn't a return to form. Not really. The plotlines had all the hallmarks of John Wells' fondness for melodrama. The president has an MS episode! But that's not enough, so he has it during a foreign visit! But that's not enough, so he has it during a visit to China! But that's not enough, so he's paralysed from the waist down! And so it went. More importantly, the heart of the show, the stories about the processes of government and democracy, were still missing.

Around midseason, however, the show starts to change dramatically. Not in quality--at least, not at first--but in format. Faced with the reality that US presidents can only serve for two terms, the writers started laying the groundwork for the next presidency. The Republican primaries we didn't see much of, and what we did was straightforward; there was a clear frontrunner from the start, California Senator Arnold Vinick. The Democratic primaries were dealt with in much more detail, not least because half the existing White House staff somehow ended up involved. The eventual nominee was never really in doubt: Congressman Matthew Santos, from Texas. But getting there was, increasingly, fun.

It still wasn't The West Wing; the show alternated between episodes set on the campaign trail and episodes set in the White House, and that latter group were for the most part pathetic. But you can see why. Aaron Sorkin wrote virtually every episode of the first four seasons of The West Wing, and those he didn't write he at least had a hand in breaking or editing. Nobody else on the writing staff could write like he did; nobody else could write to the format he created. So it's not surprising that the episodes in the new format, with new characters, were better. They simply allowed the writers to play to their strengths. By the end of season six, The West Wing wasn't back, but it was at least watchable again.

So now we come to season seven. And I think I might be addicted.

Season seven discards the old format almost entirely, and the vestigal remains are still pretty embarrassing. In its place, we get a story about an election campaign--from the point of view of both camps. It makes you realise how little of Bartlet's re-election campaign we saw in season four. Not that that's a bad thing--it was right for Aaron Sorkin's show. But the shift in focus now has given the show its dynamism back. It is that rare thing, a format reboot that works.

The reason it works is largely because both candidates are interesting and well thought-out characters. It helps that the actors playing them are Alan Alda (Vinick) and Jimmy Smits (Santos), but more than that it's the differences between them that sell the campaign. The Democrats' original reaction to Arnie Vinick, in season six, amused me mightily, because basically it boiled down to "we're fucked, aren't we?" There's a scene where Leo, gloomily, tells Josh they've got nobody who can beat him; that he'll go into the town halls and blow them all away "and seem smarter and more honest than any Republican they've ever seen--because he is." And that's about as far as they get with their planning. I love the idea that the Democrats just don't know how to deal with a Republican just because he makes sense. And Vinick does make sense, on a lot of things; he's a moderate, and even when you disagree with him the writers let him argue his position with some intelligence. The contrast to the straw-man Dubya clone that Bartlet ran against couldn't be clearer.

Santos, meanwhile, is the idealistic, somewhat inexperienced liberal. But he's also the candidate who's served in the military, and continues to be listed in the reserves. He's the candidate who believes that life begins at conception; he's not against legal abortion, but he wants it to be much rarer than it is. He's the candidate that goes to church. The result is a campaign where neither candidate has a lock on support from their own base, and the battlelines are far more fluid than they usually are--where everything is up for grabs. (That the Santos campaign hires Janeane Garofalo as a staffer Does Not Hurt.)

And then comes the seventh episode, the one I've just watched. 'The Debate'. Now, I loved the previous debate episode, 'Game On'. I bounce with glee to see Bartlet trounce his opponent ("… I'm supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: can we have it back, please?") And the setup for this one--a live episode--sounded more than a little like a stunt. But in the event, although neither actor is perfect (Smits stumbles more than Alda) as a piece of television, it is utterly brilliant. And as a piece of The West Wing it's not bad either, because it's got that old idealism, that old championing of debate.

The candidates walk on stage, and the chairman spends five minutes explaining the rules. Then Vinick suggests that they junk them, and have a real debate. No two-minute speeches followed by one-minute rebuttals; just a moderated debate. Santos agrees--he'd have to, but you suspect he does it because he's raring for it too. And they talk about … everything, pretty much. Education. Healthcare. The death penalty (perfectly). Third world debt. Climate change. The value of liberalism. And you find yourself agreeing with one or the other, or disagreeing but at least being able to see why they think that. During his preamble, the chairman asks for the audience to be quiet, saying that at the end they can give democracy a round of applause. At the end, you want to. That's what The West Wing has always been about: and if they can keep that spirit, even with new characters, even in this new format, I'll keep watching.

I suspect they won't be able to, of course. They're dragging the campaign out, running it in slower than real time, and you have to suspect that one of the reasons they're doing so is that they know they're on to a good thing, and they're not looking forward to going back to the old format. Because after the election, what else can they do? It's a sobering thought. And even in the meantime, it's not as consistent or sophisticated as Aaron Sorkin's show was; the first three episodes of the season are stellar, but the second three are all fairly seriously flawed, in various ways. But by and large it's a show worth watching, worth talking and thinking about--a show that once again feels aspirational, that makes you wish the world really worked this way--and by and large, that's enough.

(And I'd vote Santos, but it's a harder call than you might think.)
coalescent: (Default)
In September of 2001, The West Wing was gearing up to start its third season. Then came September 11th. Aaron Sorkin's response to that day is mentioned on this page:
At the time of the attack, Aaron was in the middle of writing the 6th episode of the season. A Halloween ep. He immediately stopped writing and tossed the script. He said that it didn't feel right to write. That all of a sudden what artists and writers did seemed "despicably silly."

After 2 days, he and his staff "dug in" to learn the history of terrorism. this happened over that weekend, and come monday he pitched the script idea to tommy schlamme and john wells and he wrote it in roughly 2-3 days, and then rewrote, and rewrote and rewrote ... he rewrote it quite a bit.

What he came up with was 'Isaac and Ishmael'. The episode aired on October 3rd, 2001, after a ten-day production schedule (compared to the usual six weeks). Media reaction was ... mixed, to say the least.

The episode, as introductory speeches by the actors (not the characters) makes clear, sits outside the normal chronology of The West Wing. There's no real point trying to work out where it fits into the series timeline, because it doesn't really fit anywhere. For that reason, it's never aired in this country; and for that reason, I'd never seen it before tonight, when I watched the DVD copy I'd borrowed from Su. The title comes, of course, from the Bible; in the episode, the story is related in this way:
STUDENT: How did all this start?

ABBEY: How did what all start?

STUDENT: Well... this...

ABBEY: Sarah... God said to Abraham, "Look toward the heaven and number the stars and so shall your descendants be." But Abraham's wife, Sarah, wasn't getting any younger, and God wasn't coming through on His promise... I was very young when I had my kids. I was very, very, very, very young. I was barely even born yet when I had my oldest daughter, Elizabeth.

... Anyway, Sarah was getting older, and she was getting nervous because she didn't have any children. So he sent Abraham to the bed of her maid, Hagar, and Abraham and Hagar had Ishmael. And not long after they did, God kept His promise to Sarah, as He'd always intended to, and Abraham and Sarah had Isaac. And Sarah said to Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of the slave woman will not be heir with my son Isaac." And so it began: the Jews, the sons of Isaac. The Arabs, the sons of Ishmael. But what most people find important to remember is that, in the end, the two sons came together to bury their father.

JOSH: I think most people also find it important to remember that the whole thing took place about 73 million years ago.

[full transcript]

As part of the introduction to the episode, Bradley Whitford describes 'Isaac and Ishmael' as a play. As the above quote may suggest, that's not entirely accurate. More than a play, it's a lesson.

The West Wing is not above being didactic when the mood takes it, but in 'Isaac and Ishmael' that tendency is ramped up to eleven. The scenario is this: in the wake of some unspecified terroist attack, the White House is experiencing security alerts on at least a weekly basis. When this happens, the whole building is 'crashed'; nobody is allowed to enter or leave (there's a faint siege mentality about the whole situation; everything seems subtly darker than the normal West Wing universe; and if that is an alternate of ours, then what we see here is an alternate of theirs).

During this particular crash, a group of high-school students are visiting the White House, and Josh was assigned to meet them and answer any questions they may have. Inevitably, the discussion turns to terrorism; the causes of it, and possible solutions. One by one the other characters--Toby, Sam, CJ, Bartlet, Abbey, Charlie--happen by the room and offer their opinions. Josh starts out by inviting the students to fill in the blank: 'Islamic extremist is to Islamic as "blank" is to Christianity.' The students first guess 'fundamentalist', but what Josh has in mind is the KKK. "It's the Klan, gone medieval and global."

When Toby turns up, he makes his own analogy, borrowed by Sorkin from a Salon article of the time:
TOBY: [looks at the visual aid, reads] "Islamic Extremists is to Islamic as KKK is to Christianity." That's... that's about right. That's a good religious analogy. What's the political analogy? What's an analogy using governments?

BOY 1: They don't have a government.

BOY 2: They have the Taliban. They have the government of Afghanistan.

TOBY: The Taliban is not the recognized government of Afghanistan. The Taliban took over the recognized government of Afghanistan. And there's your political analogy.

BOY 2: What do you mean?

TOBY: When you think of Afghanistan, think of Poland. When you think of the Taliban, think of the Nazis. When you think of the citizens of Afghanistan, think of the Jews in concentration camps.

In parallel to all this, we see the investigation into the reason for the crash. A known terrorist detained crossing the Canadian/US border named several coconspirators, one of whom was 'Raqim Ali'. It turns out there are three Raqim Alis: one is a software designer in Spokane, one is a caterer in LA, and the third works at the White House.

Leo is present at the interview--interrogation, really--of that Ali. He doesn't come out of it well, seeming paranoid and bigoted and too eager to believe that the man is guilty. Seeming, in short, not like himself; and indeed, that's what he says at the end of the episode, when Ali is found innocent. He apologises, and says they've been under a 'greater than usual' amount of stress.

It's not an episode that works as drama, not really. There's no real debate, no real conflict; the arguments of Josh and Sam and Toby are never really tested, and Josh's summing up at the end is falsely heartwarming:
JOSH: But listen, don't worry about all this right now. We've got you covered. Worry about school. Worry about what you're gonna tell your parents when you break curfew. [...] Learn things. Be good to each other. Read the newspapers, go the movies, go to a party. Read a book. In the meantime, remember pluralism. You want to get these people? I mean, you really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Keep accepting more than one idea. Makes 'em absolutely crazy.

It's too much, and it's not the only rough edge in the piece. But that said, overall it's still a fascinating piece of television. The longer-term effects of September 11th on The West Wing play out through the third season, and the fourth; there's a greater emphasis on foreign policy rather than domestic, and more than one discussion about how America should use its power. 'Isaac and Ishmael' is a snapshot; and as depressing as it is to realise that the real White House seems nowhere near this well-informed or tolerant, it's equally heartening to realise that this sort of statement could be made, less than a month after the attacks. Not something to watch if you're unfamiliar with The West Wing, probably; but for fans, I think it's essential.
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Watching The American President having watched four-and-some seasons of The West Wing is a profoundly weird experience.
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There is an episode of The West Wing that irritates me greatly. It's called 'The US Poet Laureate', it takes place somewhat over midway through the third season, and as part of a spectacularly ill-judged swipe at fans and fandom it contains the following gem, stated by the US Poet Laureate in resounding Authorial Voice:
"You think I think that an artist's job is to speak the truth. An artist's job is to captivate you for however long we've asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don't get to decide what truth is."

Sorkin is disavowing responsibility for his fans. "Don't read too much into what I'm writing," he's saying, "I'm just here to entertain." It's a remarkable statement to hear from any artist, still more remarkable to hear it from a man who created a series so intimately concerned with Substance and Message as is The West Wing. And my reply is simply: Take some responsibility.

Then today in the Guardian, there's this piece by DJ Taylor:
And so here I am a dozen years later trying to establish - an exercise that seems to demand a great many thousands of words - what I, who know nothing but what I read in the newspapers and see on television, think about Iraqi corpses and slaughtered British military policemen. There is, it hardly needs saying, no point, just as there is no point - to descend a little further down the activist scale - in writing a letter to your MP. All you will get back in answer to your reasonable request for information - a recent missive to Charles Clarke bore this out in excelsis - is a sheet of platitudes.

In an environment where art has lost all formal influence, all the writer can do is to keep on writing, in the hope that somehow he or she can make an impact at bedrock, on the series of individual moral sensibilities that read books.

Now, we already knew that DJ Taylor was an idiot. And two data points emphatically do not make a trend, particularly when the points are separated by somewhat more than twelve months, and there are certainly others out there as vociferously active as ever (stand up, China Mieville) - and in any case Taylor doesn't seem as far gone as Sorkin; at least he thinks artists should try, even if they can't actually achieve anything. But then I think, and I wonder whether maybe there is something of a general artistic ennui settling. Maybe it's a product of the same forces that have homogenised and monopolised 'popular music' over the last ten years, and maybe it's starting to happen to the rest of the arts.

I don't really think it is; or at least, I certainly hope it isn't. But to see a piece such as DJ Taylor's in a paper such as the Guardian...well, it bothers me, is all.

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