The West Wing

I lent the first season of The West Wing to a friend recently, and was surprised to find that he wasn’t feeling it so much. I have always regarded the show as nigh on indestructible when faced with any kind of criticism. You will love it if you give it a chance. But this, I guess, is not the case. My friend is much more sensitive and responsive to character than I am, and I think this is where the show stumbles somewhat. The characters that scurry around The West Wing serve as little more than mouthpieces for different opinions. The show’s creator and writer-in-chief -- Aaron Sorkin -- says that he doesn’t delve deep into his character’s psyches, but mainly focuses on the simple question of what they want. A wants one thing, B wants the opposite. Put them in a room, and you get drama. This is the basic building block of the show. And because of this, it is often difficult to nail down precisely what the characters believe. Josh may serve as the pragmatist on a particular issue, and Toby as the man of principle. But at other times, on other issues, those roles are reversed. The characters serve to express opinions and argue through an episode. They are tools that propel the discussion of issues and the development of an episode’s theme. Consistency throughout the series isn’t a major concern. Following on from this, there is very little character development from season to season. Bartlett, Josh or Donna don’t really metamorphose in the long run. How you see them in the first episode is pretty much how they end up in the last.

So wait, The West Wing is rubbish? I don’t think so. While the above is certainly true, in the short run (i.e. in the course of one to three episodes) characters *do* have an arc. A lesson is learnt, an opinion is changed, a new awareness is reached. The West Wing doesn’t just go through the pros and cons of particular problems, it shows the characters who argue about them being affected by the argument. You are able to emotionally invest in them. It’s not a dry exercise in political science. For me, this level of characterisation is enough. But I understand why others can be dissatisfied with it.

And let’s not forget all the other stuff (forgive me if this slips into stating the obvious territory, I do like the sight of my own words). The dialogue in the show is really quite astonishing. In itself, it is a delight to listen to. In different scenes it slices, punches, soothes, weighs down and elevates up. ‘Poetic’ is not to strong a word to describe it, imo.

And then you get the actual ‘what it’s about’ stuff. No other show has addressed the range of concerns touched on by The West Wing. Embarrassing I know, but it has taught me more about politics than any book or lesson on the subject. And most importantly, rather than being cynical, it manages to remain optimistic about government and the people in it, while not shying away from the limitations of both. In an environment of political apathy, it serves as a welcome reminder of just how exciting and vital the stuff going on in the centres of power is.

1 comment:

  1. The thing I find very revealing about the West Wing is a little almost throw-away sentence at the start of the Isaac and Ishmael episode (the 9/11 'special'). I think it is Josh, but out of character, so saying it as Bradley Whitford who explains that it should be thought of as 'a play'.
    Aaron Sorkin was, and still is, a playwrite, and I think that is fundamentally how he approached the West Wing. It is pretty much a series of somewhat interlinked hour long plays each week.