The West Wing

Schmaltz is just unBritish, isn't it? I think it was Ian Hislop I remember reciting that old cliche about The West Wing being a kind of liberal fantasy to comfort the political classes, the warm glow from their tv sets making them forget the horror show playing out in the REAL White House. But Brits are made of sterner stuff. No, no. We know that politicians are nincompoops, civil servants are weasels, and spin-doctors are power-crazed bullies. We can take it. In fact there's a certain grim enjoyment whenever those low expectations are met.

The defining feature of The West Wing is its sentimentality. The conceit is that all that guff about public service actually means something to the people you're watching. I just finished the final season: this is a show where one of the characters obsessively re-reads the Constitution of the United States when he has time off; where one of the most moving scenes is the President handing his own pocket-sized copy to his aide. When Josh says he prefers Rob Zombie's early work, I'm pretty sure he just has the wikipedia page crammed somewhere in his memory.

The famous frantic walk-and-talk shots don't connote chaos, but efficiency. These people work even when they are between offices, and they stay on top of everything.  They also speak inhumanly fast, and make jokes so quickly it seems as if they're somehow telepathically linked -- a hive mind of witty conversation where the improbable set-ups whizz by so fast you don't notice them until the punch-lines hit.

And the show luxuriates in the grandeur of office. Just the title sequence gives you a flavour. Washington isn't just a place, it's a magical palace at the center of the universe where all human life is monitored and nurtured by caring, committed worker elves buzzing around a kindly Father Christmas. It's manned by impressive guards, it hosts shimmering balls, it has hi-tech video screens displaying satellite images. There is protocol, there are obscure ridiculous rituals. You're all supposed to call him 'Mr President'...

And man alive, the melodrama you endure for SEVEN YEARS watching the cranky, awkward political genius and the patient, perpetually crestfallen secretary circling each other, never quite connecting. And their romance so mercilessly stretched out, every advance circumvented, derailed by their own brutal indecisiveness. This is epic romance on an ENORMOUS scale, Sam and Diane manipulation taken to the very limits of tolerability. By the time they get it on, trumpets sound and the Second Coming has arrived (well, the election of another Democratic President anyway).

And I do love it. I find all of this soppy, idealistic nonsense supremely addictive. Having gone through all the seasons now I'm more aware of the traps this show lays down to ensnare your comfort-seeking mind. But there is a lesson here as well. Undoubtedly all this pomp and ceremony really does affect people, inside and outside the machine. And sometimes, you need that myopia, those inspiring speeches. They give you that glory-boost to get your ass working and motivated through 15-hour days.

The West Wing is at its most touching when it focuses on characters who sacrifice their lives, their sleep, their peace-of-mind to the never-ending marathon that is governance. When the show steps outside the White House to examine the utter wasteland of their private lives, it reaches a place of deep pathos. I remember some long-ago season where Josh arrogantly lists his achievements before admitting he 'doesn't know how to do this' i.e. ask someone on a date. C.J. says something very similar to Danny at the end: she doesn't know how relationships work, she didn't have the time to figure it out. Sam Seaborn has a life in California which he didn't have when he was Deputy Communications Director. And yet he gives it up, because the job is that important.

And while you're watching The West Wing, you really believe it is.

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