Sunday, October 27, 2013

Watching West Wing

I think I have mentioned that Marian and I -- in our earned home aloneness -- are enjoying the genius of Netflix streaming video and particularly the television series offered by the same.

Over the last few years we have watched on Netflix: Lost, 24, Revenge, Merlin, Robin Hood, Doc Martin, Ballykissangel, Alias, All Creatures Great and Small, Foyle's War (my all time favorite) and many more. Now I have a favorite American television drama and it is West Wing,

Before I explain what is so great about it I'd like to bury what is not so great which is the reason I had never watched even an episode of this Emmy winning show.

West Wing, as I am sure you know, is about life in the White House during the administration of Jed Bartlett, a Democrat not only by tradition but by conviction, and the show, as well it should, reflects his administration's left of center interests: women's rights, universal healthcare, union promotion, etc.. It became known as The Left Wing to conservatives.

That alone I can take. What was harder to take was the condescending disposition towards anyone who takes a different view. In West Wing, the high water mark of ethics is women's issues as the Democrats see them. It's a little too in your face and "how can you be so barbaric as not to accept my view on things." If you've seen the show Josh and his annoying girlfriend, not Donna, the one in the middle episodes, were the chief offenders.

Well enough of that.

You might think that all of this was enough for me not to like the show, indeed when my brother suggested I watch it a few months ago I told him that the agenda would bother me, he persisted, and so I followed his advice. And I still say that WW is one of the best American drama series ever made. At least in the last 20 years.

West Wing tells the story of fairly normal men and women, of success and failure, the admixture of high ideals, our fallen nature, and our limitation in understanding anything perfectly. You fall in love with the characters, almost to a one, because they are human and because they are good and because they are trying to overcome all the fallenness, even their own.

President Jed Bartlett is a liberal but middle of the road Democrat who goes from governor of New Hampshire to President of the United States. President Bartlett, though socially liberal on many of the top ten agenda items, ain't your normal post-Reagan era liberal. He'll threaten to drop a bomb on anyone that pisses him off and he's closer to JFK than to Bill Clinton and makes President Obama look like the far left Dem that he is. Bartlett is a New Hampshire boarding-school-to-Notre-Dame Catholic with a working knowledge of Latin, the Bible, classic literature, poetry and has a PhD in economics. He's no slouch.

Here's what's good about it:

1. Real drama. The notion that drama requires magnitude goes back at least to ancient Greece. Oedipus Rex, The Iliad, Odyssey, and the Aeneid all have at stake the future good of the "polis" and West Wing gets that. The nation's future lies in the administration's hands but one gets the sense that the national mood rests on the shoulders of the President as well, and in reality in some sense it does. Bartlett and supporting cast play that well. They also get and don't shy away from classical literary types as seen in Toby, Jed, and Leo.

2. Real dialogue. Real comic relief.
It has been criticized for its machine gun style of dialogue and the fact that no one thinks that fast and responds that wittily. But I liked it. It's thoughtful dialogue and sometimes very funny.

3. Real people whose lives are made up of what all lives are made of: movement from happiness to sadness, pleasure to pain, meaningful activity to boredom -- and back again, all of which are the consequence of either our own actions or the hand of fate. There is a sense that the gods are at play in the West Wing.

What's not so good:

1. A tendency to characterize Republicans as religious fanatics with neanderthal views hiding selfish intentions and the Bartlett administration as hard working people with only pure motives who are fighting for the common good. There are no normal Republicans in the Bartlett team sense. The Bartlett team is good everyone else is bad.

2. The final two seasons lack the punch of the other five, I'm not a big fan of Alan Alda, he shows up around season 6.

Favorite characters:

Toby -- speechwriter who is the Jewish prophet of old, who never witholds the truth and who is singleminded and socially clumsy. He's the behind the scenes guy that reminds the king he is human, the opposite of the yes-man, he is the Socratic just man who is thought to be unjust because he has an immovable ethical plumb-line and if that makes him unlikeable, so be it. Also, he's a baseball guy.

Donna -- Josh's assisrtant, she's attractive, kind of lovably naive, unselfish, has a dry wit and was able to chorale Josh without him knowing it. The Josh - Donna relationship gives the show the romantic tension it needs.

Leo is the man of constant sorrows, whose life is his job and who carries the burdens of the President in order that he may lead. Chief of Staff, he is the man every leader needs at his side.

Charlie -- Charlie is the 18 year old black kid who was just looking for an intern gig and winds up being the President's aide. Great actor, great kid, without him the show is not the same.

CJ - she's just a great character. Maybe the most human and likeable, certainly one of the smartest. I loved CJ.

Least favorite

Josh's girlfriend, not Donna the other one, and the Presidents wife. Her whining is terribly annoying.

The Main character

Without Martin Sheen, Jed Bartlett, the show is probably a one or two year hit. He is a great often bombastic character and provides the foundation for the supporting actors. Was he my favorite? Not really, Do I like his real life politics? Hell no, but I'm not sure he was supposed to be liked in the same way as the others, and without him the show is anchorless.

The show had its critics: the characters were too idealistic, the swirling activity of the White House was overdone, the dialogue was too witty, right and wrong was too easily defined, but all of that notwithstanding, and my own criticism notwithstanding, Marian and I looked forward to each episode. Not all were good but most were, and some were great.

It is well acted, well written, and I am told, fairly accurate in its depiction of life on Pennsylvania Avenue at least as much as a TV show can be.



Jake Good said...

Loved The West Wing. I would imagine it's due to the fact that I'm a bleeding heart liberal, but I found the content to be delightful. I always like it when the good guys win! :D

Jake Good said...

Also, Ainsley was a pretty normal Republican :)

Francis Shivone said...

Hey Jake, just today I was wondering how you and Becca were doing.

Yea, I forgot about Ainsley. She was great and normal in that Ainsley kind of way.

I can't say enough good about the show, we still talk about it.

Thanks for commenting. Best to Becca and baby.

John said...

I've seen none of those shows you listed including West Wing. Nor do we have Netflix. Hell, we just got a DVR earlier this year. Cathy tried to get me to start watching Mad Men a year ago and it just never stuck. I guess I just can't get into TV dramas.

Francis Shivone said...

John, probably, so much the better for you. I am sure we could be doing something better with our time.

I can't do the HBO type shows, too dark for me. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.

I got rid of cable TV, no DVR or anything, just Netflix and sometimes Hulu and Amazon.

BTW -- speaking of drama, I gotta stop watching the Cowboys. Seriously.