Author Topic: WEST WING  (Read 131 times)

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Offline agate

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WEST WING
« on: March 02, 2015, 03:41:39 pm »
Seasons 1 -3:

Having watched only a couple of episodes of this series when it was running on TV, I finally got around to seeing the entire West Wing. So far, it’s been well cast and well acted, with witty, fast-paced dialogue, realistic situations and likable characters, though I keep hoping that Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) will get his comeuppance and fade into the background.

I don’t really like President Bartlet or the First Lady much either. Martin Sheen as the President does an excellent job, and maybe I just can’t see his appeal. Stockard Channing as Abby Bartlet just doesn’t work for me. She is supposed to be a medical doctor with some credibility in her field, but she doesn’t get into the role, it seems to me.

One problem with running a TV series about the White House must have been that the producers felt obliged to respond to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center without actually dealing with it directly. So, most unfortunately, season 2 opens with the peculiar “Isaac and Ishmael” episode, where the main characters are no longer themselves but function as teachers lecturing to an attentive group of teenagers about terrorism. The whole episode is so out-of-whack and wrong-headed that it’s embarrassing to watch it, and I understand that the series came in for harsh criticism at the time.

However, while giving us an absorbing story, West Wing also manages to score a few points for people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. We have the deaf Joey Lucas (played by the actually deaf Marlee Mattlin) in a position of considerable authority, and the President himself–diagnosed with multiple sclerosis some seven years before running for President and not letting it get in his way (he seems to have a quieter, more easily remitting case, so far)–and even taking the flak about not having revealed this fact to the public.  These aspects of West Wing help to make it clearer that a disability or a chronic disorder is a condition some people happen to have–and they usually can go on with their lives, making adjustments as needed. Joey Lucas, for instance, has had to become proficient in sign language and goes about with an interpreter. People must face her when talking to her so she can read their lips.

In the third season, in the “Manchester II” episode, Toby Ziegler tells Sam Seaborn: “Did you realize MS [advocates] often advise people with MS to hide the illness because it’s so misunderstood?” When the question whether President Bartlet defrauded the public by concealing  his MS from them arises, it is this aspect of the disorder that may be his best defense–that it is so often misunderstood. And since his MS wasn’t crippling him appreciably, why should the public have needed to know about it?

There is much that the public might want to know but whether they ought to know is another matter. Just after this series ended, we were treated to series like Mad  Men, which shows frequent intimate couplings among the characters. West Wing never gets past an occasional chaste kiss. The recent trend of revealing intimate details of characters’ lives is disturbing and puzzling. Why would a couple want their intimate moments on display? They are intimate moments, something those two people share between themselves. Unless they’re exhibitionists, why  would they want to put them out in the open? To prove to themselves and others that they are not ashamed or inhibited? OK, point made.  Made in Mad Men. Made in The Wire. Made in Treme. Made in many movies. Did the point need to be made? Most older folks survived Henry Miller and other frankly explicit works, long ago. We had Kerouac, Anais Nin, Masters and Johnson. If you’ve witnessed a few explicit couplings, the chances are you’ve pretty much covered that territory.  Now could we move on?

It is refreshing, after a diet of explicit movies and TV shows, to find one that makes an attempt at preserving some dignity by not invading bedrooms and bathrooms.

Some of the music could have been better. There is a magnificent scene were Toby arranges a military funeral for a homeless vet who came to his attention–a man who had waited 45 minutes for an ambulance. This otherwise moving spectacle is marred by its background music–the very syrupy and much-too-often-heard “Little Drummer Boy.”

Season 3 ends with bits of music from a musical the President is attending, War of the Roses, apparently all of Shakespeare’s “Henry” plays set to music. The parts we hear make it sound embarrassingly bad, almost as if someone has made a pathetic attempt at imitating Les Misérables.

And one more tiny quibble. The President’s displays of erudition can be so tiresome that his staff members make jokes about them. They are also wrong sometimes, as when he mentions Beowulf as originally in Middle English--when in fact Beowulf is in Old English, a language more like German than English.

Seasons 4-7:

A personable, dynamic US President with an appealing wife and children gets replaced by an even more personable and dynamic US President with an equally appealing wife and children–this is the visionary world given to us in West Wing as it unfolds a little beyond the 8 years of the Bartlet Presidency.

Some couples are neatly paired off by the end, and President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis has remained conveniently offstage throughout most of his two terms.

Lily Tomlin does an especially fine job as the President’s secretary, and most of the acting is superb in the entire series.  The actress playing Commander Kate Harper, however, seems miscast, or else the entire character should have been different. In the first episodes where she appears she seems much too young, sporting a ponytail and a fresh young face, to have as much responsibility as she has. Later the ponytail is replaced by a chignon, but she  almost always looks more like a fashion-magazine model than a person to be entrusted with the most sensitive matters of state, involving the potential for nuclear war.

And the diminutive actress who plays Annabeth, also in what seems to be a responsible position, is less than credible, mainly because of her very chirpy voice, which makes her seem like a caricature of herself.

Near the end of the last season, we have appearances by Jon Bon Jovi and Ben Affleck, involved in the campaign to elect Matt Santos for President.  This might be taken as chilling evidence of the increasing importance of the US celebrity culture although that isn’t the way it is spun in this series. It’s positive, impressive, cool.

–It’s also a long way from the kind of thought and skill that should be going into genuine statesmanship and the carving out of international relations.

On balance, though, West Wing must have had a couple of very important effects. For one thing, it demonstrates just how busy and problem-ridden any US government scene probably is, while showing us the very detailed attention  that must always be given to protocol.

Another positive effect of this show might have been to call attention to multiple sclerosis as sometimes not necessarily disabling–or as only moderately disabling.  This corrective is especially welcome at a time when the media have been full of accounts of Jacqueline Du Pré, Richard Pryor, and Annette Funicello–all of whom were much more severely affected than President Bartlet.
« Last Edit: March 02, 2015, 03:46:44 pm by agate »
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