Three in a row

I’m currently watching The West Wing from the start, blogging my thoughts as I go.  Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to Season 2, Episode 10.

There are several well known tropes and styles in US television.  Actually, that is a little unfair, as there are only so many story themes in the world, as well as a number of techniques used to tell them.  That seems an odd thing to say, but there are only 72 keys on a piano, it is the way and the order that you press them that makes for almost infinite complexity and variation.   Three of these tropes are

  • The Season Ending Cliffhanger
  • The Two Part Special
  • Getting The Band Together

Just about every long running TV series will feature at least one example of the above at some point during its run.  With The West Wing, the final episode of Season One, plus the opening two episodes of Season Two pull off the pretty amazing feat of combining all three.

Things start quietly enough at the end of Season One finale “What Kind of Day It Has Been”, with what seems to be a tightly focused episode.  Our heroes are faced with two dilemmas, a rescue mission to retrieve a downed pilot in Iraq and trouble aboard (presciently enough) the Space Shuttle Columbia, which is having problems re-entering the atmosphere after a mission.  Problem is that Toby Zieglers brother is aboard Columbia.

To take a small detour, this latter thing is a bit of a swerve.  Several members of the cast remark to Toby that they never even knew he had a brother, let alone one who had gone into space several times.  This seems massively out of place, even for someone so famously self-contained as Toby.  He is one of the characters that I’ve grown to really like over the first two series – clearly a hard nut, but capable of great moments of quiet subtlety.  I like the way that Richard Schiff plays those moments, generally looking away when he is telling someone something personal and supportive, as if he doesn’t want to let other people see the mask slip.  As the day progresses and President Bartlet holds a town hall meeting that, at times, sounds like a standup gig, Toby tries to hold everything together while worrying deeply about his sibling.

Eventually we get a lovely little series of signals which let him know Columbia returned successfully, played with a light touch.  The President concludes his meeting and the group head for the cars back to the White House.

And then the shots are fired.

There is a sense of inevitability that the story would involve an assassination attempt.  The writers throw in a curveball, as the target of the gunmen is not the President, but his daughter Zoe and his aide Charlie.  The pair have been having a relationship which, due to the fact that Charlie is black, has attracted the ire of white supremacists who have decided to take a rather twisted stand.  Although I haven’t been a fan of the Zoe/Charlie relationship, I thought this was a good illustration of the problems any high profile person and their family faced.  It also managed to have the cliche of a shooting without the actual cliche of it being at the President.

If that episode is all set up, ending as the trigger is pulled, then the two part opener to Season Two “In the Shadow Of Two Gunmen” is a little bit of aftermath, but a whole lot of story.  We discover that the President has minor wounds but Josh has taken a bullet to the chest and is in a serious condition.  From here, the episodes flash constantly between the current timeline, the episode goes back and explores how all the main players were recruited to Bartlet in the first place, starting with Toby and Josh and then moving onto Sam, CJ and Donna.  In between the drama of Joshs fight for survival, the various back stories are explored.

I am a big fan of this way of story telling.  My favourite episode of Firefly is “Out of Gas” which bears a lot of similarities with “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”, a main character shot and close to death, jumping back to how he and his friends met each other.  When done effectively, and here it is done very effectively, the viewer switches back and forth very quickly between darkness and light, concern and comedy.  If the viewer has invested the time in meeting the characters beforehand, it becomes a very powerful emotional rollercoaster.

It is also kind of interesting to see that Josh and Leo become the real power behind the throne.  Bartlet is clearly not sure he has what it takes to be come President, despite Leos faith in him.  Toby is shown doubtful of his abilities.  Josh is working for Hoynes, the prohibitive favourite at that point.  Yet Leo know who to get and how to get them.  Josh knows how to beat Hoynes, and is not only willing to do so despite working for the guy, but absolutely capable.  I can’t remember the exact numbers, but I think Bartlet was sitting fourth in the nomination race when Josh joined him – such a turnaround is utterly remarkable.

I really warmed to Josh during these two episodes, a guy who clearly does his job because he wants to make a difference, not because he wants power.  There is a revealing scene where Hoynes – the future Vice-President – effectively fires Josh because he refuses to keep playing the percentages, demanding that his candidate stands for something.  Leo McGarry pops up as a sort of Grand Vizier, manipulating behind the throne and getting Josh to see what he could do.

The recruitment of Sam and CJ is much more light hearted.  Again, I’ve really warmed to Rob Lowe as Sam over the first series, playing against type as a nerdy, clumsy kind of guy.  He is smart, but also socially inept.  The scene where Josh recruits Sam contrasts what we have seen – two smart, driven operatives – with a couple of guys who were just drifting along in their respective careers.  Sure, they were successful and making money, but they really want to make a difference.  I loved the fact that Sam knew what happened to CJ – initially I suspected some kind of concussion or PTSD, but the reveal that Sam, quite literally had CJs back was beautifully done.

CJ is in clumsy mode for her back story.  I’ll write more about her in another post, but I don’t really like it when CJ is clumsy or dumb.  This isn’t the fault of Alison Janney, more that it just doesn’t feel right.  This is a woman who, in front of the press, is always smart, always prepared and one of the fastest thinkers on their feet you could want.  To have her turn up for work in her dressing gown, half blind and then fall into a pool after getting fired… it just felt that the comedy was forced.  CJ is better than that – though her honesty in the discussion with the Hollywood big shot was hilarious and pure CJ.

The recruitment of Donna was a lovely scene as well – it always seemed odd how she would end up in the White House, being so utterly good at her job while being completely loopy.  As Season Two has progressed, Donna has become much smarter, but it was nice to see the early interplay between her and Josh and the beginning of their relationship.

Finally, I loved the future President in these two episodes.  Martin Sheen showed a real vulnerability throughout, irritable and cranky in order to hide his lack of self-confidence.  The “What’s next?” discussion was brilliantly written and, of course, sets up the final punchline.  But Sheen also showed the quality that made Bartlet President in the scene at the airport – the fact that he would forget himself and offered to accompany Josh to his family.  At the start of that conversation, Bartlet looks small and tired.  By the end, he looks Presidential.

Of course, the whole 120 minutes builds to the final payoff line.  And when it comes, it was a real punch the air moment.  Joshs’ survival was never really in doubt, but the final scene reinforced that the West Wing isn’t about politics, but relationships between people just trying to do a job. The last line elevated the three episodes right up with my favourite TV of all time.

Armed and ignorant

The old saying is that nothing is so dangerous as ignorance.  But with Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, we have an ignorant idiot who is also armed.

In todays Telegraph, he is quoted as saying “We don’t want America to become like England, where some of that nation’s outstanding rifle competitors keep their hobby a dark secret from their neighbours for fear of social disapproval,” said Mr LaPierre. “We’re not going to let the anti-gunners push us into that zone.”

We’ll leave aside the fact that the head of British Shooting described his statements as “absolute rubbish”.  Why is it that whenever the NRA come under fire for their moronic, pathetic defence of the age old right for patriotic Americans to be easily able to kill children using assault rifles, they point to the UK as justification?  Why us?  It is, of course, a useful indicator of their sheer, planet-sized ignorance that they refuse to this place as “England” when they mean “the United Kingdom”.  The UK is a slightly complex beast, being made up of four countries (depending on your point of view) but the overall concept is fairly simple to explain and understand.  A five year old could grasp the concept, unless they have just been shot in the face by someone who has exercised their Constitutional right to walk into a primary school loaded down like Rambo.  It is, of course, beyond the understanding of the head of the National Rifle Association, but then, that level of stupidity comes with the job.

After Sandy Hook, we had the age old discussion about gun control.  The NRA fell back to its usual standbys, blaming Hollywood, videogames, Obama, little green men etc.  Falling back on power fantasises about killing burglars in their homes (ask Oscar Pistorius how that one turned out).  They also said that the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was not the time to have this discussion on gun control.

At the time of writing, since Sandy Hook which happened in mid-December, 1852 Americans have been killed by guns.  (This site keeps a live tally.)  So, about 30 deaths a day since Sandy Hook.  One every 48 minutes or.  It would seem at first glance, that if we were to take the NRA line that “now is not the time for discussion” then,with one death every 48 minutes, there never will be a time for discussion.  Then I had a thought.

If you support the current state of gun control in the United States then you support the killing of children.  You believe that 20 dead kids is a reasonable price for your own personal freedom to pretend that you can freely take another life without consequence.  Ordinary US citizens have proved, time and time again, that they can’t be trusted not to go out and shoot up schools and shopping malls. When a five year old misbehaves, you take their favourite toy away from them until they learn to behave properly. Yet you don’t think this is the case for gun owners.  The right to carry a gun stops at the right to shoot someone else in the face.  You want to protect your Second Amendment rights?  Well, it says you have to be part of a well-regulated militia, so go off and join the Army.  If you want a gun, be a soldier.  The moment you stop being a soldier, you lose the gun.  You want to go hunting, hunt bear.  Not something that couldn’t hurt if there were ten thousand simultaneously flying at you – like quail or duck.  (I mean, seriously, you are hunting a duck?  What is it going to do, use its bill to suck you to death?)  Oh and you can’t drive to it and blast away – you want to hunt, then we’ll drop you in the middle of the Oregon forest to do so. If you want to use a statistic in favour of less gun control and it is wrong, you lose, automatically.  Debate is not shouting louder than your opponent.  If you manage to make Piers Morgan look reasonable and rational, then you are clearly on the wrong side of the issue. Every single one of the current arguments on gun control are based on a) money, b) pathetic power fantasies, c) rampant selfishness and d) a child-like tantrum that the “wrong” President got elected by the “wrong type” of people. And yes, I do know what you are saying when you say that.

Discussion over.  48 minutes?  More like 48 seconds.

Is “Cobra” the most 80s film in history?

Just watching “Cobra” and it seems to me that it is the most 80s film ever made.  Not because it is set in the 80s (obviously it is) but the style, the characters, the script… just about every trope and cliche that it is possible to put into a film makes it into Cobra.

So far we have

  • Sylvester Stallone as the title character which is a cop. A cop who doesn’t play by the rules, but god-damn he gets results
  • Brigitte Nielsen
  • Stallone’s boss hates him, but tolerates his methods, because of the aforementioned results.
  • Cobra lives in a beach front property.
  • Alone.
  • And entertains himself by cleaning his gun.
  • While wearing his mirrored shades
  • Having first shifted a load of Latinos out of his parking space.  They were just sitting there.  In a car. Next to a beach.  For no reason.
  • His partner wears a flat cap.  Unironically.  He almost dies.
  • The bloke who played Sledge Hammer has a minor role.  Can’t get more 80s than Sledge Hammer.
  • Prominent pictures of Ronald Reagan
  • The soundtrack appears to consist of power ballads and saxophone solos
  • There is a montage.
  • Accompanied by a power ballad.
  • Ultra-violence, which is commented upon by one of those liberal media reporter types.
  • Who gets punched in the face. Because this is the 80s, God-dammit.
  • Cobra never takes his gloves off.  Even when in his own house.
  • Lots of sounds of guns being lovingly assembled and reassembled
  • Including an entire montage
  • Also accompanied by a power ballard.
  • Cobra drives his own customised car.  Which makes lots of noise, but doesn’t actually go all that quickly.
  • As evidenced in a car chase where it can’t catch one of those Tetris shaped US sedans of the 80s.
  • The solution to everything is shooting people.
  • Each bad guy is offed with a one-liner
  • 87 minute running time.  (3 minutes longer than Evil Dead II, 8 minutes less than Mad Max 2.  When did films get so long?)
  • Cobra shows his sensitive side and romances the girl by putting a ballad on a jukebox.
  • Fashion shoot! (For character development reasons, of course)
  • Female lead character invites male lead character to bed – soundtracked by yet another power ballad
  • It is dumb. Like, really stupid.  You know how Arnie and Stallone were one man armies in the 80s? It is because extras would line up to be mowed down. Literally, just running in front of machine guns.  There is a bit where Stallone is on the back of a pick-up, killing everyone with one shot.

Basically, the only film that can match it for 80s-ness is Police Academy 3.  Because that features not only jet-skis, but is quite blatantly shot in a location other than that depicted – unless they’ve moved the CN Tower* without anyone noticing.

Shame Cobra isn’t, on just about any level, a decent film.

* Easier to see in the film itself, but in that image, you can see the concrete structure of the CN Tower in the background behind the white building

The impossibility of avoiding spoilers

I’m currently watching the whole of The West Wing from the start and blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS FOR ALL SHOWS UP TO SEASON TWO EPISODE SEVEN.

Well, speaking of spoilers, you may have noticed that I haven’t done much in the way of images or links.  Unfortunately, that is how it is going to stay, because in the three attempts I have made to look up something related to an episode, I’ve managed to run into spoilers.  Not from the articles, but from Google Instant Search autocompleting for me – and YouTube Related Videos.

So, yeah, thanks for that Internet.

I’ve got a queue of things I’ll write about, but in my viewing I’m up to S2E7, “The Portland Trip”, set entirely during a cross-country plane flight.  A little bit of a holding episode, as no-one really gets what they want – apart from Bartlet who gets CJ to wear a Notre Dame baseball cap as punishment for a sarky comment about their American football team.  As I watch episodes on the train to and from work, there were several moments where I had to cough in order to stifle laughter.  “Oh look, photo op” was brilliant.

One of the spoilers I ended up reading was that Josh and Donna do seem to get together – which is clearly inevitable after this episode, where Donna is dressed for a date but pulled back into work and complimented by a tipsy Josh.  So even though I know the punchline, the setup should be fun.

I’ll write more about the end of Season One / start of Season Two in a bit, given that they were pivotal to the whole series and, well, because they were three episodes in a row which made it onto my list of Favourite Things In TV Ever.  As the show is really in its stride,  I noticed several things have been quietly dropped.

The key one, for those who have watched, is the loss of the character of Mandy.  I’ll not say it was a shame, as one of the most prominent characters at the start of Season One was invisible by the end.  I don’t think it was the fault of the writers or Moira Kelly who played her – she just never seemed to fit in.  Was she an antagonist for Josh?  If so, why stick her in the West Wing, rather than working outside against them?  The whole “piece of paper” subplot that took up an episode or two seemed like a last throw of the dice – I was thinking “of course she is going to write what Bartlet’s weaknesses are – that would be her damned job.”

Mandy only did what Sam did in an episode – explore an alternate position.  Sam did it and kept quiet in order to wind up Mallory – and she has quietly disappeared too.  I expect she will be back in some form, but that relationship seemed to be building up before hitting a brick wall.  Mallory wasn’t even at the hospital after the shooting.

Finally, Sams relationship with Laurie, the call girl was cleared up very quickly, too.  Half a season of “will this get out to the public? We’re screwed if it gets out to the public.” and then suddenly “It is public.  Oh, well.”  No aftermath, no goodbye, no revenge against the waitress “friend” who sold the story for $50,000.  Obviously it couldn’t keep going forever, but it would have been nice to have had a conclusion.

Zoe seems to have disappeared too, with Charlie making some comments which seem to indicate he on the market.  There is a blog about those two that I need to get around to as well.

7 episodes down in the season, 22 to go.  I assume we’re going to get into the meat of the arc now, with a new Senate and Congress after the Midterms. Aynsley Hayes in on board, which I’ll write more about separately.

Acting with a capital A

I’m currently watching The West Wing for the first time, in order, right from the beginning and blogging my thoughts on it.  I am currently up to Season 2, Episode 5 so HERE BE SPOILERS.

Opinion is split on the Richard Curtis film, Love, Actually.  It is schmaltzy, a bit dumb and a hell of a lot of wish fulfilment.  To be honest, I quite like it as a film.  It is funny, entertaining and cheers me up.  There is one scene in particular that I remember well purely for the effect it had on the audience in the cinema when I watched it – the scene where Prime Minister Hugh Grant (played by Hugh Grant) admonishes the visiting President of the United States.

It is complete fantasy of course, but actors and writers love it.  First off, actors get to Act, a big set-piece where they can command the attention of the audience.  Writers love it because they can put their own words directly into the characters mouths without having to worry about nuance.  A speech is a moment where the audience is addressed face to face.  Some people don’t like them, especially when what is being said runs contrary to their ideas or opinions, but the power of a fictional speech to tell a true story is undeniable.

The West Wing isn’t afraid to go for the big grandstanding moment.  I’ve said before that I haven’t been the biggest fan of President Bartlet as a character because at times it has been hard to believe that he could have survived the cutthroat of politics to get elected.  However, when Martin Sheen is given A Big Speech then he really does give it the beans.

In the best examples so far, the writers have given the Speech not in a political context, such as a scene set at a rally or a fundraiser, but as a moment of interaction where some poor minor character, an extra even, is brought in for the purposes of sitting there while the main cast and writers unload at them.  In the episode “The Midterms” (S2E3) Bartlet demolishes a right wing radio host for her views on homosexuality.

It is a great moment, beautifully scripted and delivered.  But it feels a little out of context – we haven’t been introduced to Jacobs beforehand so seeing her demolished feels a little cruel – her comeuppance should be earned.  Similarly, that this happens in a room full of talk radio hosts seems to be kind of ignored – wouldn’t it be all over the airwaves the following day?  Also, most issues which – to these European eyes – seem pretty black and white tend to be dealt with by having characters debate the issue, either amongst themselves or with the supporting cast of the week.  Why should this issue be chosen to let the writers address the audience directly, rather than something equally contentious, liberal and (to my mind) clear cut.  Why this over gun control or the death penalty, both of which have been discussed in character?  Was it the safe option?

I suppose it demonstrates the good and the bad of having a character make a Speech.  Couldn’t help grinning at the end though, especially with the “that is how I beat him” payoff line.

The West Wing – Supporting Characters

I’m watching The West Wing for the first time and decided to keep a record of the journey through.  So for anyone who has not watched the show and intends to do so HERE BE SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE AND SEASON TWO UP TO EPISODE 3.

Let me be clear – the performances from the leading cast are superb and nuanced.  Characters who are hard to like to begin with (Toby Ziegler, that would be you) become favourites as time goes by.  But the thing that makes the show so watchable is the supporting cast, especially the army of PAs, assistants and secretaries in The West Wing.

I don’t want to use the words “minor characters” because they are so important.  I love Mrs Landingham, the Presidents secretary who is clearly the matriarch of the administrative staff, alternately arranging and admonishing everyone who comes into her orbit, regardless of rank.  “No, Mr President, you cannot have a cookie, because you were snippy.”

Margaret, assistant to Leo McGarry seems a little bit too ditzy for my liking.  But my real hook into this was the interplay between Josh and his assistant Donna.  This can be the highlight so far, as they back and forth at incredible pace.  Part of me wants the relationship to develop further (and there seem to be a couple of hints that it might) but on the other hand, I quite like it the way it is.  There is a wonderful exchange between the pair in S1E6 where they are discussing the excess funding from taxes, and after it seems Josh has the upper hand, Donna later extracts the most beautiful revenge.

To be honest, these characters feel the least “real”.  They turn up, do something amusing or give a little moment and then disappear.  I think this is what makes them so entertaining – a little pause in the fast pace, a little grounding and normality.  Whenever one of them has a line longer than “X on the phone for you” then I already have a little smile in place at a forthcoming joke.

Thoughts on The West Wing – Season One

I’m watching The West Wing for the first time and decided to keep a record of the journey through.  So for anyone who has not watched the show and intends to do so HERE BE SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE.

You know you are in safe hands with a story when you realise that the writers are a step ahead of you.  Not a million miles, but not so close that you can see things coming.  I was, I don’t know, about ten episodes in to Season One when I was thinking to myself – are they really going to be like this for the rest of the run?  This… wussy?

Obviously a complex series featuring at least six principal characters and a dozen smaller, yet important characters is going to have to spend time setting things up and introducing the audience to them.  But the first few episodes, fun though they were didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.  And to be honest, I thought the main problem was the President, who was less the Leader of the Free World, more like a kindly grandfather.  I couldn’t, at any point, see how the hell this nice guy had made it through the cutthroat world of politics to the top job.   There had been only one line that showed any kind of steel – when Bartlett argued with his Vice-President, Hoynes, the latter asking why Bartlett treated him like crap, the President uttered the words “You shouldn’t have made me beg” and I thought “finally!”

Except the writers knew this and were stringing me along.  The polling results come in, everyone is tired and treading water – suddenly the Oval Office explodes with anger.  They realise they are just floating along, dealing with their own personal issues and too scared to try anything, always looking to compromise and it is killing their administration and their re-election chances.  Leo McGarry stops feeling sorry for himself about his alcoholic past and turns into the hardass character that a Chief of Staff should be – especially one who persuaded Bartlett to run in the first place.

(It is mildly distracting, however, that McGarry sounds like Moe the Bartender from The Simpsons.)

Stepping outside the story and into the mechanics of making American TV shows, I do wonder if the change happened because the writers knew they had a successful series.  It happens in Episode 19 which production timing wise is close enough to perhaps have been affected by outside influences.  It also marks the point where everyone stops being touchy feely nicey nicey and starts showing the edge that got them elected in the first place.  To be honest, as enjoyable as the show had been to that point, I think it needed it.

The West Wing

The West Wing is one of those shows that I had been meaning to get around to watching for a long time.  It has even sat on my hard drive for the best part of a year.  I’d always said that I probably needed to watch the whole thing from the start, having caught an episode and really enjoyed it, but figured that to continue watching was to jump in halfway.

I’ve decided that I’ll be blogging my viewing on and off, just to see how it goes, really.  I’m three episodes into Season 2 and seeing as I’m writing several years after the show has finished HERE BE SPOILERS.   I’ll mark the postings with spoilers as well.

I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to watching this show.  Well, apart from piling through stuff like Castle and The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.  And Elementary.  And The Wire.  OK, I do know why it took so long, but as someone with a healthy interest in politics, especially of the American kind, this show should have been at the top of my list.

I’ll not go too far into a recap, but it starts in the first year of the administration of Democrat President Jeb Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and focuses on the various issues, trials and tribulations that he and his team face.  These can be major geopolitical events (crisis in Pakistan threatening war, deciding a proportional response to the shooting down of a US military plane , to the personal (Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and his battle against alcoholism) and the minor (getting a Bill through Congress).

This is a show with talking.  Lots and lots of talking.  No gun play, no big explosions – just talking.  Or more appropriately, walking and talking.  The signature motif is the walk, where characters spit high quality fast paced dialogue at each other while wandering around the White House, seamlessly moving from one character to the next.  You have to pay attention to the plots and connect the dots to previous episodes (handily recapped at the start of the show).  The dialogue is not natural, in the way that the best dialogue isn’t.  It is just too intricate, too fast and too damned witty to be anything but rehearsed.  It is naturally delivered, but kind of like how everyone in Friends had a beautifully timed bon mot just waiting for the opportune moment.  There is a lot of repetition of words and phrases, not least between Josh and Donna but the show trusts its audience to keep up and doesn’t demand anything other than you pay attention for a bit.

I think that is why I love it so much.  Like the very best TV, it demands you treat it with respect, pay attention and trust the people behind it to entertain you.  I’ll write more about the issues raised, the characters and so on.  Suffice to say, when in the pilot episode one of the characters suggested that the President riding his bicycle into a tree should be described to the Press as “coming to a sudden arboreal stop” I instantly knew that I was in for the long haul.