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.

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