The West Wing

I wanna be (re-)elected

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 5.

After the, frankly, quite depressing two part season opener up in Manchester, NH we are now in the cut and thrust of a re-election campaign, with Our Heroes fighting on several fronts. First up the investigation into the cover-up of Bartlets’ MS, then we have the struggles of passing legislation with half an eye on the effect on the reelection chances of not only the President, but his Party and finally the day to day running of the most powerful country in the world.

Not a lot to keep an eye on then.

The last two episodes (“Ways and Means” and “On The Day Before”) have shifted the tone from a passive, reserved White House to focus on more aggressive tactics. I like shows with this sort of politicking – to be honest it fits my preconception of the show before watching it, less soapy drama, more backstabbing.

This aggressive stance is shown with Bartlet using his Presidential Veto for the first time against an estate tax (shades of the current UK mainsion tax and estate tax debate) whcih basically turns round and tells the rich to shut the hell up in their $2m mansions. Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple and the gang run the risk of losing an override vote – as their own side in Congress thinks that the Bartlet administration is weak and threatens to derail the whole thing.

This aggressive “our way or the highway” seems to be the way forward in this series. Just as “Manchester, Parts 1 and 2” felt depressingly harsh, these two episodes are also much more confrontational.

None of this is more apparent than with CJ. In the first two seasons, I’ve really enjoyed her character, delivering smart putdowns under incredible pressure and being one of the main sources of humour. She has always, however, had the undercurrent of being one mis-spoken phrase away from falling apart, and when it happened in “Manchester”, her plaintive cry and upset was some magnificent acting from Alison Janney.

From the other side has emerged Kickass CJ. First, she realises that they need to pick a fight with somebody, anybody and goads the House Republicans into opening their own investigation into Bartlet. Secondly, she destroys, live on national TV, an air-headed showbiz reporter who found herself in the White House instead of her usual fashion beat. I can’t help but draw parallels with the treatment of the radio show host Doctor in that a minor character is introduced for the sole purpose of being the recipient of some venom from one of the principal cast but her comeuppance is earned by the end of the episode and CJs comments show the steel behind the sometimes fluffy and klutzy side exterior. It also emphasises that the White House briefing room is a tank of sharks, both behind the lectern and in front.

Speaking of sharks, there was a nice piece of direction and body language when Sam and Toby double-teamed one of the Congressmen with it definitely felt like they were circling their prey. I don’t think we’ve seen too much of Toby and Sam working as a pair (Sam being clearly subordinate) but it was interesting to see the comparatively soft-edged Sam rather than the explosive, harder Toby be the one to suggest that they screw their own side and work with the softer Republicans to get their way.

So, with every main character being a hardass, it is interesting to see where we go from here.

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Manchester. No, not that one.

I am currently watching The West Wing for the first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to and including Season 3, Episode 2.

Thus we start Season 3 with the two part “Manchester”, starting with the Presidents straightforward answer to whether he would be seeking re-election (“Yeah”) and flowing, via the occasional timeline jump or two up to his formal announcement of running for a second term.

And a very fractious 80 minutes it is, with everybody, well, shouting at each other.  In come three characters to fight the re-election, the spiky Connie, the spikier Doug and the so spikier he should be a hedgehog, Bruno.  They are introduced to a West Wing staff that is clearly stressed out and worried.  Throw in some marital strife between the President and the First Lady and we’ve got a whole lot of bickering going on.

Special praise for Stockard Channing, by the way, who has floated in and out of S1 and S2 like a force of nature.  Feisty, fast and often railing against the protocols and niceties that go with the job of being First Lady.  Loved the various scenes where she was every bit the political equal of her husband, especially when working a crowd on his behalf.  Great to see her promoted to the opening credit sequence for S3.

In the end, it turns out that the reason everyone is shouting is because they are pissed at Bartlet for hiding his MS.  To be honest, I don’t really buy it.  Not because of the performances from the actors, I just thing they were dealt a bum hand with these two episodes.  Things take place outside of the West Wing, in Manchester, NH.  A school room, a bar, Air Force One.  It just adds to the entire feeling of unfamiliarity.  Toby is pissed at a mislabelled poster, which would never have really happened.  CJ is looking to resign after screwing up.  Although the motivation wasn’t right, it was interesting to see the two Bartlets and Leo in full on hardass re-election mode, not realising that their staff were coming to terms with a disease that they themselves had made peace with a long time ago.

It is a hard watch, like I say.  Didn’t really work.  I can see what they were trying to do but… no.  Put it in the can and move on.

Special mention for a sizzling moment of dialogue from the awesome Toby Ziegler, which I think came from the end of Season 2.  Toby and Josh are discussing the various reactions to the news that the President has MS.  Can’t find the exact quote, so I paraphrase:

Josh: Does Donna know?
Toby: Yeah, she knows.
Josh: How did she take it?
Toby: Better than some around here.
Josh: Was that aimed at me?
Toby: Actually. I think it was aimed at me.

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Blimey, where did the fluffy go?

I am currently watching The West Wing in its entirety for the very first time, blogging my thoughts as I go.  So HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to the end of Season 3, Episode 2.

I see the story framework of flashbacks and two parters that I liked so much about the end of S1 start of S2, was kept for the end of Season 2 and start of Season 3.  Thematically, it was a very different 120 minutes and in fact, was a pretty difficult watch.

In reality, the end of Season 2 builds a couple of episodes before “Two Cathedrals”.  The storyline of Bartlet suffering from MS reared its head again.  Originally, I thought the appearance of the disease in S1 was a little hokey and unnecessary.  Whether it was intended to set up the story arc for S2 and S3 I’m not sure but it became the focal point of the season climax.

The problem I had was that it wasn’t the focal point.  The writers threw in the dramatic reaction of the likes of Toby Ziegler, who, in a surprise turn, lost himself in front of the President so much I suspected some kind of MS-related guilty secret. The build up to Tobys discovery was superbly handled in a fantastic pre-credits sequence as that magnificent political brain in a bald head slowly pieced together the clues.

Additional to the MS plot line and the decision to both tell the staff and then the world, there was a crisis in Haiti in contend with, a tropical storm threatening the East Coast, bailing out Mexico and then, with sudden swiftness, the death of Mrs Landingham.

It felt like too much was piling in on the story.  I know that the various plot strands of an episode interweave, but the “big” stories are usually given focus and time to breathe and when several stories move together, they tend to be lighter.  These episodes piled crisis upon crisis and when Charlie told Leo of the death of the Presidents secretary, my reaction was “Not that as well!”

I think that trying to carry all their weight overwhelmed things.  The S2 closer, “Two Cathedrals” is a great 40 minutes, but not exactly a fluid one.  It functioned less as a story and more of a series of set pieces.  We are whizzed back and forth in the timeline, between young Jeb being introduced to the middle-aged Dolores Landingham (brilliantly played by Kirsten Nelson) back to the preparations for the public admittance of MS, the funeral of Mrs L and the decision whether to stand for re-election.

“Two Cathedrals” may not have been a story that flowed, but made up for it being being comprised of several fantastic moments, none better than when Bartlet asked for the National Cathedral to be sealed, before delivering an angry tirade at the Lord Almighty.  It is brave speech to put on TV, not least for having part of it in Latin and calling God a “feckless thug” in prime time?  The act of defiance with a cigarette is a great touch – as is the final parting shot at what Bartlet thinks God deserves, his vapid Vice President – “You get Hoynes!”

Then a moment of sheer theatre, a conversation in the Oval Office with the now dead Mrs Landingham. A great little two-hander than left me wishing that the character of Mrs L had been expanded more, instead of being a slightly quirky focal point for comedy.  Her depth was intimated in the S1 episode “In Excelsis Deo” and I thought we could have done with more of that.

Would it be wrong to interpret a conversation with a ghost as Gods reaction to Bartlets earlier rant in the Cathedral?  Why not, I suppose, given the injection of magical realism into a resolutely realistic and grounded story.  The Ghost of Mrs L is the thing that persuades Bartlet that he still has job to do, despite the personal cost to his health and possibly his marriage.  What else was going to get him to change his mind?

Finally something that is a cliche, but when done well, is incredibly powerful – the President deciding to speak to the nation set to music, in this case Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms”.  That piece of music has been used before in my favourite scene in, of all things, the TV series of Miami Vice.  As the West Wing staff anticipate the “No” decision, we are left with the cliffhanger which really isn’t, as everyone knew we would have a Season 3.  Rewatching the clip again, I love the little touches, the way the West Wing staff fall into line behind the President, CJ’s humour and calm (“I can only answer 14 or 15 questions at once”) and then Leos “Watch this…”

Next blog post will be about the two part opener to Season 3 and taken as a triumvirate, I think S1/S2 worked better than S2/S3.  The stories were more focused, the flashbacks less forced and hurried.  As 120 minutes of drama, “Two Cathedrals” and “Manchester” did not reach the heights scaled by their predecessor, but when adding up the individual moments over a 40 minute timespan then “Two Cathedrals” is definitely the standout episode thus far.

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Conflict has never been so perky

I am currently watching The West Wing from the start, for the first time, and blogging my thoughts as I go. Therefore HERE BE SPOILERS for all episodes up to Season 2, Episode 17.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned the disappearance of Mandy, a spiky spin doctor who was the ex of Josh Lymon and whose appointment was against Joshs wishes because she was clearly good at her job. As the series went on, Mandy disappeared into the background and it became clear no-one had an idea what to do with the character.

Early in Season Two, we are introduced to Ainsley Hayes, a spiky lawyer who is appointed against the wishes of Sam Seaborn because she was clearly good at her job. Well, as second attempts go, it wasn’t exactly subtle. However, the writers do seem to have got a better idea what to do the second time around.

Hayes is very memorably introduced as the other talking head on a Washington TV show. Sam wanders onto the set, full of chirpy cockiness, sees the young, blonde, female Republican opposite and proceeds to get his arse utterly kicked by her in a debate. This is a source of hilarity for the rest of the West Wing and brings her to the attention of Leo McGarry and the President, who offer her a job.

As plot devices go, it was a little clunky. Why would they offer a Republican a job in a Democrat administration? Why would she even take it? (And no, I don’t really believe the “because the President asks” – even in 2000 things were utterly divided.) But in comes Hayes as a member of the regular supporting cast.

And I like her, a lot. She is clearly there to provide “the other side” in a debate, perhaps even to provide some kind of “balance” for the writers and producers when attacked by the Right wing media. (Which I should rant about at length at some point…)

The character works, in the way Mandy didn’t. Despite appearing as the sort of Republican fem-bot that would end up reading an autocue on Fox News, she can easily hold her own. She also has some interesting little character quirks. In her second episode, she turns up for her first day and is given a crappy office by Leo, way down in the basement – I was wondering her treatment was McGarrys idea of a cruel joke, which seemed out of character for him. As the day progresses she is victimised by just about everybody, – her new boss, the distrustful regulars and then, eventually, her own side, who consider her a turncoat.

It is her own sides action – the delivery of dead flowers, with the note “bitch” – which spurs Sam into realising her poor treatment and arranging for it to be made up to her. (Which yet again, portrays US TVs obsession with HMS bloody Pinafore. I’ve never understood that – it comes up here, it comes up in Cape Feare…) The denouement is a little cheesy, but a relief have what was a little bit … not exactly harrowing, but it wasn’t a nice, fluffy watch.

Since that point Hayes has receded a little into the background. From being a tough cookie, she has been used a bit for comic relief – she was in the State of the Union episode acting a little oddly. The adrenaline high after appearing on TV would be plausible, if she hadn’t been so composed in taking Sam apart on Capital Beat a few months earlier. Same with her attacks of nerves on meeting the President. They seem out of character. At time of writing, she has just popped up in “17 People”, giving an argument against the Equal Rights Act and it is here where the character shines – quickly rebutting Sams arguments and standing up for her point of view, without ever really getting into cliche.

Ultimately, a more than adequate replacement for Mandy. And her obsession with food is hilarious.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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