Posts Tagged With: The West Wing

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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