Ideal(ized) Politics

As I mentioned in yesterday’s episode, there are two shows that vie for All-Time Favorite television series. Today’s episode of TV Tuesday is about the series that would—by just a nose—place in the race rather than win. (Tomorrow’s episode is about the show that shows. That’s the Friday Trifecta here: my television picks for win, place and show.)

And I have to say, it’s a really tough call, a photo finish. It’s quite possible that if you asked me at the right time, the order would change. In particular, if you asked me while I was in the middle of re-watching the series (which I may do this coming election season), I might be inclined to say that this horse was the winner.

The horse in question is The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin.

I mentioned last time that the shows I love tend to contain characters I love, and that is certainly true in this case. I wish we had a president like Jed Bartlet and a White House staff like Leo McGarry and C.J. Cregg and Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler.

And I wish that politics did work like Sorkin paints it. I wish our representatives in Washington were people of courage, character, honesty and intelligence. (No doubt some of them are, but in general, over the last decade or so, I have found most of them very disappointing. And I’m still waiting for that “Change I can believe in.”)

The thing I’ve always liked about Sorkin’s characters is how intelligent and capable they are. I wish fiction offered us more characters such as Sorkin’s. To give you just one example, watching Dulé Hill‘s Charlie Young grow and evolve was a great part of that show. More to the point, the character had integrity and honesty from the beginning.

Even the President’s two secretaries, Mrs. Landingham and Debbie Fiderer (Lily Tomlin; a special treat, as I’ve long been a fan!), were outstanding characters; capable, smart, honest and aware.

Sorkin’s characters also are often idealists. As an idealist myself, that speaks to me. Of course it’s not an ideal world, but that doesn’t make having, or pursuing, ideals a bad thing. Only by striving for great heights do we accomplish anything truly useful. Having our reach exceed our grasp drives us to improve our grasp.

To put it another way, “No pain, no gain.”

Through his characters, Sorkin often presents a world that could be—that should be if we had any sense. It’s idealized and sometimes hyperbolic, but I so want to live in his world. And I think Sorkin here, and in The Newsroom, holds up a goal that may be beyond our grasp now, but that we should reach for nevertheless.

The Set!

If you are familiar with Aaron Sorkin’s work, you know about the “walk and talk” that is his signature style. It’s a scene where the camera follows (or more often leads) the characters as they walk and talk. The trick gives expository dialog, which can be a bit dull, a feeling of movement and action. (They did a great parody of this on 30 Rock when Sorkin made a guest appearance as himself.) It’s a common trick now that technology makes cameras more mobile. For example, you see it a lot on House, M.D., where they take advantage of their large hospital wing set.

And that’s a key part of this. It either needs to be it outdoors where the characters have room to walk, or it requires a large enough set to provide that room. In the case of House, M.D., they built most of a hospital floor using a square layout that allows the characters to make a loop.

I discovered The West Wing after it had already run its course from 1999 to 2006. In fact, I know that I began watching it early in 2008, because that was the year of the Obama election. I watched it again in 2010 and yet again early this year. One mark of good storytelling is how well it holds up in repeat viewings, and this one just gets better with each re-viewing.

From the beginning, even in the first episode, it was clear the set was one piece (except it very cleverly wasn’t that first year). As I watched the episodes, I began trying to figure out the floor plan. A nice thing about DVD compared to video tape is how easy it is to freeze frame or use slow motion forward or backward. I would sit with my pen and paper trying to figure out angles and relative positions.

Years later I found some (fan-created) set diagrams. Also, one of the later DVDs comes with an extra that shows the actual floor plan.  Turns out I got pretty close!

The Debate

One of the great episodes for me was the live TV debate in season seven. It features Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda as Presidential candidates Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick. It was performed live twice; once for the east coast and again for the west coast. On the DVD there is a version that takes you backstage and into the control booth during the taping of the show.

What I love about the episode is that, in addition to being done live, the dialog was not fully scripted. Just as in a real debate, the characters responded to questions as though it were actually alive debate. They even used journalist Forrest Sawyer as the moderator! (In fact, given how tame and useless modern political debates are, this one was more real, more live, and once again, more ideal than what we get in reality.)

Wrap Up

Speaking of how I love characters, one thing that’s a little bit unusual for me is that this show has no female characters that were “part of the reason I watch the show.” Compare this to, for example, Rizzoli & Isles, where the only reason I watch the show is Angie Harmon. And the marvelous Lorraine Bracco. And Sasha Alexander, although it’s more Dr. Isles that I find interesting; I’ve just never had a “thing” for the actress, perhaps in counterpoint to all the NCIS fan boys who adored her so.

So no major crushes in this one. I did develop a small crush on Mary McCormack‘s character (Commander Kate Harper), in part because I’ve always had a thing for spies and warriors (women who can kick ass are big in my book).

And I enjoyed it when Marlee Matlin was on as Joey Lucas. As someone with a severe hearing deficit, I’ve always admired her. She was the high point in the otherwise disappointing What the Bleep Do We Know.

I also enjoyed seeing Janeane Garofalo as Louise Thornton. As with Lily Tomlin, I’ve been a fan for a long time! (I never understood casting her as the “ugly duckling” in The Truth About Cats & Dogs.)

[I realize some of my female readers may find these ruminations… let’s go with “unfortunate.” I regret if that’s so, but as I’ve written before, I love women. Finding admirable women, strong and capable, in fiction has always been one of the draws for me. My mother and sister are both such women, and such have always been the sort of woman I sought.]

Two closing notes:

Sorkin & Liz Lemon
walking and talking

In the Cable TV post, when I talked about The Newsroom, I listed a number of movies Aaron Sorkin has had a hand in writing. I also popped a quiz question concerning which two movies I had left off that list. If you guessed Charlie Wilson’s War and The Social Network, you get a gold star!

And finally, if you’ve been wondering how “TV Tuesday” can have episodes throughout the week, it’s simply that the arc title reflects the day on which the arc begins. I select a title for the way it sounds and begin the arc on that day. Star Trek Saturday was the first of such arcs.

Mystery Monday is in the production pipeline and will be starting on (of course) an upcoming Monday. You’ll get a taste of it this coming Monday in the House of LEO post.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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