Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The blonde won't let me watch The West Wing---still!

John Spencer, Leo McGarry of The West Wing, died of a heart attack yesterday. I hope he wouldn't mind my reposting this criticism of The West Wing from last year by way of a tribute. He was one of the best of a terrific ensemble. No matter what I thought had gone wrong with the show, I never ceased to admire Spencer's performance. I still remember how stunned I was by the intense reality of the character he played in Presumed Innocent and towards the end of LA Law's run he was that show's last saving grace.

Bartlet_1The blonde is in the family room, watching The West Wing. I'm not allowed in there. She doesn't want me ruining the show for her. I've promised to keep my opinions to myself, but she knows me too well. She can sense when I'm annoyed by something we're watching. I don't understand how she does it. She must be psychic.

I used to enjoy The West Wing. It took me a little while to warm up to it. I had a hard time swallowing the premise that the whole country was being run by six white yuppies and that this was a good thing. But I liked Martin Sheen's President Bartlet right away and eventually I got to like the other characters and I learned not to mind the constant liberal (but not all that liberal) moralizing.

Every now and then they did something that infuriated me. Like the time when they had the President publically humiliate a Dr Laura character at some White House function. Besides the fact that it was out of character for Bartlet to do something so ungentlemanly, the real Dr Laura didn't deserve the kind of hatred she obviously inspired in the show's writers. Rush Limbaugh now, he's a target. But the show hasn't taken on him or any of the Right Wing hate-mongers. A silly woman who scolds bored housewives and makes dumb statements about homosexuality is a public enemy. But those men who spend their days whipping up a nationwide lynch mob? Never heard of them.

Impeaching Bartlet for lying about his MS was a just plain stupid idea. I guess Aaron Sorkin thought he had something to say about what the Republicans tried to do to Clinton, but besides the fact that after all we've learned about FDR's polio, Eisenhower's heart disease, and JFK's thirty-eight different medical problems nobody would care that Bartlet had MS, Clinton's impeachment didn't come out of nowhere. The Republicans didn't just pounce opportunistically on the Monica Lewinsky lie. They spent every year of Clinton's presidency up until 1999 investigating every aspect of his life, trying desperately to gin up a scandal they could use to destroy him. West Wing's impeachment plot trivialized the Impeachment and even helped give post hoc credence to the Republicans' claim that they hadn't had it in for Clinton, Slick Willy brought the whole thing on himself and they were forced by circumstances to take action.

Sorkin realized the plot was fizzling and cut it short, having his Republicans take out their rage on Mrs Bartlet, which was truer to the real Republicans, who if they had had their choice back in '98 might have let Bill alone if they could have had Hillary flogged in Lafeyette Park.

And I hated it when they killed Bartlet's secretary for no good reason at all except to give Martin Sheen a chance to play mournful.

Mostly, though, it was a very smart, witty, and cleverly plotted show, and I liked it.

But then Rob Lowe left and all of a sudden I didn't like it so much anymore.

Westwing05Sam Seaborn was my favorite character. I think because his mind always seemed to be elsewhere. All the other characters were hyper-focused on the great business of running America. Meanwhile you could see that Sam was thinking about baseball, what he was going to have for lunch, the woman he went to bed with the night before. Sam was also the only character who ever got laid. CJ was apparently hot stuff at one time but I guess once she went to work for Bartlett she became a secular nun. Sam was the only one who seemed to be having a normal life. He was also the only one who enjoyed his job. Josh supposedly lives for what he does, but that isn't really the same thing as liking it. Sam came to work cheerful and left that way. When he left the show grew a whole lot less likeable.

And then they didn't seem to be able to go two episodes without doing something not just annoying but weird.

Having the Vice President resign to avoid a sex scandal, that came out of nowhere, and booted an important character off the show. Plus, I like Tim Matheson and I got a kick out of thinking of Otter from Animal House as the Vice President. (Meeting with Senator Blutarsky from time to time, of course.) Matheson's character was also the way the show could continue past the end of the Bartlett presidency, as the producers seem to have figured out.

Hiring Lily Tomlin and then giving her nothing to do and even forgetting she existed for episode after episode made no sense.

Westwing01 And the whole terrorists kidnap the President's daughter, President steps aside because he's too distraught to lead while her life is in danger even though he knows that evil House Speaker John Goodman will take his place plot was an absurdity that went nowhere and not only wasted John Goodman but destroyed my belief in President Bartlet as a realistic character.

Any President who would give up his job to sit home and wring his hands when the country's in danger, even if his daughter's the first casualty, doesn't deserve to get it back.

Plus I was really hoping for a season long Constitutional crisis plot in which the Republicans attempt a coup. After all, imagine if one of President Al Gore's daughters had been kidnapped after Vice President Lieberman had resigned to go work on a kibbutz, do you think Denny Hastert would have let Gore back into the Oval Office? If he even thought about obeying the law, Tom DeLay would have had his head on a platter.

So, by last season I had become an erstwhile fan and watched the show only sporadically. And this season I haven't seen a single episode.

Mainly because the blonde won't let me.

I guess she thinks that because my reactions to the promos have included boos, catcalls, snorts of disgust and derision, and standing on my chair screaming at the TV in rage and disbelief at how stupid the show appears to have become, that I won't be able to sit quietly beside her and let her enjoy her favorite show, the only peep out of me coming at the commercial breaks when I'd ask her in dulcet tones, "May I run to the kitchen and fix you some hot chocolate, dear?"

Go figure.

But maybe she's right. I am appalled by this season's plot twists so far. For one thing, if they were going to give Leo a great death scene, they should have actually had him die.

Besides, the scene of him infarcting all alone in the woods was stolen from Dick Davenport's death in Doonesbury, which was one of the most moving deaths in pop art, right beside Farley's in For Better, For Worse and Henry Blake's in MASH.

And the CJ becomes chief of staff move drives me insane.

Westwing04 CJ has always had far more involvement with policy making than any press secretary in history, except for maybe Hamilton Jordan, and didn't that do Jimmy Carter a lot of good. In that way she was enacting DeeDee Meyers' dream of the way it should have been with her and Bill Clinton. But the show usually made a point of showing Josh and Leo keeping her out of the loop from time to time so that she would not be put in the position of having to lie to the press.

It's inconceivable that someone so out of touch with key policy making decisions, who has as far as we know very little experience in crafting legislation and absolutely no background in foreign policy, and whose job has kept her away from the day to day workings of the executive wing would be dropped all at once into the position of the President's grand vizier.

One of the show's weaknesses has always been that the cast is too small. With a larger cast there are more possible outcomes in games of musical chairs. Possibly when he first conceived The West Wing Sorkin imagined an ensemble as large as St Elsewhere's or Hill Street Blues'. (We know he had planned that we would never actually see the President himself and that would have left a big structural hole that could only have been filled by at least three more characters.) But it didn't pan out that way. He put that handful of white yuppies in charge of running the country, but interestingly in a supposedly liberal administration gave the weakest part---in terms of how much power her character wielded---to the lone woman.

Presumably, female fans as well as writers, producers, cast members and network executives pointed this out from time to time, but Sorkin ignored them. When he left and an opportunity arose to fill the second most powerful role on the show with a woman, it's no surprise that the show's new executive producers jumped at it.

But why didn't they just introduce a new character? Or, since they've had her around doing a surprising and wonderfully understated job as the National Security Advisor, why didn't they promote Anna Deveare Smith? It would have made more sense, especially since the President and Leo seemed to actually like and respect her. One of the more realistic touches in the show has been the undercurrent of contempt with which the other characters have treated CJ, which has seemed accurate, not just because she's the only girl in the boys' club, but because we know that the press secretary is looked down upon by the kids with the real power in every administration.

Making Smith the chief of staff would have had the extra benefit of putting a person of non pale yuppieness in a position of authority. What does it say that Charlie, the only black face on the show, is essentially the President's valet?

But it appears that the motivation behind promoting CJ wasn't to give power to a woman character. It was to showcase Allison Janney.

I'd noticed, standing in too many supermarket checkout lines over the last couple of years, that Janney was turning up on the covers of a lot of women's magazines. The PR machine seemed to have decided all at once that Janey's face could sell things. Which meant that some focus group or survey had shown that Janey was the reason a key demographic watched West Wing.

Thirty and forty something yuppie women.

She's their ideal them. Smart, sassy, successful, sexy, and unencumbered by husband, lover, or children---that is, absolutely independent of men. Except for her brilliant but ailing daddy.

I have a whole theory worked out about how Janney represents the virgin goddess Diana and how as women move into middle age they stop worshipping Venus and become priestesses at the shrine of etc. etc. etc. I'm not going to get into it. I'm already banned from the family room during West Wing. I don't want to get banned from any other rooms.

Anyway, by putting Janey front and center, I think the producers are telling me that my viewership is no longer desired. I'm too old, and too not female.

But what about the soon to be a regular Jimmy Smits, you might ask? Isn't he there for you aging baby boomer guys to identify with?

No, he's there to attract women still too young to want to withdraw into the Temple of Diana with Janney.

Maybe I'll start watching again when Alan Alda shows up.




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