“The West Wing” may well be one of the best shows on television right now. I don’t know for sure. I’m not qualified to judge. I can’t stand to watch more than fifteen minutes of most television anyway. Except on Wednesday nights, at 9:00 p.m. I am willing to put up with 20 minutes of ads to watch the latest episode of “The West Wing”. I am even more willing to download commercial-free versions from the internet. God bless piracy.
I do scan tv now and then. I don’t pay rapt attention, but I have watched a few episodes of ER and I’ve sat in on “Friends” a few times, and I actually enjoyed “Seinfeld” regularly. The only shows I’ve liked over the past few years have been “The Simpsons”, “The West Wing”, and “Malcolm in the Middle”, which, bless their hearts, runs without a laugh track. “The Sopranos” looks really good but I can never remember when it is on. As for “Friends”, please, please, please get rid of the laugh track. It’s an insult to your intelligence when such lame comedy is lavished with so much audience hilarity. It is the producers of the show laughing at their own bad jokes.
The West Wing is a good show. It is shamelessly political and topical and intelligent. It shamelessly worships intelligence, which is astonishing for a culture that more typically worships anti-intellectualism. The girl always falls for the sincere dolt and rejects the prissy genius.
It is shockingly liberal in outlook, to a degree. Actually, it would be more accurate to label the show “Democrat”–in the sense of being sympathetic to the Democrat political platform–than truly liberal. It’s Blair and Clinton, not Eugene McCarthy or Trudeau. It’s that phony liberalism that feels shameful about the idealist tendencies in some progressives. Sorkin doesn’t want to be accused of muddle-headed bleeding heart pacifism. Nor does he really want to believe that America is not fundamentally the greatest nation on earth.
After watching a lot of episodes, you begin to realize that Sorkin doesn’t really know very much about the world outside of America. Every foreign crisis dramatized in West Wing has the feel of a CNN report filtered through Oprah Winfrey with Barbra Streisand as guest commentator. A long discussion of health care issues failed even once to refer to the most obvious model of socialized health care in Canada.
It’s well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed. Some of the “ground-breaking” techniques (well, “ground-breaking” only if you never saw “Hill Street Blues” in your life) have grown a bit tiresome, and most of the characters do tend to sound a lot alike. The Steadicam shots should be retired– it’s been parodied brilliantly and accurately by MAD TV and a parody that deadly should be heeded.
West Wing won an Emmy in 2000 but Sorkin was criticized by writer Rick Cleveland for hogging all the credit. Sorkin refused to allow Cleveland to come to the podium with him to accept the award even though the story that won the Emmy for Sorkin was based on Cleveland’s father, who was a homeless Korean war vet. Sorkin went on-line in a chat room to trash Cleveland and claimed that he didn’t deserve the Emmy for the episode, though the Writer’s Guild, which sets the rules in these kinds of disputes, certified that he did. The episode– a good one– concerned a Korean War Vet who died homeless, wearing a coat Toby had donated to Goodwill. Toby made Herculean efforts to see that the man was given a proper military funeral to honor his selfless sacrifice. Sorkin’s curiously muddled but rapt devotion to the military was front and centre in this episode.
The good “liberal” President Bartlett displays conspicuous reverence for his generals– and he ought to– on “West Wing”, they are efficient, rational, prudent, and wise. Gosh. Not at all like the real life Curtis Lemay or Westmoreland.
The generals in “West Wing” treat a liberal Democratic president with respect because he’s tough enough to order assassinations and preparations for armed intervention at the slightest provocation. This is old nonsense– this defensive phony liberalism sees it’s shining emblems in tolerance for gays and feminists, good funding for schools, and preservation of wilderness areas, but, by golly we’re not pussies: if there’s killing that needs doing, we’ll do it.
Nobody on the White House staff, in “West Wing”, seems aware of anything America has ever done wrong in the Middle East or Asia or Latin America. They are stunningly unaware of earlier American involvements in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Pathetically, Donna flushes with excitement at meeting a military aide played by Christian Slater. Something about that uniform, I guess. Wow. That may well have been the lowest moment for a good show. I happen to believe there really are a lot of Donna’s in the world– but their love of men in uniform is ridiculous, not noble.
The best? The unusual character of Ainsley Hayes, a Republican lawyer, hired by Bartlett to work in the office of the White House Counsel. Bartlett wanted her after seeing the diminutive cute blonde humiliate Sam in a debate on network television. Emily Proctor, who played Haynes, was a find. It’s too bad they didn’t find more to do for this character– creating the unfortunate impression that she was a token character, intended only to deceive viewers into thinking the writers were more broad-minded than they really were.
That brings me to the worst episode of West Wing, the premiere episode of 2001, which supposedly came to grips with the terrorist attack on the WTC. Sorkin’s characters, in most episodes, have amazing command of even the most obscure facts and figures on the most diverse topic. But in trying to explain why terrorists hate America to a group of talented high school students touring the White House, not a single one of them, not Toby, or Sam, or CJ, or Josh, could remember an insignificant detail like the coups in Iran or Guatemala or Chile, or the embargo against Cuba, or the bombing of Cambodia, or the installation of pro-American dictators in Iran and Iraq, or the way we used Afghanistan to help bring down the Soviet Union, and then abandoned them to the fangs of the Taliban, or the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank, or the Viet Nam War.
No, if you were to believe Sorkin, those terrorists hate us because we are free, and because we are prosperous and successful, and they’re really just envious.
Even worse, the high school students themselves– one craved for even a single rebellious mind in the lot of them– asked simpering embarrassing softball questions. Could not Sorkin at least have put one independent, incisive mind among these supposed honor students? For the all the world, they sounded like unduly reverent acolytes, groveling at the feet of their karmic masters. Haven’t any of them ever read Noam Chomsky? Could there not have been one student whose parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Egypt or Syria or something, who had a different perspective? It was shameful.
Sorkin didn’t have to argue that America deserved to be attacked– but it was astonishing that he tried (and succeeded) to get away with suggesting that there was no reason at all for the attacks.
That’s not the issue. The issue is why do so many Arabs and others around the world think that America is a bully? The point is that their reasons for hating the U.S. are founded in real historical actions that resulted from very real, sometimes mistaken or bad, U.S. policy.
The episode was an unmitigated disaster, artistically and thematically. It was an insult to the viewer’s intelligence.
This weird blind spot in Sorkin’s liberalism– he’s obviously liberal on many social issues, like homosexuality and women’s rights– also shows up in Toby and CJ’s tirades against middle eastern Islamic regimes that abuse women. They’re right about the moral issue but they seem blissfully unaware of the fact that the U.S. itself is partly responsible for these regimes. They talk as if the U.S. has been consistently preaching liberal democracy to Syria and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and to Iran under our protégé, the Shah, and that wicked Islamists suddenly came along one day and drove our kindly diplomats out the country and instituted Sharia. It’s a cheap attempt to say, we can be just as militaristic and confrontational as the Republicans because we are liberals– not in spite of the fact that we are liberals.
There might or might not be a political case to be made for the Shah of Iran and American support for a regime that repressed and tortured their own citizens so we could have cheap oil for our oversized cars, but it could not and should not have been ignored, and the apparent sudden and complete ignorance of Toby et. al. of the history of U.S. involvement with Arab regimes was inexcusable.