Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Fantasy in the West Wing |
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Fantasy in the West Wing

In America, fans of The West Wing are called Wingnuts. There are about twenty million of them. British Wingnuts are fewer but even more dedicated, because in order to view the programme when it goes to air, they first have to find it. Channel 4, perhaps to ward off accusations of abject subservience to American cultural imperialism, moves the programme unpredictably around the schedules in order to keep the viewing figures as low as possible. The irony here is that the White House of The West Wing’s fictional President, Jed Bartlet, and the White House of the actual President, George W. Bush, have little in common beyond their colour scheme and architecture. A different language is spoken in each. In The West Wing version of the West Wing the frantically energetic inhabitants speak modern American English in its highest state of colloquial eloquence. Crafted in the Bush administration’s West Wing, a holding area for somnambulists, any speech by the President sets a standard so low that Donald Rumsfeld is elevated to the oratorical status of Edmund Burke. When the Founding Fathers were addressing the question of a national language, German and Hebrew were both considered. After they finally realized that the language in which they were discussing the matter was probably the best candidate, English won by default. Bush and the rest of the boys make you wonder how it happened. How long does it take them to wish each other good morning? Condoleezza Rice, whose gift for languages includes her own, must feel like an epidemiologist dealing with a mass outbreak of lock-jaw.

From that angle, the actual West Wing is a wildly improbable fiction. The fictional West Wing is realistic, but only in the sense of reminding you that realism is the most refined form of manufactured drama. Just how refined, in this case, is best studied by viewing the episodes one after the other. To ease the frustration of waiting for Channel 4 to peel back the camouflage on the latest instalment, the trainee Wingnut can purchase the whole of the first season on video or, even better, on DVD: twenty-two chapters of the story in a single glorious wodge. The second season will shortly be forthcoming: I haven’t seen the DVDs yet, but I have been granted access to a set of time-coded tapes. So even as the third season intermittently unfolds on broadcast television, I have been able to wallow in the forty-four chapters of the first two seasons with full benefit of replay. Sometimes I watch half a dozen episodes in an evening that stretches on into the night, like Bayreuth with snappier music. Things that struck me as merely wonderful a couple of years ago are now revealed as miraculous. On a one-time basis, a typical episode is so absorbing, and flies by at such a speed, that the viewer has no time to ask how it was put together. You don’t wonder how they did it. When you start seeing how they did it, you really wonder how they did it.

To start with, there is the dialogue. Aaron Sorkin conceived the series and supervises every line of every episode, even when he does not compose its basic story. He has absorbed the whole tradition of high-speed, counterpointed dialogue since it first emerged in 1930s screwball comedy and later on spread into drama in both the cinema and television. Before The West Wing, it was not unknown for straight drama to be accelerated by comic timing: Sipowicz in NYPD Blue would never have talked that way if his writers had not grown up watching Sergeant Bilko. But Sorkin has pushed the heritage to such a culmination that there is no possible further development except decadence. Even as it stands, the complexity of the exposition verges on the incomprehensible, especially if you don’t know much about the American political system. (Since there aren’t all that many Americans who know about it either, in its homeland the show is widely recommended by schoolteachers as a painless civics lesson.) Sometimes you have to wait for half an episode to find out that the two different sets of initials bandied about in the first scene stand for a bill and a committee that will meet each other in the last. But usually a quick reference to the Second Amendment will be expanded later on by an argument about the desirability of banning private guns, and the argument will be illustrated by somebody getting shot.

The otherwise all-inclusive talk has only one conspicuous absence: obscenity. In the film Wag the Dog, David Mamet’s enjoyable dialogue had the advantage that the characters were allowed to swear. The West Wing makes you wonder whether that is much of an advantage at all. Unlike The Sopranos, which as an HBO cable product enables anybody in the cast to say anything at all — try to imagine a sentence from Tony that doesn’t include a four-letter word — The West Wing is financed and first broadcast by the NBC network and therefore rules out any swear word you can think of except ‘arse’, which scarcely sounds like a swear word at all when spelled and pronounced in the American way, as a perissodactyl mammal of the horse family. (Here I attempt to echo the relentless pedantry of President Bartlet, an affliction from which President Bush is notably free.) When characters refer to each other or themselves as being pissed, it doesn’t even mean they are drunk. It is merely the American way of saying they are pissed off with each other, which they frequently are, even if they are pursuing the same objective. Usefully deprived of profanity as an easy shock effect, the vigour of the dialogue still depends on conflict, and thus further depends on an American cultural feature strange to us.

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In the British version of the English language, we will go out of our way to avoid verbal confrontation even with enemies. The American version thrives on verbal confrontation even between friends. The people of The West Wing all adore each other, and you can tell by the way they find quarrel in a straw. The quarrel, however, is rarely a screaming match. When fighting for advantage, they up the speed, not the volume. Toby Ziegler, the Chief of Communications who is most often caught between administration policies and his personal beliefs — this is a Democrat administration, but one of the show’s binding themes concerns the distorting pressure of political realities on liberal principles — is allowed only the occasional pop-eyed crescendo. When Josh Lyman, his deputy, raised his voice in the President’s private office, it was because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Somebody had shot him during what looked like an armed attack on the President at the end of the first season. It also looked like the potential mass write-out that once climaxed a season of Dynasty so that the actors would moderate their demands in the next salary round. (Joan Collins was placed at the bottom of the pile of bodies, for purposes of encouragement to her agent.) In fact, however, The West Wing near-massacre was an attempt by white supremacists to nail the President’s black personal assistant Charlie, who had enraged them by forming a miscegenetic alliance with the President’s daughter. Enraged in his turn, Toby spent a whole episode looking for a gimmick to offset the drawbacks of the Second Amendment by finding a way around the First. He was on a personal quest to subvert the Constitution, and had to be reminded that the document had been framed against exactly that impulse. Toby did quite a lot of yelling before his colleagues calmed him down to his usual brooding mutter, but he never ceased to be articulate either way. Nobody ever does. Even the token Republicans can pack a page into a paragraph. There has never been dialogue like it, but little of it can be quoted in the form of one-liners, because there are very few of them. The wit in The West Wing is a lot funnier than anything in Cheers, Friends, Frasier or for that matter The Importance of Being Earnest, but most of it comes up in the interchange between serious characters. Which brings us to another trump in the show’s unbeatable hand: the acting.

With a few exceptions, the standard of acting is uniformly stratospheric, but even her colleagues agree on ranking Allison Janney as beyond praise. In the role of C. J. Cregg, the White House press secretary, she is currently the most admired thespian in America. Before she was handed the script of The West Wing pilot, fans of Janney had to search her out in some pretty off-trail movies, and when the movies were mainstream she was rarely in them for more than a few minutes. In American Beauty you could see her, briefly, being downtrodden. In Drop Dead Gorgeous you could see her, briefly, being trailer-trash vulgar. You had to add up quite a lot of bit parts before you realized that she could do everything. Sorkin himself noticed her when she fell downstairs in Primary Colors, having been scared into epilepsy by the wanton attentions of a presidential candidate more like Bill Clinton than Jed Bartlet. As C.J. she can give it everything she’s got, and there seems to be no limit. C.J. is a six-foot clothes horse who happens to be divinely bright and funny. Surrounded by men who specialize in the sarcastic riff, she can hold her own and often shoot them down over her shoulder while racing away from them with her elegant version of the show’s typical gait, that of an Olympic walker on the point of being disqualified for breaking into a run. But she is more likely than they are to have the vapours in her office when something has gone wrong.

C.J.’s panic attacks are the sole concession to a sexual stereotype in a show that scarcely recognizes either the traditional differences between the sexes or, indeed, sex itself. By what amounts to an evolutionary change, sex is sublimated into displays of verbal bravura. This has the effect of doubling the oomph when there is a temporary relapse into what might just conceivably be a standard mating ritual. The scene when C.J. instructs Danny Concannon to kiss her is recognized among Wingnuts with an historic memory as the hottest thing since Bacall first blew smoke at Bogart. Danny is the accredited White House correspondent of the Washington Post and he shouldn’t really be fooling with a professional enemy, but he can’t resist her. It is very easy to believe. C.J. ranges between little emotional moments like that and grandstand virtuoso press conferences in which she parries the thrusts of her massed assailants with glittering wisecracks.

Janney is going to end up with a decade’s worth of Emmys stuffed in her garage. Yet without this role she would have had the same kind of film career as, say, Paula Prentiss, who was the best thing in a dozen movies that nobody remembered. Janney could never have been a bankable film star. Almost exactly twice as tall as Al Pacino and with a face radiating an uncomfortable degree of nous, she just didn’t look right. With due allowance for gender and altitude, the same rule applies to most of her male colleagues. Playing Toby Ziegler, Richard Schiff can fully deploy an uncanny knack for ensemble acting that was perfected through hard years of near neglect, including a stretch so far off Broadway that the adjective off-off hardly covers it. Like Janney he has never been billed above a movie’s title or anywhere near it. But one of the strengths of the modern cinema in the US is the depth and strength of character acting that backs up the star system. The character actors get less to say than the stars but what they get is better. The West Wing was Schiff’s chance to say better things at length. The DVD set of the first season carries, among its additional features, a set of interviews with the actors. Janney says something we might have guessed: that most of C.J.’s more technical dialogue has to be explained to her before she delivers it to us. Schiff says something we might not have guessed, but should take notice of: if he had stayed in movies he would never have had a chance to work like this, because movies can’t do it — only an extended television series can. The same applies to Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman. Whitford is an attractive actor but not a leading man for the big screen, which is well staffed with males who set the female audience dreaming just by the way they look. In The West Wing he can set them dreaming just by the way he sounds.

Whether he set his secretary dreaming was an open question for at least thirty episodes. Finally the shine in Donna’s eyes became unmistakable. Donna, played by Janel Moloney, has a double function: everything has to be explained to her, which makes her useful for purposes of exposition, but she also has a gift for asking the awkward question that stops the hot-shots in their tracks. In Hollywood terms Moloney is joli laide at most and would probably have remained a cute oddity on the feature list until time rubbed her out. Here she is where she belongs, slowly melting Josh’s heart and infallibly melting ours. The never-on but never-off relationship of Josh and Donna is either safe sex carried to absurdity or a love duet from the first act of La Bohème, depending on your viewpoint. Judged by appearances, the currently ongoing dance between Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and the in-house Republican Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor) is more conventional, because they are both lookers: nothing laide about the joli in either case. Lowe, indeed, was in leading-man contention for the movies, but the movies would never have given him such an extended opportunity to play it smart, and he is smart enough to know it. By now he must be blessing the unscheduled video appearance that made him available for television.

This being The West Wing, Sam and Ainsley have not actually touched each other yet, but when they debate the finer points of educational funding you can tell that the pheremones are flooding the air. The time seems long ago (as far back as the first few episodes, in fact) when the gorgeous Sam did anything so crass as to exploit the attractive power of his chiselled dialogue by actually getting a woman into bed, and even then she had to be a law student. She was also a call girl, but she had come to the right place. In real life, Sam would have been hounded out of his job. In The West Wing, his colleagues ribbed him out of countenance but finally ganged up with him to help protect his civil rights along with hers. All this was done as a sub-plot amid a tangle of other plots, some of which are still working themselves out now. Sorkin is an expert at finding out what an actor can do and projecting it far into the future, sometimes shaping a whole story line to accommodate the expansion. The younger actors accommodate best to this flexibility. The older ones are given a more predictable framework. I sometimes feel guilty at not being as thrilled by Leo McGarry, the Chief of Staff, as I am by C.J., Toby, Josh and Sam. John Spencer has had a long career of sterling work at the edge of the limelight but he still tends to show the emotion as well as having it. He has a lot of emotion to show: his wife left him, he was under investigation for his history of drink and drugs, and he had to take the rap for Bartlet’s indecision in a period when the President was uncharacteristically thinking more about the opinion polls than his ideals. But Spencer shows the emotion by gritting his teeth even when the dialogue is telling the story, so the words come out crushed. The same often applies to Bartlet himself. Here I risk heresy, because by now it is established wisdom that the adulation Martin Sheen has aroused by his playing of this role would give him a real shot for office if he ever ran.

Of course it wouldn’t. Martin Sheen is a radical with opinions designed to get him arrested, not elected. But as an actor in the show he copes nobly with a challenge even more uncomfortable than handcuffs: his role is the only one in the script that courts banality. Bartlet is the President as the irreproachable man of principle, and thus furthers a tradition that goes back at least as far as Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe. (Gore Vidal, in his script for The Best Man, tried to subvert the tradition by making Fonda walk away from the job because a man of principle would never do what it took to get it, but the lèse-majesté worked only once, and the film remains an oddity.) Having stuck himself with an impeccably guiltless hero, Sorkin dreamed up Bartlet’s case of MS, so that the perfect gentle knight would have something to conceal. Wherever Wingnuts gather, there is debate about the wisdom of this initiative. My own opinion is that Sorkin could have made Bartlet as devious as LBJ and still held the story together. Making him as crooked as Nixon would have been out of the question, and to model him on Clinton would have involved one of the interns in several scenes where her dialogue went fatally silent. But sometimes when Bartlet is in the full spate of his integrity you can’t help longing for a flaw — any flaw, except inarticulacy. Blessed with a total number of lines per episode exceeding his part in Apocalypse Now by an order of magnitude, Sheen, while often overdoing it with the scornful focus of his eyeballs, generously helps his minions sustain the exalted level of the symposium. But if they all just sat there, the symposium would look as if it had been devised by Plato. All those words would pile up in a heap if the people weren’t moving: which brings us to the direction.

The direction is mainly the work of Thomas Schlamme, who can be best praised by saying that he is Sorkin’s other half. The basic propulsion of the show’s coruscating visual impact is the walk-and-talk, a device that the TV critics first started to notice in ER, whose techno-babbling medicos hurtled through the hospital at such a speed that the viewer feared there might be further injuries to people already injured. Made possible by the Steadycam, the walk-and-talk allows a television show to compensate for the visual scope it concedes to a feature film, which can afford big exteriors. Like a police procedural or a hospital soap opera, The West Wing is necessarily confined to interiors. The walk-and-talk turns the interiors into a speedway. Schlamme is a master of the technique. Even the overhead lights are calculated for impetus. As the heads of the hurrying characters interrupt the lighting, a strobe effect needles the viewer’s subconscious, adding to the adrenalin rush. It could be said that Schlamme has pushed a gimmick to absurdity: you sometimes wonder when the walking talkers, rounding the same partition for a second time, will reach out for a bottle of water or a towel. But some of the show’s best scenes have been ordinary two-hand exchanges, and among the very best was Bartlet’s solo after his den-mother secretary Mrs Landingham was written out in a car crash. Alone in the cathedral, Sheen cursed God in rousing terms (‘Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?’) before winding up his imprecations with a passage of untranslated Latin, which the actor’s expressiveness made far more intelligible than President Bush’s untranslated English. Which brings us back to where we began: the quality of the language.

The answer to the question of whether there will be a movie of The West Wing is that there already was. Sorkin wrote The American President, and the amount of his best writing that had to be left out of it gave him the idea for a television series. Annette Bening is a superb handler of dialogue, but when you compare what she got to say in the movie with what Allison Janney gets to say now you can see that a revolution is taking place. The standard three-act format of the feature film is starting to look restrictive. Band of Brothers had already proved that a military series could do what Saving Private Ryan couldn’t: the movie brilliantly evoked a battle, but the series could explain a war. Politics needs more explaining than anything, and there was already reason to believe that Washington Behind Closed Doors had left the movies behind. After The West Wing, political movies are close to nowhere. Why make Thirteen Days as a film? Minus the exterior action, it would have done better as a series. The writing would have had room to flourish.

We are left with the consideration that America has got the writers, whereas nobody else has. Television impresarios like Sorkin and Steven Bochco might have taken the initiative away from the Hollywood film studios, but this cultural civil war is all taking place in Los Angeles. The implications for the rest of us are daunting, if not dire. When it comes to actually speaking English, America is now incontestably the centre of the English-speaking world. Britain, in particular, did itself suicidal damage when its broadcasting system was allowed to promote yob-speak as some kind of regional accent. Already there is a generation of British actors who couldn’t pronounce The West Wing dialogue if they tried. The Australians would have a better chance: we might murder the vowels, but at least we put the consonants in. American military imperialism is a phantom. There are severe limitations to what it can do with weapons: it can’t shoot John Pilger for example, although many of the regimes that he considers less lethal would not hesitate. But American cultural imperialism is a fact. Working by assent, it was hard enough to resist when it was exporting junk: American junk was always better than anybody else’s. Exporting quality, it looks and sounds unstoppable. Our best hope of fighting back is to make literacy fashionable. The enemy is doing its best to help us. When I was young, American movies like Rebel Without a Cause were full of alienated teenagers with flick knives. The youngsters in The West Wing flaunt their grades and hone their rhetoric. For the example to be effective however, our yoof would have to see the show, for which Channel 4 hasn’t run out of hiding places yet. The pre-breakfast slot on any Friday with an odd-numbered date is still open.

TLS, 4 April 2003


After two more seasons, further conclusions. In the long run, The West Wing will probably be seen as a product of the Clinton era. President Bartlet is not a George W. Bush who can talk — as unlikely a notion as a platypus that can fly — but a Bill Clinton whose sexual requirements are fully satisfied by marriage to Stockard Channing. Aaron Sorkin could have made Bartlet promiscuous as well as clever and there would have been no great injury to his mental distinction, but the network would not have worn it. The important point is that Bartlet’s intelligence, though plainly an idealized exaggeration, is not impossibly out of scale with Clinton’s. As Sidney Blumenthal’s bulky but civilized book The Clinton Years reveals, Clinton’s real-life West Wing was alive with social concern and productive argument, and the man who energized the troops was Clinton himself. On the whole, the troops were up to it. There was no C. J. Cregg, alas, and a Josh–Donna combo might have been hard to find, but there was an enviably creative buzz. There might have been even more of that if so much time had not been consumed by the Whitewater investigation, which went on longer the more it became obvious that there was nothing to discover. On that theme, the malevolent Republican vigilantes in the show add up to a study in simple realism. Sorkin is careful to offset them with the adorable presence of Ainsley Hayes, the Republican angel, but on the whole the sworn enemies of Bartlet are a lot like the sworn enemies of the Clintons in real life: untiring promoters of manufactured scandals. That Clinton presented them with a real scandal remains one of the sad moments in recent political history, although it should never be forgotten that Clinton’s private life, and Monica Lewinsky’s, would have remained private if it had not been for Linda Tripp, who was activated (‘empowered’) by Kenneth Starr, the Special Prosecutor working on the Swiftian assumption that the President must be guilty of something or there would never have been a committee to investigate him.

By that measure, the Republicans in the show sin against verisimilitude only by being insufficiently malevolent. A more substantial violation of the truth is the character of the Washington Post reporter Danny Concannon, whose dedication to objectivity earns him many a searching kiss from Allison Janney. In reality, the Post was fully implicated in the Republican National Committee’s long campaign to smear Clinton not just as a philanderer, which he was, but as an incompetent and a crook, either of which he wasn’t. The media fables encouraged by the RNC linger to this day, impoverishing our view of recent history. One particularly damaging fable is that Clinton did nothing to prepare for the onslaught of terrorism. In fact he analysed the threat with precision, but his proposals — roving phone taps and markers for explosives were only two of them — were all defeated in a Congress heavily influenced by Republican lobbyists. The FBI, which was practically an instrument of the RNC at the time, had three hundred of its best agents chasing down the Whitewater phantom instead of checking oddball applications to flight school. Democracy wasn’t working. Under the Bartlet administration it works with an unbelievable productivity — unbelievable because things are the way they are supposed to be, and not as we know they actually are. But for all its dreams and distortions, The West Wing, regarded as a totality, is a tremendous achievement, if only for its plenitude of dialogue scenes that give us the spoken language at an elliptical intensity seldom heard since Congreve. Not even the screwball comedies of old Hollywood had anything quite like Josh and Donna duking it out about the proper use of the change from the lunch money, or Toby Ziegler growing even more aphoristically eloquent as he blows his top. Such talk might not make us feel much better about the slovenly incoherence of Donald Rumsfeld’s latest press conference, but we can’t plausibly ignore the fact that it was produced in the same country.

Aaron Sorkin’s coke-bust, and the resulting collapse of Josh’s hairstyle in the fifth season, are subjects for another time. The first four seasons on DVD, with every episode watched at least twice, have given me enough to go on for now. Why didn’t Toby’s ex-wife agree to marry him again? I would have. Why did Rob Lowe bail out? Did he really think that a starring role in The Lyons Den would be a better bet? On the inexhaustibly enthralling topic of Allison Janney — I have never met a man whose eyes did not shine at the mere mention of her name — it remains a nice question whether The West Wing makes us feel better or worse about the opportunities open to female talent. In Drop Dead Gorgeous, Janney plays a low-rent maneater so well that she seems real. Would you have guessed that a lurching, chortling frump like that could transform herself into C.J. Cregg? The West Wing could offer her truest talent a home, but couldn’t do the same for Emily Proctor, who sought refuge — no doubt for good financial reasons — in a long-term contract with CSI: Miami, where she has ten lines per episode, plus a chance to raise one eyebrow in close-up when the markings on the bullets match. (She also spends a lot of time standing sideways. So does David Caruso, but with less alluring results.) When the roles are missing, it’s no use complaining that the actresses aren’t there to play them. The real situation is far worse: the actresses are there, but they are being wasted. Does anybody think that Helen Hunt wants to act opposite a tornado, or Tea Leoni opposite an asteroid colliding with the Earth? (They might say they do, but the alternative is not to act at all.) Think of Anne Heche in Wag the Dog. On the strength of a performance like that, she could be Irene Dunne. All she needs is to live in a different era — or in a different version of this one, with thoughtful scripts a commonplace instead of a rarity. But that’s one of the several deluding powers wielded by a show like The West Wing: it makes you believe there’s a lot more where that came from. There is no more. What we see is all we will ever get, and we’re very lucky to be getting that much.