The West Wing

Friday, October 21, 2005 by

An ex-alcoholic and a wizened septuagenarian with a heart problem running the most powerful country on earth?

The last time OTT looked, The West Wing seemed to have become impossibly remote from the real world, sharing no more in common with the actual White House than that of its cast with a bunch of sympathetic, likeable public servants ruling the world’s only superpower. Yet it’s a mark of how preposterous a trajectory the show has pursued these last few years that its ever increasing scattergun approach to storytelling left it, for a time, resembling something perilously close to real life.

What this reviewer has already charted as being the programme’s tortuous development from a devilishly plotted micro-universe of intrigue to a lazily-sketched ever-changing ensemble of bedlam ended up, at the close of the last series, something far too near the actual state of the Union. Albeit a dozen times less compelling. It’s a rare distinction indeed to be outgunned by George W Bush in terms of both charisma and articulacy, but The West Wing managed it, and with the lamest of series climaxes to boot. Oh look, the President’s going out to throw the first ball in a baseball match. Will he aim it correctly, or will he drop it and look a little bit embarrassed?

After such a monstrous baked bean ending it was sorely tempting to be done with the show for good. Up against the most elementary benchmarks of television, The West Wing neither informed, educated or entertained. Conveniently enough, the series buggered off for a fair few months. It was surprisingly easy to not care about its whereabouts.

Until the arrival of More4, that is, replete with a schedule that placed The West Wing as close to true primetime as it has ever been on British screens. This was taking a chance – or maybe the channel knew something we didn’t. Perhaps things had improved. It was a long time since that ball game business. Time spent in the show’s absence began to melt the edges of icy disregard. Maybe the last series was a transitory one, a temporary blip? Out of everybody involved, from all those dozens of names on the credits at least one must have piped up with a few words of wisdom? Isn’t that why they employ batteries of foot soldiers on these long-running shows – to refine, refresh and resurrect?

Some kind of residual affection found at least one viewer tuning in to the premiere of the new series with more than just morose curiosity. Besides, after having such a long relationship with the programme, it seemed a shame to break things off after one concentrated bout of disquiet.

Ah well. The thought was there. So too, sadly, was everything else: the lame grandstanding, the yelled insults, the clumsy exposition (“He was under for a long time – it’s a miracle he has brain function”), the cloying observations (“We’re in the middle of an intersection without a traffic cop”) – all of it, right from the off, the same jarring brew as before, yet somehow so more unpalatable for being so familiar.

The West Wing used to serve up an authentically imaginative parallel Presidency to the last years of Bill Clinton. Then it became an authentically convenient alternative Presidency to the first term of George W Bush. But now it’s just a load of people shouting, quarrelling about jobs and being checked in and out of hospitals. Its internal obsessions have overwhelmed its external touchstones. There’s no space for anything that quantifies The West Wing as being in or of the real world. All the characters have had their personalities changed so much you can’t even begin to explain or rationalize their behaviour. They and their world just kind of, well, exists.

If all this were deliberate, if it had all been conceived by design as some sort of statement on the shallow, transitory nature of contemporary politics, the show might have got away with it. Capitalizing on that same dwindling amount of leftover goodwill, and with a fair wind behind it, The West Wing could have become one of the sharpest critiques of present day government around. Instead it’s an ill-wind that buffets and rattles the show from tragicomic pillar to post every single episode. If it’s week one it must be another declaration of war. Week two? A resignation. Week three? Get those life-support monitors out of mothballs, we’re back in the hospital with someone else teetering on the edge of death.

None of it means anything, though, because that same ill-wind gathers up the viewer and deposits them in each of these sequential crises without any sense of purpose. Such dramatic incidents don’t happen thanks to aspects of plot or character. They just happen because it’s a new episode. Hence the war declared in episode one was never mentioned again, and the resignation in the second episode was trumped by not one but two heart attacks (and not very realistic ones either, the victim clutching at some trees in a forest with all the sincerity of Michael Jackson in the video for Earth Song). We all know politics is forever a victim of unpredictable events, but it’s a vocation that survives intact thanks to people behaving in predictable ways. Nobody in The West Wing behaves in a manner conducive to a credible government administration. And no matter what you think of George W Bush, at least he’s consistent in the kind of image he projects and the attitudes he perpetrates.

Then again, since we’re not treated with much reverence by the show, why should we extend the same courtesy in return? Every week we’re told there’s no point expending emotion; why expend time as well? So it’s best not to dwell any further upon the extent to which The West Wing keeps falling further from its once splendid perch. For one thing there’s precious chance of getting any return on such an investment. For another it’s only possible to pick yourself up from a fall so many times.


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