The West Wing

Sunday, July 28, 2002 by

There are few actors who can capture abject weariness and foreboding in one single, defining expression, and still end up looking dignified. Martin Sheen is one of them. The sky is blackening over his term of office as President Josiah Bartlett, but he’s no Richard Nixon, cursing and spilling bourbon and kicking the furniture. His is a composed idealisation of an American leader that has become flawed, yet also strangely noble, as time has passed. It’s a cunning, and also cruel, depiction of how politics messes with hopes and aspirations. But while it is saturated, almost to excess, with American sentiment and orthodoxy, it’s a portrayal that continues to have a beguiling resonance on this side of the Atlantic. It’s also become the absolute pivot about which this series of The West Wing continues to majestically turn.

The show’s potential to be both unashamedly exciting, but also indulge in the most blatant preaching and rabblerousing, remains undimmed from its first appearance on British screens last year. It’s a mix that is undoubtedly entertaining, often in surprisingly obvious ways (thanks to a modest quota of punch the air moments). But while the dense politicking and obscure references have all but intensified, there have been changes to its manipulation of our appreciation of both plot and characterisation. It’s possible to speak of The West Wing as having reached that crucial moment in any programme’s history where an appreciation of itself more in recognition of its own award-ridden legacy than anything else is governing the whims of both producers and actors.

So far, this has proved no bad thing. At least Rob Lowe’s been taken down a peg or two, and is not so much the centre of attention and star of the piece. In fact, while the first series rather dutifully but awkwardly portioned out episodes to each of the principal characters in turn, the second has evolved quite rapidly into a more finely orchestrated ensemble affair. The depth of the relationships and dependencies between the main cast has been robustly examined for weak areas and pressure points; the sum of which have then been presented for prolonged exposure on screen, usually contrasted with another burgeoning domestic and foreign policy crisis. The political and the personal have therefore been drawn ever tighter, the result being cases where two separate storylines – such as the failure of an undercover CIA rescue mission, and a concurrent bitchy row between the President and his wife – end up packaged as ostensibly different yet foundationally identical studies of contemporary morals and ethics.

Strong stuff, and for the most part the show continues to get away with it. Though this particular episode boasted a variety of plots, including a collapsing foreign economy, an oil spill, and a damaging leaked soundbite, they were all thrown into relief by the ongoing travails of the President himself. This was a tactic the writers seemed to avoid in the early days, seeking to build up attention and interest on other personalities amongst the White House staff. The results were often a little perverse – focusing on the love lives of a bloke from the press corps while ignoring the most important man on the planet next door busy preventing war in the Middle East.

Now the emphasis has changed, and this series has taken on the guise of one giant unbundling of many of the tensions, grudges and regrets the chief characters had previously, both self-consciously and subtly, entertained. It’s been done carefully, but blatantly, to ensure various short and long-term storylines are now whirling and unravelling into a crescendo that is making for impressionable viewing. Though this is reward, perhaps, for audiences in from the beginning – relishing payback as much as the cast – the serialised aspect of The West Wing has been increasingly discarded. Rounded, intriguing episodic case studies, profiling the numerous tasks and responsibilities of the American executive government, coupled with compelling examples of contrasting opinions, dilemmas, solutions, have grown scarce. The show is more of a soap opera now than it’s ever been.

This is a necessary development, maybe, for a creation that’s never shied from trading in epic blows, painting the workings of American democracy in its most illuminating fluorescent colours, while forever teetering just on the edge of cornball melodrama. Yet it doesn’t feel like it’s a direction the show has been prodded into taking. It’s a natural evolution, and the judders and jolts of a sloppy or botched characterisation along the way (usually in the form of a visiting “dignitary” or minor member of staff) are papered over with another smooth exposition from one of the accomplished central players. Here’s where the ensemble nature of this latest series seems to have the greatest impact. The multi-handed plotlines and scenes repeatedly divert attention away from any unduly prominent pronounced outburst of, say, someone spitting incantations at the camera or, that unwelcome favourite, close-ups of ritualised gurning.

So for the most part, what clunking dialogue there is doesn’t stay long in the memory. For another thing there’s not enough time; this show has lost none of the killer pace it introduced right from episode one, or that obsession with ultra-long tracking shots around the labyrinthine corridors of the White House. A sense of momentum, stronger now in fact than at any point in the series’ history, safely carries the viewer hastily, though not always cleanly, over murky exchanges and still murkier subplots, onto solid ground; and this is no more vital than when faced with the perennial, and always very laboured, “I’ve-got-a-few-questions” routine, which comes up in every episode.

This is where a more junior member of the team very pointedly interrogates their immediate superior about the latest plot twist in order to fully underscore its significance for us watching at home. In this episode, it was – as it almost always is – secretary Donna Moss who acted as the goon, “spontaneously” quizzing her boss, deputy communications director Josh Lyman, over the historical and moral basis for authorising a $30m loan to Mexico.

These exchanges, though usually quite humorous, never quite come off as they always have the deadening ring of a classroom lecture, or a debating society. “Before you send $30m of my money to Mexico I want to ask some questions,” opened Donna. Josh, strutting about his office as usual, summoned “an eighth grade text book” from a drawer to make a point about America helping Britain fight Hitler during World War II. He then pretended there was a phone call for Donna – on the line was “Europe, in 1939″. So it went on, until the requisite I-see-it-all-now moment was reached (“We help them – because we can!”)

Such historical and theoretical sparring is not uninteresting in a bookish kind of way, but cannot help feel mawkish and cumbersome alongside the more smooth and impassioned rhetoric that you know will be evident in the Oval Office. Consequently it all comes back to the President in the end, and to Martin Sheen’s consummate performance.

You feel like you’re seeing more lines multiply and groove his weathered face with each successive threat and the acknowledgement of weakness. His deepest secret – that he has Multiple Sclerosis – is now challenging his legal right to be President and to run for a second term. As a result it seems to be genuinely gloomier inside the hushed offices and conference rooms of the White House than ever before. Events and emotions are now being parcelled up in a manner that assigns The West Wing relevance on a par with the grandest of all tragic operas. It’s as breathtaking as it is audacious. There’s little else on television at the moment that seems to be prepared to utilise conventions and clich├ęs in such a brazen fashion, and end up making a statement as daring or as exhilarating.


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