The West Wing

Thursday, April 19, 2001 by

If anyone ever attempted a serious TV dramatisation of the day-to-day workings of our own British government, it’s likely a host of of obstacles would instantly confront them. Chiefly, the fact that no-one in this country really knows what the government does – in the sense of the real minutiae of office life, the routines and rituals of departments, and the colour of the office carpet.

It’s a tricky one, what with on the one hand no proper constitution defining what the grey men of Whitehall are theoretically for, and on the other the way they themselves prefer to dissemble into a cloud of doublespeak and waffle when asked what they are actually for. The West Wingserves to rub our faces in this rather pathetic state of affairs with its highly charged weekly doses of exercising power The American Way. Its cluster of imaginative storylines, eye for accuracy (thanks to the involvement of real ex-White House staff) and canny acting have made for one of the best TV series to come out of the US for many a year.

The show spotlights other reasons why the wheels and cogs of Blighty’s bureaucracy would prove inappropriate to a straight-laced no-nonsense TV treatment. Unlike America, this country doesn’t encourage a mixture of both impassioned awe and extreme loathing for the workings of its state. Unlike America, the people who run this country are mostly anonymous and unbecoming. Unlike America this country doesn’t really do anything that important. Britain encourages an ignorance of its politics because there’s no way to make it seem exciting, glamorous and important – unlike America, and unlike The West Wing.

The series opened in the US in the twilight years of the Clinton presidency, resembling an obvious parallel take on the then-contemporary administration. Here was a similarly enthusiastic and energetic Democrat regime in power, also pre-occupied with overcoming various crises and lapses in strategy (legislation failing, members of staff caught up in controversies, a sequence of near scandals and indiscretions), though nowhere near on the scale of that walking Greek tragedy, the Comeback Kid himself.

Its belated terrestrial screening over here has turned the show into something different: an enticing alternative reality to the real-life present Republican regime, and in particular its much-mocked eccentric leader. A sneaky contrast now presents itself – between our own media feeding us a certain picture of George W. Bush that forever borders on the mocking and satirical; and of The West Wing offering us a wholly converse depiction of the man at the top. Its President, Dr Josiah Bartlet, is an almost too-humane figure, the ideal leader who – unthinkable over here – can actually inspire real love and devotion in his people. And he’s played to perfection by one time Hollywood bad boy, Martin Sheen.

This is quite a significant move for Sheen, coming comparatively late in his career and being such a contrast to his earlier cinema presence. Then there’s the added pressure of taking on a role that’s amusingly prevalent in both American TV and film. There’s a bewildering legacy of competition for would-be Presidential impersonators thanks to the many productions that have offered up Kevin Kline, John Travolta, Anthony Hopkins and many others “doing” the Commander in Chief – some serious, some deliberately farcical, some based on fact, some utterly fictional.

Such a tradition of freely representing your head of state on screen is again incredible to conceive of from a British point of view. Who can we point to in comparison – Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker? Ray McAnally in A Very British Coup? So it’s all the more impressive that given our virtual inability to actively distil a national leader into a memorable and stylised TV hero/villain, Martin Sheen seems to make his President an everyday person, possible to empathise with no matter what nationality you are or how much or little you know about American politics. And as is the way of these things, the actor and the character have increasingly become fused – how long before “Martin Sheen for President!”?

He plays the man as a subtle, witty, flirtatious, concerned, kind and honest human being – and above all one who’s incredibly self-aware. This bloke knows what he’s doing. Sheen’s President is a figure conscious of his role – both in theatrical TV terms, and as a real life position of office – like no-one before him; and if there’s one too many doses of homespun old-time religion quick to fall from his informed conscience, it’s always couched in thoroughly human, pragmatic, genuine terms.

At the close of this week’s episode, the President reflected on having been presented for the first time with the option to commute the death sentence on somebody. It appeared the decision was almost too much for him. He grappled with precedent and the question of being seen publicly to oppose capital punishment. Consequently there was no happy ending; the man died.

In a rather melodramatic climax the President received the news of the man’s passing with his old family priest beside him; but the closing image of the leader getting down on his knees to offer up his “confession” was extremely daring. It challenged the viewer’s expectations (we were obviously holding out for that last minute reprieve) and boldly depicted the head of the most powerful country in the world acknowledging he’d made a mistake. By having Sheen reduced to a humbled bent-backed sinner, crouching miserably on the huge Presidential seal etched on the Oval Office carpet, the programme was confronting a host of stereotyped images of America and its leaders and blasting them to pieces.

For such a heavyweight series it’s surprising that there’s such a small core cast of characters. We see a half dozen main players who make up the White House team – press, publicity, chief of staff, advisors – each of whom has their own fully rounded personality and well developed backgrounds, and who in tandem with their boss grapple with equally life-changing complex decisions. We’ve got a thoroughly rehabilitated Rob Lowe making for a striking communications guru. Allison Janney plays a sparky and cool press secretary; also of note is John Spencer, a wise old owl of a Chief of Staff.

Sometimes this ensemble are given to uttering rather pompous declarations – “There are times when we are … absolutely … nowhere …” was one such sign-off to a typically dense, earnest conversation. But the plot moves fast, most of the dialogue crackles with energy and humour, and there’s plenty of impressive one-take camera sweeps round government buildings that only American TV and films do well. The core ensemble is in turn boosted by occasional visitors and guest parts (the President’s wife, the Vice-President etc), while the carefully constructed walkabout scenes are themselves interrupted by bursts of dialogue from random people walking by – as in real life.

Channel 4 have helpfully shunted this series further and further back in its Thursday night schedule. It debuted at 10pm, a good hour for a suitably high profile show. Yet within a few months it’d slid back to first 10.30pm and then, adding insult to injury, to just after 11pm thanks to the return of Eurotrash. The fact that the channel also sat on the series for a year before airing it reveals more of what programmers at C4 hold to be of relevance and importance to their target audience. Either out of ignorance or obstinacy C4 continue to belittle this jewel of a show, rushing it out with hardly any publicity, nudging it further towards the midnight hour, positively encouraging it to become a niche or cult attraction, and utterly misunderstanding the programme’s potential.

Is it because they believe people can’t relate to or understand the world on display here? That there’s no obvious entry point for the British viewer? Such reasoning would quite possibly be judging the show on the wrong terms and looking for something they’d never find – namely, obvious characterisations, simple plot resolutions, and clear distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong.

The White House staff presented to the viewer in The West Wing don’t adhere to any such criteria, and rightly so seeing as how they inhabit a strange world of moral and ethical ambiguity, operating both above and alongside the law, commanding immense power yet challenged at every turn by that enduring American tradition of compromise, checks and balances. Everybody from the President downwards is flawed, and they know it, and we know it, but they’re shown constantly battling with that and trying to overcome it: one of the struggles of everyday life, but amplified onto the grand stage of international politics. That’s ultimately what makes The West Wing such a triumph.

If that British TV drama series – possible working title: Number Ten, Tony’s Den – ever got made, it’d be on ITV and they’d cast John Thaw as the PM, Sarah Lancashire as his wife, and David Jason, Robson Green and Ross Kemp as cabinet ministers. And quite rightly the series would bomb.


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