February 2007

Arts & Letters

A change is gonna come

By Anna Goldsworthy

Series six of ‘The West Wing’

Many West Wing fans tuned out permanently from the show at the end of series four, after writer-creator Aaron Sorkin's spectacular exit. In retrospect, Sorkin's prolificness reeked of chemical enhancement, and his burnout should not have surprised anyone. But it still hurt. The thought of Sorkin's characters continuing their fictional lives without him was more than many a ‘Wing-nut' could bear. Some petitioned to have the series cancelled altogether ("Don't save our show!").

In Australia, such outrage was harder to come by, as Wing-nuts are a scarcer commodity. This was partly due to Channel Nine's capricious broadcasting; after years of abuse, the show was rescued by the ABC, which finished screening series six this month. But there is also much about The West Wing that is distinctly not Australian. Its patriotism can scan as kitsch. It is also devastatingly earnest, even as it sugar-coats its earnestness in wit. The conservative American columnist John Podhoretz labelled the show "political pornography for liberals", and indeed it does pander to a desire. When the show began, Clinton was in power, and The West Wing bore an airbrushed resemblance to reality. Under Bush, its pleasures are more hardcore. Amid television's nightly broadcasts of anxiety, it offers a particular reassurance: that of intelligence at the helm.

John Updike wrote of JD Salinger that "he loves [his Glass family] to the detriment of artistic moderation". Sorkin's West Wing staff is also an impossibly accomplished family, and perhaps he also loved it too much. Working with an excellent ensemble cast, he conceived the show as a series of exuberant riffs. These are the smart guys and the good guys and the funny guys. And, best of all, they are in charge.

After Sorkin's abrupt departure, series five took some time to right itself. There were a number of false starts and quick fixes before it settled into a rhythm that felt recognisable, if a little ersatz: the Altmanesque snippets of conversation; the walk-and-talk camerawork, in which constant pedestrian movement imparts its own sense of narrative progress. The actors delivered their lines gamely, and yet you didn't buy it, somehow. You could sense the writing team scribbling madly; the words no longer seemed born in the characters' mouths.

A season later, the characters are looking a little weary. Faced with the difficulty of bringing peace to the Middle East in two episodes, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his consigliore, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), have words. "I'll need your successor in place before you leave," Bartlet says finally, and Leo stumbles out into the woods of Camp David, where he suffers a heart attack. His face transforms into a death mask before our eyes; it is a moment of terrible, full-frontal intimacy, and takes us well beyond the emotional compass of the earlier series. (The knowledge of John Spencer's fatal heart attack a year after this was filmed makes the scene almost unbearable.) The episode concludes with Leo's mobile phone ringing out, in the woods, as his colleagues fly home overhead. In its loneliness and repudiation of collegiality - a grave offence in the moral universe of The West Wing - this is perhaps the grimmest moment in the show's history.

And so it becomes clear that series six is a different show altogether. Leo is found and rushed to hospital. Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff, is also bedridden, after a bomb attack in Gaza. Her boss and long-term crush, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), frets around her bed. Will they or won't they? Louis B. Mayer claimed that "there's only one good plot, and that's a delayed fuck." This one has been delayed so long that it has become a type of institution - a talisman, perhaps, of the show's continuance - and it is a card that the writers dare not play.

With cartoon resilience, everyone survives, though Leo can no longer function as Chief of Staff, returning as a largely redundant Yoda-like figure. Press Secretary CJ Cregg (a formidable Allison Janney) is his surprise replacement, and the reshuffling begins. By the end of the series, no one, save President Bartlet, is quite where we left them. There is comedy in such rearrangements, but it is a shame to remove CJ from her romance with the Greek-chorus press: some of the show's most engaging moments have been her deft spins.

These small make-overs mirror the dramatic arc of the entire season - which, we begin to understand, is less about the current White House than about the grooming of a new Democrat candidate. Previously, there had been an appealing domesticity to The West Wing: it was set in a house, albeit a large one. But series six leaves the comfort of home for the campaign trail, and the show goes epic, operatic. Plot, rather than dialogue, is now the driving impulse.

Josh Lyman, as kingmaker, conspires with Leo in a "smoke-filled back room" on the next Democrat nominee. In an It's a Wonderful Life moment, complete with Christmas tree and young family from central casting, he visits Senator Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) at home and urges him to run. None of this augurs well for Santos's complexity. Nonetheless, the back-room glimpses into pre-selection are enlightening: it is astonishing that any candidate makes it to the primaries without first bargaining away all their ideals. Santos has plenty of ideals - his rhetoric, if not his political acumen, recalls Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope - but he is less a character than a principle. As he locks horns with Josh, now his advisor, we alternatively root for his bullish idealism and Josh's exasperated politicising.

The great Hollywood moment, of course, is the triumph of principle over Realpolitik. Santos brings the house down with his keynote address: "Don't vote for us because of what we might be able to do for you only. Vote for the person who shares your ideals, your hopes, your dreams." Cue the music.

Propaganda might now outweigh entertainment, but I felt moved by this. I realised that the show's heavy-breathing earnestness mattered more to me even than the flashiness of Sorkin's dialogue. Is this "political pornography for liberals"? John Podhoretz's anxiety stems from a reasonable fear: that television does not only reflect appetites, but creates them. If our gangsters learn their vocabulary (and dress sense) from the movies, might not our politicians do the same? And, in the case of The West Wing, would this be such a bad thing?

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and a pianist. Her most recent book is Melting Moments, and her most recent album is Trio Through Time.

Cover: February 2007
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