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Spoiler Alert Thursday: West Wing, season 1

This week I’ve taken over for Craig in order to violate the spirit of this weekly feature’s name as thoroughly as possible by discussing something that aired over ten years ago: the first season of West Wing. Discussion of current shows follows.

I just finished it this week, and I find that the show basically deserves its reputation. Within the framework of a standard 22-episode network season, the writers do a remarkable job of keeping everything from devolving into sheer soap opera — like the highest-quality dramas currently running in this, the golden age of television, they don’t make a point of checking in with everyone for the sake of checking in (something even the middle seasons of The Sopranos were guilty of) and they let plot points linger in the background without explicitly reminding the viewer every time (parallel with Mad Men, something can happen in episode 3 and remain unmentioned until episode 19). As one who has long claimed that House, for example, is an aspiring “high-quality drama” that is hampered by the excessively long network season, I found it revelatory to see the format handled so well — everything more or less hangs together, unlike in the standard format of a House season, where a handful of the first and last episodes really deal with the main overarching plot and then it remains in a holding pattern throughout the middle ten episodes or so.

That said, it is still very much working within the traditions of TV writing, most notably ending on a cliffhanger — in fact, staging the entire season finale as a cliffhanger. I looked it up to see if anyone dies, since The Girlfriend and I are saving the rest of the series for this summer (at least that’s the current plan…), and it appears that this is a technique they use for at least the second season as well. Yet even the best “high-quality dramas” remain in this framework, with The Sopranos ending on a kind of cliff-hanger — and only The Wire (and now Treme as well) has really dispensed with the episode format altogether.

So on the level of craft, I think it’s up there. On the level of content, however, it can be frustrating — preachy, overly sentimental, and far too dependent on “clever bickering.” I wonder, too, if there’s not an underlying cynicism to the entire enterprise. We’re presented with what is suposedly the “fantasy” of a Democratic administration, but the only clear indulgence of fantasy seems to be the idea that all the staff members are individually good and well-meaning people, a fantasy that is certainly not indulged when it comes to members of Congress. “Political reality” — as defined by Republican talking points and how things will play on the cable news, itself treated as a more or less direct stand-in for public opinion — continues to rule the day, and even when they decide to “grow a pair,” their opening salvo is a symbolic gesture that everyone agrees will do little other than piss off Republicans.

From this perspective, I’m increasingly wondering whether the famed “news cycle” is actually a direct corporate ploy to control politics. Famously, cable news is constantly running in staff offices, even though the audience is trivial in terms of the actual American population — and when actual public opinion polling is brought in at all, it’s treated as an immutable fact, not an invitation to persuade. Overall, though the opposition Congress is obviously a real constraint, all involved seem completely content to give up before they even begin, simply based on the threat that people will write mean things in newspapers. Obviously this cycle is realistic, and the show does make some effort to push back against it — in any case, we’ll see how it goes in future seasons.

Current shows:

  • Community: I watched the most recent episode in a state of extreme fatigue, but I found the extended parody of a post-apocalyptic movie to be pretty damn entertaining. Consummating the relationship between Jeff and Britta in the first season was a bold move, and probably really stupid.
  • 30 Rock: I hate to say this, but now I watch this show in much the same way that I watch The Simpsons, expecting two or three really great observations/references but otherwise letting it flow over me. It takes effort to remember anything much that happened in any particular episode, though it’s a sure bet that they’re belaboring Jack’s love life. FUN FACT: Elizabeth Banks, who plays the financial journalist Jack has been dating, also starred in the tentacle-porn film Slither (which was played at Kuma’s Corner this weekend). She was also the female lead in Zach and Miri Make a Porno, where she is most notable for finding Seth Rogen to be incredibly good in bed — falling-in-love levels of good. As The Girlfriend remarked after my trip to IMDB, “She doesn’t say no to work.”
  • Justified: Still really enjoying this one, particularly the preacher/white supremacist character. There’s something about the passive-aggressive eloquence of Southerners that makes for great conversations to watch. The writers are also doing a good job of walking that fine line of recognizing that it’s not okay for Rayland to be constantly killing people, while still not actually ruining everything by having him suffer real consequences (an insight I owe to Brad).
  • Treme: Is this thing ever going to pick up? If I just wanted to listen to great New Orleans music, I could put on a CD.
  • House: I found this week’s episode moderately interesting, as I usually do when they break with the normal format — also nice to get one of the classic end-of-season “oh yeah we have a plot going here” episodes in. The preview for next episode looks like it could either be pretty good or really gimmicky. Overall, I do think they’re doing a decent job of keeping the show alive, even if they’re squeezing like one season’s worth of character development into three. And I will also say that Taub is beginning to emerge as the only team member other than Cameron to be even moderately interesting, which is quite a feat given that he gets only about a quarter of the focus time as the terminally boring Foreman.

What have you been watching this week, dear readers?


May 13, 2010 - Posted by | Spoiler Alert Thursdays


  1. POTUS was in a bicycle accident.

    Good post. Aaron Sorkin is my favorite television writer, and a favorite writer in general. I think the clever bickering works 100% because it Does Something, as opposed to the really irritating bickering on Lost, which just makes me stop watching it.

    I just finished rewatching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Have you seen it? Fantastic media criticism therein.

    Comment by Adam Robinson | May 13, 2010

  2. I have not seen Studio 60 — I’ve added it to my Netflix queue. Should be particularly interesting since it’s also Aaron Sorkin, so maybe the two can be “read together.”

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | May 13, 2010

  3. Ordinarily this time of the year is given over to the NBA playoffs. But they’ve been, by and large, incredibly boring. So, horror, I’ve been forced to abdicate control of the remote to the Wife’s viewing habits. The threat of watching “V” or “Hoarders” is enough to get me actually to read.

    Comment by Brad Johnson | May 13, 2010

  4. Yes, The West Wing is fun, but quite reactionary.

    Also, as this is the last season of 24, I’m wondering if they’ll end it with Jack dying. Actually, the really courageous thing to do would be to have it ending with Jack in prison for all the torturing and murder, but I don’t imagine that will happen.

    Comment by voyou | May 13, 2010

  5. Glee: “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “The Boy Is Mine” almost entirely* restored this show to my love. This is when the show works best, when it understands that pop songs are nearly contentless vessels for teenagers to fill with their own confused pent-up emotion.

    The two Kurt numbers were . . . interesting. Watching Kurt sing “Pink Houses” in his sneering boy drag was nearly unbearable, but also a pretty funny snark on the fakey Midwestern populism of the original. The fragility of male gender performance was kind of a theme this episode — we had Puck, who loses his mohawk and is instantly transformed from tough guy jock into either a geek (as when he gets tossed into the dumpster) or a Sammy Davis Jr.-channeling, jazz-dancing sophisticate. Kurt’s performance of maleness is less convincing — his dad and his classmates see right through it, although oddly, Finn seems taken in, although this probably just points to what a dumbass Finn is.

    Kurt’s rendition of “Rose’s Turn” was also not entirely successful, despite a great performance, mostly because the lyrical changes were so awkward. What’s nice about pop is that the best pop lyrics are generic enough that a wistful teenager can imagine that a song written by a stranger and broadcast on the radio expresses his own individual and very specific emotional state. This isn’t so true for musical theater.

    *Ugh, and then they had to go and ruin it by bringing in the quadriplegic football player and making him trot out his whole terrible story for the purpose of teaching a very valuable lesson to a girl with fucking laryngitis. Jesus Christ, Glee.

    Comment by jms | May 13, 2010

  6. The West Wing is such complete shit. Rows and rows of stuffy neoliberals toddling around hallways, speaking in the same fucking voice, all bending over backwards to give austere blowjobs to Process and the importance of The Office of The President. Christ.

    Comment by stras | May 13, 2010

  7. There’s going to be a 24 movie, so they can’t kill Jack yet.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | May 13, 2010

  8. Hey, can anybody tell me whether Lost 6 is more like season 1 and 5 or more like season 2 or 3?

    Comment by Guido Nius | May 13, 2010

  9. The West Wing is great television and terrible politics. The politics are a fantasy that the people in the West Wing are good people but the political outcomes are the same, as if the only thing wrong with the 90s was a blowjob and an Arkansan accent.

    The pilot of Studio 60, on the other hand, is rubbish. Sorkin makes a critical mistake that 30 Rock never makes: he believes he can master the late-night sketch show, and in his attempt to demonstrate that mastery [spoilers!] knocks our socks off with a Gilbert and Sullivan-style parody song making fun of conservative Christians. The lowest-hanging fruit, baked into a pie with crust of shit.

    Comment by k-sky | May 14, 2010

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