Thursday, March 25, 2004

The Fall of the West Wing

I’ve meant to talk about the dramatic fall of The West Wing, this being a blog that handles both culture and politics, and The West Wing being a piece of culture that is about politics. I don’t have any desire to sound like some crazy-town fan, but it’s plain and simple that the show suffered both an artistic overhaul and an aesthetic devaluing at the same time, and it’s pretty doubtful that TWW will ever get its groove back.

So what’s the change? The major change is, of course, that Aaron Sorkin (and Thomas Schlamme) left executive producing and writing the show. The show now resides in the hands of John Wells, sole executive producer, architect of NBC’s “event television”, and executive producer of the now-laughable ER and the never-credible Third Watch.

Sorkin’s writing of at least part of every episode was more than egotism. Sorkin’s rat-a-tat words created a cohesive world that the characters lived and operated inside. His style was so distinctive that it is just as easy to make fun of (as Noah Smith brilliants proves here). Sorkin’s dialogue was often called “unique” and, indeed, it was, at least for Television. Those of us in theater knew that what Sorkin actually was doing brilliantly was taking the aesthetics of hyper-realist playwrights like Pinter and Mamet, and making it palatable to wider TV audiences. The world of TWW was preferable to our own—people were funnier, smarter, more dignified and nobler. They were idealized people, serving an idealized, Nobel-prize winning President dealing with the moral and political ambiguities of current events.

And now Sorkin has left. And so the world must be completely changed. There is no way around it. Sure, the current West Wing episodes do an alright job of aping his style occasionally, but really the dialogue the characters speak now is regular television dialogue, no different than what you’ll see on any other good network show. And let me say this clearly: the dialogue is not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. What it is is incredibly different. The heartbreak that fans feel is in watching a group of human beings suddenly, and without explanation within their world, begin to speak, relate, act, and think totally differently. What NBC (and John Wells) didn’t realize is that this kind of change is like an acid bath washing away our suspension of disbelief. And if you can’t suck us in, the more preposterous elements of the plot go noticed rather than un.

This brings us to the real problem: the plotting of the show. Bartlett gets together with former Presidents and figures out what to do about Saudi Arabia! Toby solves Social Security! A tornado whips through a Midwest town and Bartlett disappears briefly! CJ had an affair with the former VP before he was the VP! Event Television dictates that every week must be big big big when the old West Wing could get Big Drama out of Campaign Finance Reform.

This is not to say that the old West Wing was never preposterous. It often ran contrary to any idea of realism, but it’s cohesive world and theatrical performances culled you into a sense that it didn’t really matter, because you were being so entertained.

So what we have in the show is a wrenching change that forces the audience to pay more intellectual and less emotional attention to the show combined with an aesthetic driven by emotional manipulation and preposterous plotting. This combination obviously will do nothing but inspire hatred amongst the viewing public used to the old show and it is, in my mind, these two combined forces that have brought the once very entertaining show down.

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