Thursday, February 08, 2001
Irish and British viewers seem to get more than their fair share of American TV shows. From the highs of Seinfeld and The Simpsons to the lows of Temptation Island and Jerry Springer, we know our way around US output as well as most Americans.
Better in some cases. Over there shows such as Sex in the City and The Sopranos are only available on the premium cable channel HBO, so not everyone gets to see them.
But surely not everything plays as well here as it does there? Take The West Wing, for example. Why would we be interested in a drama about the inner workings of the White House? There is nothing more uniquely American than its political system, and while a documentary might at least show us some facts, what benefit can there be in a fictional account of a non-existent president?
Well, good TV is good TV, and The West Wing is top drawer stuff. It’s intelligent (and assumes its audience is too), and it wears its cleverness lightly. A recent episode included a brief disquisition on the Latin phrase ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’, which was sharp, funny and relevant. You’ll watch a lot of Oprah waiting to see that.
It’s also artfully constructed. The show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, wrote the critically acclaimed but rather neglected comedy, Sports Night, which was set in a fast-paced TV studio. He’s expert at moving quirky characters around an office environment in quick scenes that are funny but also advance the plot.
So how much is the programme about politics? Well, on the surface, not that much. It won’t tell you much about the structures or operation of government, or lecture you on policy issues. The characters know this stuff backwards, and the show keeps up the pretence that the audience is just observing, so no-one’s going to sit down and explain everything. (Unlike in medical dramas, where there’s a lot of technical stuff happening, but from time to time this has to be explained to patients or their families, and by extension, the audience.)
But underneath the character-driven storylines and the witty arguments is a very clear political agenda. President Bartlett, played with sharp good humour by Martin Sheen, is a Democrat, and there’s a prevailing sense that everyone in the administration is honestly trying to improve the lot of the country, and act in a fair and decent way.
Bigotry and intolerance is treated in an impressively uncompromising way, as when leaders of the religious right are summarily shown the door after making insinuations about Jewish members of the administration.
On occasion, however, the President can be a little too good to be true. While the camera jerks around following the officials down corridors, and nobody can say more than a few words without someone else cutting across them, when we see the President on screen, the pace slows down and the approach becomes more reverential, sometimes cloyingly so. President Bartlett mouths platitudes eloquently and with conviction – he’s a pre-lapsarian Clinton.
And now, with a famously stupid President in the real White House, the show feels like a party political broadcast. Look what you could have won, it says: a bunch of attractive likeable intelligent young people and a President who does good work. Boy George and his team of Cold War re-treads look decidedly feeble by comparison. Gore is no Martin Sheen, that’s for sure, but the message is clear.
So we should watch The West Wing for its shining script and great performances (Rob Lowe is surprisingly good as a policy wonk so intelligent and committed as be clumsily stupid in real life). But we should also watch it to remind ourselves that more than than half of the people in America would rather have a President Bartlett than a President Bush.