Friday, September 9, 2011

I Am the Lord Your God: "Pilot"

[People who have not watched the show and plan to should not that I discuss details from later episodes in this commentary.]

While watching the pilot of The West Wing for the first time in over a year, and perhaps the fifth or sixth time overall, I kept a Blogger tab open on my laptop so I could take notes on things I might want to discuss.  At first I was more focused on the notes than on actually watching the show, but after a while I did get caught up in it and had to remind myself to think about what was happening onscreen.  Which means that, although I anticipate lots of snark on this blog, I do enjoy the show on some level, or I wouldn't be watching it.  Whatever my other sins, I'm not one of those fans who sticks with a show he hates just to tell people how much he hates it.

On that note, I should say that one of the remarkable things about the pilot is how fully the show's style is already established.  Obviously the walk-and-talk had featured in some of Sorkin's other work, including Sports Night (which was, as Family Guy put it, "a comedy that's too good to be funny"), but it works so much better now, as does much of the show's visual approach, even little things like the tautness of the teaser leading up to the smash cut into the opening credits, which never fails to thrill me even now that I'm a bitter, cynical crackpot.

I also continue to laugh at the show's jokes, because whatever else you want to say about The West Wing, it's one of the better goofy sitcoms of the past decade or so.  A lot of the humor, in fact, makes sense on a sitcom level but not as actual human behavior.  It's funny enough when CJ slips on the treadmill while trying to impress a man (if you can look past the mild patronizing sexism of it), but that's a 1930's level pratfall.   And the run where Sam spills his guts to a woman he doesn't realize is Leo's daughter is crisp and perfectly delivered by Rob Lowe, but why in the hell would he confess to any total stranger that he accidentally slept with a prostitute?  Later episodes will show that he knows full well this could be a serious story, and while Leo's daughter could make his life hell with the information, she's less likely than a random schoolteacher to call the National Enquirer.

Let's pause to examine the Sam/Laurie thing, actually, because I think it says a lot about how The West Wing treats political scandals.  He slept with a prostitute, but he didn't know she was a prostitute.  It's the kind of absurd story politicians spout when under scrutiny ("Sure, I paid the hustler for a good time, but I didn't expose myself to him"), but in Sorkin's idealistic political fantasyland it's actually true.  And, as will be pointed out in a later episode, the truth of it doesn't matter, because in this milieu, any development exists only as a story, how it might be spun, what effect it will have on the polls.  That may be realistic as a portrayal of Washington, but to a great extent the show's moral universe functions in a similar manner-- when Leo's addiction becomes news, when Bartlet is forced to come clean about the MS, the central issue on a dramatic level is not "Did they do wrong by the American people?" but "Will they lose their jobs, become slightly less powerful and influential, and feel bad for themselves?"  Some people will call me naive for emphasizing this-- of course politicians only look out for themselves-- but I think the true naivete is acknowledging such a truth in the abstract and convincing yourself that in a given situation it nonetheless matters who you vote for.  As you might imagine, I'll have a lot more to say about this kind of thing during future episodes.

Then there's the main plot of the episode, in which Josh fears he might lose his job. In light of later developments, this is pretty ridiculous: the interpersonal ideology of the show is so feudally loyal that Josh would have to drown the president in the bathtub before he'd be fired. But it adds drama to a series opener, I suppose.  The more interesting thing to me is the way the episode demonstrates that, from a mainstream liberal perspective, religious conservatives are about as evil as you can possibly get.  There's some middle ground, triangulating talk in earlier scenes about how Al Caldwell is a nice enough guy, but when Jed Bartlet shows up, Caldwell is included in the ensuing humiliation.  As an atheist homosexual with what I suppose are anarchist leanings, I hope it's obvious that I hold no brief for the religious right, but I do think their portrayal here is hard to take seriously.

I'm sure some religious conservatives are nasty manipulators like Mary Marsh (played with a brilliant slimy chilliness by Annie Corley).  I imagine some of them are even secretly anti-Semitic, although to me that development smacks of the tiresome liberal inclination to treat any hard-core Republicanism as a manifestation of unexpressed bigotry.  But the bit where John van Dyke doesn't know what the first commandment is? No, not buying it.  (Adding to the irony is the fact that Toby is also wrong; "Honor thy father and thy mother" is not the third commandment in any tradition, Christian or Jewish. It's either the fourth or the fifth.)

Of course, that part is mostly a set-up for Bartlet's entrance, his very first line in the program, in which he informs us that he is God.  Oh, Aaron Sorkin: to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "I think your subtext is rapidly becoming text." Jed Bartlet may not be an inerrant God, but he's certainly regal enough, and obviously expects deference; the scene where he grumps that no one is paying attention to him and asking about his trip provides a perfect example of the extent to which the character is a cross between a sitcom Dad and a self-centered autocrat.

Having announced his divinity, Jed proceeds to bat around some of his followers. I guess we're supposed to be impressed by his demand that Caldwell denounce some wacko nobodies who threatened the president's granddaughter (if only Ed Muskie had threatened the people who attacked his wife instead of allegedly crying), but I can't say I see the relevance. Yes, it's nasty to send a doll with a knife through its throat to a child, but why should Al Caldwell be held accountable for it?  This reminds me of the current-day vogue for demands that Muslims denounce terrorism, as though every single member of a religion must disavow violence before any can be trusted.  I think also of a quote from Adolph Reed Jr. on black anti-Semitism:
"Black anti-Semitism's specific resonance stems from its man-bites-dog quality. Black Americans are associated in the public realm with opposition to racial prejudice, so the appearance of bigotry among them seems newsworthy. But that newsworthiness also depends on a particular kind of racial stereotyping, the notion that, on some level, all black people think with one mind. Ralph Ellison complained most eloquently about white Americans' general refusal to recognize black individuality. Charles Rangel put the problem succinctly: When approached to declare himself on Khalid Muhammad, he complained that he was tired of being called on to denounce people he'd never even heard of. Any black anti-Semite is seen not as an individual but as a barometer of the black collective mind; belief in Blackantisemitism [Reed's label for the notion of a unique and particularly virulent black form of anti-Semitism], therefore, is itself a form of racialist thinking."
But even granting that Bartlet has some justification for his demand, it doesn't address either the pragmatics or the ethics of the original issue.  Josh still mouthed off about Christianity on national television.  The existence of Christian terrorists doesn't have anything to do with that, any more than Dan Rydell's dead brother had anything to do with the apology in the sickeningly heavy-handed second episode of Sports Night.  A day earlier, the president was going to fire Josh over this; has that decision been neutralized by subsequent events?  At one point, Leo says, "I've known him 40 years, C.J. And all I can promise you is, on any given day there's really no predicting what he's gonna choose to care about." Hot-tempered and capricious; just what you want in a guy with his finger on the button.  Besides, how well are ordinary Americans going to respond to the fact that an already unpopular president just told three major religious leaders to get their "fat asses" out of his White House?  This is another hallmark of Sorkin's style: bad decisions are guaranteed to have major political consequences, until the writer gets tired of dealing with them.

A few more random takes that I couldn't be bothered to integrate into the main commentary:

*The thing with Leo complaining about a misspelling in the Times crossword.  I get that this is supposed to establish him as a lovable old crank, but of course Gaddafi's name is Arabic, and therefore has no correct English spelling. Possibly this is supposed to be Leo's error; if so it doesn't reflect well on the character's intelligence. Given the difficulty American politicians seem to have with major topics like the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite, though, it may be true to life. I although think it's pretty ironic to see Gaddafi, recent made over into the latest model of the Worst Dictator Ever action figure, used in a running gag.

*I love that the scene where Sam can't see the girl he's slept with once anymore because she turns out to be a call girl is scored with wistful romantic music, as if it were a 40s melodrama. I know we're supposed to understand that this was more than just casual sex for the impossibly noble Sam Seaborn, but come on.

*For socially-enlightened liberals, some of Sorkin's characters make pretty sketchy comments. Josh implying that Lloyd Russell is gay and effeminate doesn't exactly warm the cockles of my heart, nor does Leo's description of Mary Marsh's fury at being called "Lady" and having her religion mocked as "a petulant woman being angry about getting her hair a little messed up on TV."

*And finally, there's the bit at the end where Bartlet waxes sentimental about the Cuban refugees.  Now, I do sympathize with and admire people like that-- they're suffering in a way that I, as a middle-class white guy in the US, never will, and they're actually doing something about a political system they think is horrifying.  But is it necessary to bring their struggles down to the trite level of "wanting a better life?" Everybody wants a better life.  These Cubans want a variety of specific, individual things, some of which may not be entirely admirable.  They deserve something more substantive than "They love us for our freedoms."

Well, that's probably enough from me.  Disagreement, mockery, and other commentary welcome, even if it's just to tell me I use parentheses too often.

No comments:

Post a Comment