Sunday, November 25, 2012

Exactly Who You Think They Are: "The State Dinner"

1:30 in the morning on a Sunday, and here I am, wide awake thanks to having worked a midnight-to-8:30 shift on Black Friday. But the (possibly) good news is that the Internet is so dead at this hour that I'm writing about "The State Dinner" sooner than I otherwise might have. And it's a less objectionable episode than any of the first six. I don't mean as drama; on those terms it may be the weakest to date. Its subplots fail to cohere into a satisfying overall story, and what character work there is Sorkin's typical facile approach-real-drama-then-scurry-away stuff. But politically, this episode isn't quite as inane as it might be, and it actually grants a radical critique of the U.S. government some legitimacy, though it does so in underwhelming fashion.

First, however, we'll talk about vermeil. What's worse here, C.J. whining about how the reporters only discuss clothing and then dismissing protesters interested in an actual issue as "six pathetic people protesting on a Friday," or the weakness of Abbey Bartlet's answer on the problem of vermeil itself? Trick question, really, because they're the same failing: a nominal willingness to criticize the unnecessary opulence of national political life coupled with an indifference to doing anything about it. C.J. acts as though Abbey has brilliantly resolved the dilemma, but that's only true if you assume that the sole available options are to use the vermeil or to lock it away somewhere. Instead of either, they might, oh, I don't know, sell it and use the proceeds to feed poor people, or put it in a museum whose proceeds would feed poor people, or something like that. Likewise, there's no law that says the First Lady has to be wearing "a Badgley Mischka silk Shantung gown with a beaded bodice;" that's a choice, one that encourages a worshipful focus on the ceremonial presidency rather than a realistic consideration of the office as a political function. But Sorkin wants you to worship the president, at least if he's cosmopolitan enough to be worth the worship. At least this episode presents Danny Concannon in the best light he'll ever get, as an actual adversarial journalist, rather than the shameless colluder of "Take Out the Trash Day" and the Shareef assassination storyline.

The standoff in Idaho. This is one of the better strands of the episode, allowing Mandy to make a forceful argument about the possibility of government overreaction and the dangers of "the unbridled power of the state over its citizens," which is pretty strong stuff for the cheerfully authoritarian Sorkin. Her suggestion that the government sting against the extremists constitutes entrapment is especially relevant in light of the contemporary government habit of creating and arresting terrorists in the name of freedom. But there are issues with this presentation too. For one thing, even Mandy feels the need to describe the extremists as "exactly who you think they are." This neatly avoids discussing any concrete issues that might generate or expand this brand of right-wing extremism (one of which might be the liberal habit of reducing such extremists to a cultural stereotype), anything at all beyond the mournful suggestion that such people are "the inevitable and unavoidable byproduct of democracy." They hate us for our freedoms. Also, the shooting of the negotiator tends to suggest that peaceful engagement with extremism is doomed to failure, and that going in with guns blazing is always the best approach. I don't think that's the intention-- to the extent that the shooting means anything to Sorkin, it's probably in terms of character work for Mandy and Bartlet-- but the reading is there nonetheless.

Speaking of character stuff for Mandy, it's been interesting to note that in the first season to date, she is the voice of (what passes for) the far left in the world of The West Wing. Later this position will be held by Toby, but so far he's more pro-authority (consider his waxing indignant over the "threat" from Bertram Coles) and anti-union (like Josh, he sides with management over the truckers in the labor subplot), and Mandy is the actual liberal. It's telling that when Sorkin considered reintroducing her in season two, it was as an adviser to the left-wing Democrat played by Ed Begley, Jr. The only trouble with making Mandy the voice of the left is that she's a political consultant, an image-based job, and is easily dismissed as such, as happens in this very episode, even though there's not much substantive difference between the way she balances image and issues and the way everyone else in the West Wing does it. The resolution, where she appears literally not to have the stomach for this sort of thing, is tricky again in this respect. There's a larger issue involving the fact that Mandy and C.J., the two women in key positions, hold jobs that are more about presentation than substance, but I'll hold off discussing that until a future episode where it's a bit more relevant.

The storm. The ending is sweet; if you consider it in isolation from the rest of his personality, Bartlet is pretty likable. The only other thing worth noting is that it's not remotely appropriate for Josh to be using his and Leo's authority to divert FEMA's operations, however briefly, for the sake of a single family, even if that family happens to be related to a White House staffer. I'm honestly surprised that the episode presents Josh's behavior as entirely a matter of heartwarming loyalty, with not even a whiff of awareness that this is a privileged abuse of power.

The truckers. It's significant that even the liberal West Wing feels the need to maintain parity of insults, following the centrist narrative that the unions are just as bad as management. The high point of this nonsense is when Leo smacks down one of the union guys for telling an opponent he's "full of crap," because "this is the White House, Bobby, it's not the Jersey turnpike." First of all, I think that if he were actually on the Jersey turnpike, Bobby might use a slightly more offensive word than "crap." Second, I doubt that Vile Bobby was the first person to utter said word within the confines of the White House, or that by doing so he lowered the tone of presidential discourse forevermore. As a matter of fact, Leo's Boss used the word in the White House himself, in the pilot. But Leo had to distance himself from the truckers somehow, and if it could include a classist implication that truckers don't know how to conduct themselves among Serious People, well, so much the better.

Meanwhile, despite the occasional mention of specific issues, all of which continue to be relevant to worker/management relations, the ultimate verdict on the trucking debate is that it's a bunch of squabbling kids who need Papa Bartlet to tell them to act their age or nobody gets to use the Super Nintendo. (Having him pull out his Nobel Prize to declare that they're all wrong without ever saying how is an especially fine case of an empty appeal to authority.) The episode is at least vaguely aware that this may be an overreaction on his part due to ego, but there's no meaningful consideration of how this interaction between personal quirks and political problems might influence the fate of nations in ways both good and bad. That would be some real, complex drama, after all, and Sorkin is more interested in writing about lovable, mildly-flawed heroes than about profoundly compromised human beings.

Finally, the state dinner itself. The episode manages to get several things about Indonesia wrong, and there's something unpleasant about the various "aren't these foreigners wacky" gags being aimed at a real nation; stick to made-up countries, huh, Aaron? The multiple translation shtick is pretty threadbare even as slapstick; I Love Lucy did it in 1955, and it wasn't exactly cutting-edge comedy then. And I could certainly live without Toby lecturing the cook on not knowing English even though he lives here; why is a liberal Democrat reciting right-wing bumper stickers? But I'll put up with a lot to have U.S. hypocrisy called out as powerfully as it is here, leaving Josh and Toby speechless for once in their lives. Of course, I have to say that there are slightly more recent U.S. failures in the human rights department than the Native American genocide. The sort, for example, that come from rigging foreign elections and taking other repressive action in favor of preferred dictators, which this episode mentions in passing twice, once as a joke, because if there's anything that's funny, it's a century of often brutal American hegemony. But given that Sorkin will eventually pretend, in "Posse Comitatus," that the U.S. has never before compromised itself for the sake of its interests, I'm not sure he really gets the awfulness of U.S. foreign policy. If he did, he wouldn't, for half a hundred reasons, have been able to have a show about the White House airing on NBC.

Next episode: "Enemies," one of three episodes in the Sorkin era for which he was not credited with writing or co-writing the teleplay, though I'll continue my reductive habit of ascribing every aspect of the production to him anyway.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Dummies: "Mr. Willis of Ohio"

So here we are, more than a year after I last wrote about The West Wing. At five episodes annually, I should finish abusing the Sorkin era in a mere 18 years. Just think: babies born while I was discussing the pilot will be able to celebrate my post on "Twenty Five" by smoking a cigarette or casting a meaningless vote in the latest Most Important Election Ever. I'm getting a little misty at the very thought. Anyway.

"Mr. Willis of Ohio" is a tough episode from the perspective of this blog, because its political issue (apart from the cutesy Josh/Donna discussion of taxes, which is notable only insofar as it suggests Sorkin thinks the liberal argument for high taxation should be made in the most paternalistic way possible) is the census, which cannot possibly be said to matter. Sorkin tries his level best to convince us otherwise, not least in Joe Willis' final speech about its being "the right place to start," which is evidently meant to be stirring but contains, so far as I can see, no meaningful content. Yes, to the extent that one accepts the illusion of representative government it matters how many people there are in the country, and yes, to the extent that one fetishizes the constitution it matters whether sampling is consistent with it. But even so, this is thin stuff on which to hang an episode. (I note in passing that one benefit of the traditional census from a liberal perspective, that it provides temporary employment for hundreds of thousands of people who need it, goes unmentioned, though I suppose the acuteness of that need is somewhat more visible now that it was in 1999.)

But of course this episode isn't really about the census. It's about Joe Willis, about praising him in terms so condescending that the praise falls flat. Last episode ("The Crackpots and These Women," if you'll cast your minds back thirteen months), we were told that Mrs. Landingham was amazing because she had a perfect attendance award; now Joe Willis is amazing because, er. Because he's a teacher? Because he went to night school? Or because he's bereaved, good-natured, self-deprecating and black? Stop and imagine this same script with a white Joe Willis. Not only does Toby's ploy no longer work; the worshipful attitude the episode takes toward him becomes hard to comprehend. I don't think, though, that Willis' race is actually the point; it's just a cheap grab for liberal sympathy. Willis' true "appeal" lies elsewhere, and reveals a deep cynicism that clashes with The West Wing's superficial optimism.

What Toby says about Willis, what makes him "unusual," is that he "didn't walk into the room with a political agenda. He didn't walk in with his mind up. He genuinely wanted to do what he thought was best. He didn't mind saying the words 'I don't know.'" Unless you're a misanthrope, these are not in fact regarded as unusual characteristics for an average human being. They may, however, be unusual for a politician. What we have here, then, is the political class genuflecting to ordinary people by declaring their inherent superiority. This is most easily regarded as pandering, but it's also possible that politicians wholeheartedly believe it, that they do see themselves as driven purely by agendas, fixed opinions, selfishness, and arrogance. Consider Toby's confession to Willis, in which he acknowledges that he was engaged in manipulative, dishonest race-baiting. Doesn't that make him a pretty terrible human being, regardless of whether Willis knew he was doing it? The episode moves rather lightly past the partisan gains sampling will offer Democrats, but isn't that likely to be the point of the exercise? What about the precedent it sets? Instead of answers we get a joke about the Nielsens, a reminder that The West Wing is best regarded not as a drama, but as a sitcom suffering from a serious excess of Very Special Episodes.

One last thing about Mr. Willis: the character appears not to be very well thought-out. The first thing we hear about him is that "presumably he's gonna do what he's told." But if that's the case, how is he a swing vote, and why is he at a meeting designed to convince those hostile to what the White House wants? Unless they mean "do what he's told by the other committee members at the meeting." Which raises the questions: what party is Willis in? The other two are Republicans, but it's hard to imagine that Janice Willis, possibly black and definitely admired by Toby, was with the GOP. (Fun fact: in the real world there has never been a black Republican congresswoman, although Mia Love, black, female, Mormon, Republican, and therefore fascinating to those who enjoy identity politics, is hoping a recount will change that.) But if he's a Democrat, why is he being courted simultaneously with Republicans (or at all), and why do Gladman and Skinner act as though the Republican committee chair's advice would mean something to him? Is he supposed to be that much of a naif? Or is this just a script that makes no earthly sense?

Speaking of making no earthly sense, in this episode Josh points out the inanity of Sam telling Mallory that he had slept with Laurie, but only for the sake of another line of repetitive Sorkin banter, not because it is, you know, a gaping flaw in the plot logic of a major first season storyline. Also, Sam again makes the distinction that Laurie is not a hooker but a call girl. Why is he so hung up on this? Because he's a privileged asshat more offended by the idea that he would solicit a cheap prostitute than by the thought he would solicit one at all? You might very well think that. I couldn't possibly comment.

Then there's Zoey's close encounter with the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad frat boys. What's grating about this scene is not that I don't think such frat boys exist, or that they might be found in a D.C. area bar. It's not even the implausibility of the set-up. (On that note, though: where is Zoey's Secret Service protection? Leo's Boss mentions upping her protection, but why is nobody in the room with her to begin with? Did they somehow imagine that being surrounded by several high-profile members of the administration made her safer? No wonder kidnapping her turns out to be so easy. And would the bartender just hand her C.J.'s drink anyway? "It's for my non-underage friend!" Yeah, right.) What's grating is the reason the frat boys are so comically over the top: so that we won't stop to wonder whether throwing the Secret Service at them might be a slight overreaction to some macho posturing, posturing in which the grownup White House staffers also engage, though without the racism and homophobia. Are we meant to cheer that the Eric Balfour character might go to federal prison because he was carrying cocaine while attempting to flirt with a receptive girl who happened to be the president's daughter? I guess so, especially because it helped Charlie get over his inferiority complex. And what's a ruined life next to that?

That's all for now. Coming up: "The State Dinner," in which Abby Bartlet is introduced. I may watch it later today, but I doubt I'll have time to write about it until after Thanksgiving, which I plan to celebrate, in best West Wing tradition, by pretending to care about Indians and making a prank call to the Butterball hotline. Good times.