Surveillance Summer Watch, The West Wing: On Message

In only a few short days, I’ve plowed through the first 10(!) episodes of The West Wing. Benefits of graduating college ladies and gentlemen! I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to write about the episodes because straight recaps would be boring after the fact, and I’m still reading up on the various issues. However, there a few things I think could power a conversation that will headline today’s post.

One of the interesting choices made by Aaron Sorkin for whatever reason — I haven’t been able to find anything specific — is to shape the show, at least initially, around characters who worked in the communications side of things. It could have been easy to base the series on the cabinet or even just the Chief of Staff. The idealistic side of things, from which the series is obviously coming from, can paint the speech writers and communication folks as arbiters of truth, people who help President Bartlett say all the inspirational and uplifting things that he says. I’m going to guess that series never takes the communication team down a dark path or anything where they start spreading an untruthful message, but especially in the Bush II era, that would have been an interesting choice.

Not that the two series are on any sort of similar quality level, but ABC’s V has done a somewhat intriguing job with discussing how the media’s portrayal of certain events shapes public opinion. It’s basically the only good part of the series at this point. So far, The West Wing doesn’t really approach the outside opinion of the citizens except in passing dialogue, and will surely only continue to use the White House as our entry point of perspective. However, it could be compelling to see more public opinion and the response to those events.

Moreover, I’ve read a few pieces that criticized the series for being too optimistic in its portrayal of the White House and its response to crucial world events, and I can see that. Every episode includes a idealistic speech from one of the characters and most episode include more than one. Sure, that’s uplifting in the moment, but even now, there is a little fatigue with characters solving issues with rousing diatribes against the evils of the world. I’m not sure how I’ll feel once the series ends. Interestingly, my response to those elements in the series is actually based on my disenfranchised feelings towards the Obama administration. As a voter, I was all riled up with President Obama’s speeches and plans when he was a nominee, and I feel like people like Sam, Toby and Josh would fit right in with his administration. And with many of those feelings now replaced with disappointment, I guess I’m relating to the speeches in the series more negatively. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else could feel that way as well.

The third point I wanted to discuss is the transition of focus from Sam to Josh/more ensemble. Various pieces I’ve read about the series’ development note how it was originally supposed to focus on Rob Lowe’s Sam and because everyone else was so damn good and perhaps even more interesting, the writing shaped the series more as a ensemble. This eventually led to Lowe’s departure in season four. Maybe it’s the coloring of those readings, but just 10 episodes in, I didn’t feel like the series was ever really built around Sam. The pilot definitely focuses on his personal entanglements more, but even then, the controversy within the White House is all about Josh Lyman — and so are many of the following stories. The West Wing already feels like Josh’s story, or even Leo’s more than anyone else. Maybe Sam gets more to do in the back half of season one, maybe not. But if Lowe was promised a series built around him, then I could see why he was angry because that series never really existed.

Finally, I guess should talk about the quality a little bit. Yeah, pretty damn good, just as suspected. The performances are fantastic, the writing is sharp and I do love the walk and talks. However, one thing that is apparent when watching a slew of episodes in quick succession: Things almost always work out for the better. I understand that antagonism has to come from somewhere, so there’s always a vote that needs saved or an international incident prevented, but I’m more connected to the character-centric stories like Leo’s drug problem and the relationship between Josh and Donna. I’m hoping for more character-based stories in the future, but so far, the series has done a good job of making broader stories tell us important things about characters.

I’ll be back in the middle of the week with more!


2 responses to “Surveillance Summer Watch, The West Wing: On Message”

  1. Perry MacNeil Avatar
    Perry MacNeil

    The West Wing is a terrific series, and I credit it to getting me through the Bush Administration without losing all of my optimism! I wish more focus had been on Sam, and the communications end of things, but I think you’re right: the ensemble was so talented, that they had to utilize them further. As you move farther into the series, there is less of the happy ending phenomenon. I’m glad you’re enjoying it – it’s an all-time favorite in the Politico household.

    Nice analysis – will have to stop by again!


  2. Megan Clayton Avatar
    Megan Clayton

    Oh, the communications team is going to go down some dark roads. Just wait ’til the third season, when Bartlet approves the assassination of another head of state, or the sixth/seventh seasons when there’s some lying going on over our space program. CJ particularly gets caught in various webs of lies because the old boys club of Josh/Sam/Toby thinks she’s too cozy with the press. The show is pretty optimistic, but overall it’s a (mostly) realistic portrayal of political communication in the White House, and as such the characters engage in spin — a lot. But, of course, they get an pass because it’s all for the greater good …

    And I’m with you all the way regarding the idealistic speeches, although my annoyance comes from the general center-right movement of the Democratic Party in general, not just Obama’s play-it-safe Realpolitik. I love the show, but every time Bartlet or Toby or whoever gives some rousing oratory, all I can muster is a sardonic smile. The characters in the show aren’t even that far to the left sometimes; the decisions they make are usually grounded in pragmatism, whether with something as big initiating a war on terror (yes, they do go there) or as small as cutting curing cancer from the State of the Union address.

    And speaking of optimism, I think it was a little too optimistic of the series’ creators to think that they could focus a show around the deputy communications director when MARTIN SHEEN was cast as the president, or even when dealing with a character who’s as significant in real life as the POTUS. Americans already have a fascination with executive power; it was only going to be amplified by a charismatic actor like Sheen projecting himself into the role.


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