Surveillance Summer Watch, The West Wing: Reflections on season one

If you’d like to check out previous posts in this series, visit the Surveillance Summer Watch page.

I spent a good part of my Memorial Day watching the tail end of The West Wing‘s first season, something that seems like a fitting way for a television nerd to celebrate a very American holiday. Thoughts on the stellar first season’s second half after the jump.Last time I checked in on my viewing here, I had finished episode 12 or 13 and was headed towards the freshman season’s final run of episodes. It’s interesting how critical I was in my first post about the introductory episodes because at this point, I think I enjoyed those episodes more than I did the later string. Well, let me partially qualify that statement: I’ve liked all 22 episodes of The West Wing that I’ve watched over the past three weeks or so. No question about that.

But the last batch of episodes furthered the qualms I had with the first batch and crystallized some things that I hadn’t really noticed early on but now realize have probably been there since the pilot episode. Yes, the season’s second half is full of uplifting speeches, diatribes and monologues from nearly every person integral to the Bartlett administration. It’s a little naive and warm-colored, but as a few intelligent commentors pointed out in that first post, it’s something that is simply ingrained in the series’ narrative and thematic structure. People get down, President Bartlett comes in at the end and gives a speech that includes an abstract lesson and historical significance. Said people half-smile and move on. I get it. So the fact that said monologuing continued doesn’t bother me.

One new thing I’ve noticed however is how faceless and vague the antagonism is in this series. Sometimes it’s a vote, other times it’s a foreign issue, but most of the time, our information about said problem is simply coming to us secondhand from Toby, Sam, Josh, C.J. or Leo. “He Shall, From Time to Time…” deals with the real world-riffed issues between India and Pakistan, but we don’t ever seen of those issues or the people they’re affecting. Instead, we hear the Bartlett administration discuss how they can solve the problem. “Take This Sabbath Day” focuses on a man facing the death penalty, but I don’t think we ever see that man or hear too much about his story. Again, just the staff — and in this circumstance, mostly President Bartlett — thinking over the matter.

These type of stories seem to relate a way of thinking that suggests the American president is the decider on nearly every important matter, worldwide. Yes, I know that this is certainly true for the most part and I won’t try to necessarily argue any different. But what I’m saying is that our political culture is built around the idea that the President of the United States shapes the policies that influence the world, not just our country. I’d imagine that the people skeptical and critical of this idea would say certain instances of The West Wing serve as very mild propaganda, while those who don’t know or care about this perception would have really nothing to say about it. I’m not coming down on either side of it, just pointing it out.

With that said, I’ve been more intrigued with the episodes that deal with problems caused by the main characters, both because it gives the issue a face and because they often times tell us something about those characters. The leaked memo written by Mandy in “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” and the various dramas surrounding the rest of the staff’s inability to give C.J. all the information she needs to do her job were the most compelling as the season came to a close.

The realizations that come to the staff at the end of “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” also sort of verbalize another minor issue I have with how the series is structured. In that episode, they all realize that they’ve struggled as an administration because they been more concerned with the exigencies of political systems that are supposedly holding them back. As a viewer, a similar frustration occurred while watching a lot of these episodes because it felt like the series was simply burning through a number of hot button issues — gays in the military, education reform, the “war” on drugs, campaign finance reform, the fed, etc. — without truly addressing them in detail. I understand the constraints of broadcast television in the sense that NBC couldn’t market a series that was too intelligent or complicated politically, but it would have been nice to have some of the issues deliberated further than simply one episode. I have to imagine that they’ll return in the following six seasons, but many of them existed to just to introduce interpersonal dramas between the staff, making it little more than a case on House or something.

However, let me stop with the criticizing for a little bit and talk about my two favorite episodes of the season — the final two. “Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics” sees the team organize polling as a way to find out where their new, bold approach stands with American people. Not only is it an interesting look into something that we hear about so often in the media, but it allows for a number of fun character moments — and, SHOCKER!, optimism! Jokes aside, I love that “Lies” allows C.J. to finally be right after falling down a number of times leading up to said polling. Though Sam, Josh and Toby are regularly patted on the back for crafting such intelligent messages, it’s C.J. that has to deal with the aftermath of those messages and as an earlier episode showed, no one else can do that job. To have her finally get a big win was a fist-pump moment for me.

“Lies” also weirdly brings together a number of the hanging strings of the season in a way that would make you think it was a season finale. The press gets hold of Sam’s relationship with Laurie, there’s discussion of the drug and crime policies and with the polling, it feels like a cap on the season.

BUT THEN, they come back for “What a Day It Has Been,” the real season finale. It’s another fine episode full of fantastic character beats — Josh has to learn the human side of politics lesson again, Toby worries about his brother in private while pretending not to care to Sam, the president and Leo both fret over the missing solider — and also includes an extremely tense cliffhanger. To be honest, I love the episode despite the cliffhanger, which I feel is sort of sensationalized for this type of grounded series. I understand it’s purpose outside of its function as a cliffhanger because the characters spent moments of the previous episode and a half feeling good about their progress and the progress of the administration as a whole, so putting them all in danger blows that all to hell. And it didn’t come out of nowhere thanks to the subtle hints earlier in the season about the punk white supremacists. But ending a season full of monologues, walk and talks and policy rhetoric with an assassination attempt feels like audience baiting to me. From everything I’ve read, fans loved the cliffhanger and its resolution in season two, so I’ll hold out final judgment until then.

And then…will be coming sometime. I think I’m going to toggle between this series and Sons of Anarchy for a little while, but don’t fret. More posts about this wonderful series will be coming very, very soon. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far.

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