Tag Archives: josh lyman

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.

The Winter of Discontent – West Wing Season 5

As I’ve mentioned before, we spent the summer rewatching The West Wing from start to finish.  That marathon ended a few weeks ago and I’ve been neglectful about sharing further thoughts on this epic journey of television drama.  It seems appropriate then to return to the subject on the 45th anniversary of the debut of another classic NBC program some of you may be familiar with – Star Trek.  There is even a touch of synergy to the two in that the only appearance on TWW by a regular member of a Star Trek series cast in fact took place in Season 5.  Think about that for a moment (no running to Wikipedia to check) and I’ll reveal it at the end.

John Wells is no slouch, but even he had to be scratching his head as to how to resolve the conundrum Aaron Sorkin left him in the fourth-season finale, Twenty-Five.  Zoey Bartlet was a hostage to terrorists, President Bartlet had stepped aside and conservative Republican Speaker Glen Allen Walken was now Acting President.  I can picture Wells nursing a scotch, staring at a blank screen with a cursor blinking and hurling a stream of profanity at it.  Equally disorienting is the experience of watching the fifth-season premiere, 7A WF 83429.  The teaser begins with whip-pans, quick cuts, distorted sounds and images (such visual trickery becoming the trademark of director Alex Graves) and the audience desperate for a glimpse of the friends they’ve missed since the end of season 4.  When you do see them finally, they are disheveled, in darkness, as lost as we are without the familiarity of Aaron Sorkin’s keyboard behind the scenes.  Wells did the best he could, and the episode does have some beautiful moments – the ending montage set to Lisa Gerrard’s “Sanvean” in particular – but things just aren’t right.  I said earlier today that watching the post-Sorkin West Wing is like going back to your favorite restaurant, saying hello to your favorite waitress, settling into your usual table, reaching for the menu and finding out they’ve changed chefs.

It’s tough to say for certain, but Sorkin seemed to take great care in ensuring that characters behaved consistently from one episode to the next.  You get the sense in many of the season 5 stories that characters who would habitually go left were being wrenched right (no political pun intended) to serve the demands of the plot.  Would the Leo McGarry who saved Josh Lyman from being fired in the pilot and told him “as long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job” in Season 2’s Noel really strip Josh of his legislative portfolio and cut him out of the loop as he did in the three-episode arc that followed Constituency of One?  Would Leo really be willing to walk from Jed’s side to defend some other guy – supposedly his real best friend, whom we’ve never seen or heard about before – in An Khe?  Would the Bartlet administration, who had shown such hope and confidence in NASA in Galileo really become utterly disdainful of them in The Warfare of Genghis Khan?  And how in the name of all that is holy did Congressman Robert Royce of Pennsylvania from Season 3 suddenly become Senate Majority Leader in Jefferson Lives?  (I blame a casting mishap on that one – I’m guessing that the “Majority Leader” character was written with no one in mind, H. Richard Greene was cast before anyone remembered he’d already played this other role, and the character was then named Royce in a bit of retroactive continuity.)  Still, this lack of internal consistency in Season 5, an unfortunate side effect of a dozen writers working on it instead of only one, only adds to the discomfort we feel in watching it.  These people don’t feel like our friends anymore.  They’ve changed, man.

Ultimately, Season 5 was when The West Wing went from masterpiece to just a pretty good show.  And yet there was one standout gem of an episode that just for its 43 minutes made one hope that the magic could be recaptured.  I’m referring of course, to the fake documentary episode Access.  JUST KIDDING!  Heavens no.  That well-meaning misfire is best left forgotten.  I’m referring to Debora Cahn’s award-winning The Supremes.  The elderly liberal Chief Justice is ailing, a young conservative judge on the Supreme Court has died, and the White House is besieged on all sides as they attempt to choose a replacement who can survive the Senate confirmation process.  In what had to have been one of the most expensive guest casts for a single episode of television in history, Glenn Close, William Fichtner, Mitchell Ryan, Milo O’Shea and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Doctor, Robert Picardo, all lend their dramatic talents to what turns out to be a funny, erudite, wholly implausible but inspiring and thoroughly entertaining romp – ending with a scene of standing ovation that we want to join in with.  While the nitpicker in me bemoans the absence of even a mention of Season 1’s Justice Mendoza (with all those other guest stars they surely couldn’t afford Edward James Olmos as well), the episode is a little helping of vindication for those of us who stayed with The West Wing, lending some hope that all was indeed not lost.  Those beloved characters felt like our friends again.

Ironically, Season 5 would be the last time The West Wing would operate as originally intended.  Season 6, which I’ll get into at another time, saw old friends change jobs, new characters enter the picture and the thrust of the show become not the administration of President Bartlet but the race to replace him – with several episodes in the latter half of the season taking place not anywhere near the White House.  For me, the final word on Season 5 – and there could be more, but I’m trying to keep it under 1000 words – is best paraphrased from Toby’s pronouncement on Bartlet’s new Vice-President, Bob Russell.  It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, it was just what we were stuck with.

God save Sam Seaborn

In the absence of compelling summer television and a firm disinterest in whomever The Bachelorette picks, we are engaged in a repeat viewing of the entire seven seasons of The West Wing.  Assaulted by news feeds of corporate-backed Tea Party lunacy and the fiscal axe falling on libraries, it’s good to step away for an hour or two each night into Aaron Sorkin’s erudite exploration of the virtues of public service and the triumph of liberalism.  When TWW was originally airing during the height of the Bush administration it was a welcome salve for wounded progressive hearts and a source of hope for better days ahead – showing what it could be like when the reins were held by people who genuinely believed in government as a meaningful force for good rather than some nebulous beast to be starved lest they not be able to buy another yacht.

No character better exemplified this than the Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in an arguably career-defining role as a fast-talking, pure-hearted and paradoxically handsome nerd, able to translate his unassailable convictions into elegant turns of phrase for the President to deliver just as smoothly.  Where Toby Ziegler was the moral conscience of the senior staff, and Josh Lyman was the warrior determined to win at all costs, Sam was the idealist, the dreamer, a bottomless well of hope never tempered by politics as usual.  Originally intended to be the focus of the show – he was the first character to be introduced in the pilot episode – Sam began to fall off the radar as the seasons progressed, usurped at the center of the series’ main plots by Josh and Toby.  As a writer, it’s not difficult to see why this may have occurred for Sorkin – a character of such upstanding value and with so few apparent flaws as Sam is very hard to write.  Usually the approach is to test the limits of their values and morality by challenging it from every angle, daring the character to retain their hope against the creeping ennui of human failings.

We saw this articulated in Sam’s best episode, Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.  Sam is struggling with the revelation that his father has been cheating on his mother for 28 years when he is asked to look into a pardon request for a man who had been accused of espionage for the Soviets during the Second World War.  Determined at the start to reverse what he feels is a mockery of justice, Sam ultimately discovers that his pet cause was, in fact, a traitor, the revelation of which combined with his father’s infidelities nearly crushes him.  In a touching scene where he breaks down in front of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), he confesses the need he feels for certainties in life on which to hang his hope, like “longitude and latitude.”  And yet at the end Sam makes a difficult phone call to try and begin reconciliation with his father.  He has found his certainty – and his hope – again in the faces of his friends.

One always got the sense that Sam was driven to prove that hope could triumph cynicism.  After a soul-flattening career using his intelligence and skill with the law to protect oil companies from litigation, working at the White House was his chance to redeem those mistakes.  It would have been nice to see the hinted-at wounded part of his character explored in greater depth had he stayed a few seasons more.

Rob Lowe’s and Aaron Sorkin’s respective early departures from the series after its fourth season left a huge question in what the plans for Sam Seaborn ultimately would have been.  Yet a tease was dropped in the third-season episode Hartsfield’s Landing.  Discussing the intricacies of a standoff with the Chinese over a game of chess, President Bartlet comments to a stunned Sam, “You’re going to run for President one day.  Don’t be scared, you can do it.”  A flicker of reaction crosses Sam’s face, both sheer terror at an incredible notion that he might not have ever considered, replaced swiftly by a quiet confidence that if he has inspired that kind of hope in someone he admires so deeply, he might just succeed.  The currency of hope remains potent, and we are grateful that it is – making one agree with Toby’s final line to Sam as he walks out of the series in the fourth season episode Red Haven’s On Fire – “God save the United States of America… and Sam Seaborn.”