Thursday, February 10, 2005

The West Wing, February 9

Most long term fans of The West Wing tend to divide the history of the show into the Aaron Sorkin Era and the John Wells Era. Or as they sometimes put it "when the show was good" and "now". The story of how Wells came to take charge of The West Wing is fairly well known, but in the first season that he had full control things did not go as well as he, Warner Brothers (which produces the show) and NBC (which airs it) had hoped. The shows were finally being delivered on time and - just as important - on budget, which had been a problem in the Sorkin Era, but the shows lacked a certain spark. What they didn't have was Sorkin's biting wit and rapid-fire dialogue. The show suffered because of this in terms of ratings. and there was some expectation that this would be the final year. Instead there was a turn-around in the fortunes of the show. Ratings have gone up and not all of that can be attributed to not having American Idol in the same time slot.

The biggest change in the show this season has been a major shift in focus indicted by a decision to shift the story line ahead a year. We are now in the primary season for the election the will replace President Bartlett. At the White House people are talking about "the Bartlet Legacy" while outside the White House candidates are positioning themselves to replace Bartlet. As a result you have two sets of story lines, with the added complications in the White House storylines of the decline in the President's health. The President's Multiple Sclerosis, which had been introduced in the first season as a way to allow Bartlet to comment on daytime television shows, has reached a crisis point which restricts the amount that he is able to do. At this stage, too much work can aggravate the disease. The series has, since December, split the episodes and the cast between White House episodes and Campaign episodes.

Wednesday's show was a White House episode. As usual there is a crisis (so what else is new?). The Iranians have shot down a British passenger plane and needless to say the Brits are pissed. The problem is that the President needs his sleep and the question becomes, when do you wake the President? The answer, it seems, is far too early for Dr. First Lady and far too late for the guy who actually has the job and just about anyone else involved in the crisis. This includes the British Ambassador and his country's Prime Minister, the government's pipeline to the Iranian government (Chet, or as Leo McGarry puts it the new Phil), the media, and several of the candidates running for the Presidency. The latter is symbolized by a TV clip of Alan Alda's character criticizing the current Administration's lack of action which prompts Bartlet to say that it's easy to have a position when you don't have to deal with the realities of the situation. Caught in the middle of all the conflicting interest is Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg Eventually, of course, the crisis is resolved in a 40-something minute (plus commercials) day, although there is fall-out in the form of a First Lady who is angry at just about everyone. A "B" Plot about writing a new constitution for Belarus is handled as part comic relief, part elementary education on how democracy can be developed in a country by influencing a handful of men if they're the right men. The major comic relief concerns the visit of the new "Miss World" from Bhutan - something that Leo always looked forward to when he was Chief of Staff but which C.J. has handed off to Communications Director Toby Ziegler. She's instrumental in keeping the most persistent member of the media from pursuing the story of what he President knew and when did he know it that Bartlet's people don't want getting out.

Tonight's episode probably wasn't the best of the current batch of White House shows but it is illustrative of what Wells is trying to do with the show, and there are some rather nice scenes. There is a contrast between the President, who wants to be treated like the paralyzed but otherwise healthy Franklin Roosevelt, and his wife, who expects him to be treated like the stroke afflicted Woodrow Wilson and bothered as little as possible with the business of government. The solution lies somewhere in the middle and it's left to C.J. to find the right balance. The final scene of the episode, in which we cut from Bartlet and his wife engaged in an increasingly loud argument to C.J.'s office is tremendously effective. As the voices grow louder C.J. rises from her desk and closes the door, incredibly like a daughter closing the door so as not to hear her parents fighting. This sort of scene is the type of thing that gives long time viewers some hope for the continued life of the series. It may not be what Sorkin would have done but it is an approach that's improving as time goes on.

No comments: