Sunday, April 15

watching: the west wing

(Spoilers follow.)

I didn’t watch a whole lot of TV during the years from 2002 to about 2014. I mean, not no TV, just not most of it. Here and there I lived with roommates who had cable, some kind of streaming subscription, or the ambition to pirate stuff. I eventually saw most of The Office (US), Arrested Development, and a couple seasons of Community. A bunch of Daily Show episodes, towards the end of the Bush years. A season or three of Archer. I know there was other stuff, soaked up during family get-togethers and hotel-room stays, but those shows are everything that comes to mind: Not exactly a comprehensive survey of the form.

And then I bought a lightly-used Roku off a friend and got a Netflix streaming subscription, then subsequently moved in with a girlfriend who owns a bunch of DVDs. We’ve watched what feels like a lot of TV shows since then, but aside from Parks & Rec (which I love without reservation), I’m not much more caught up than I was before. Mostly it turns out I’m just more in tune with how my adult self feels about stuff I originally watched in the 1980s and 90s, because we’ve slowly been working our way through most of Star Trek, The X-Files, Babylon 5, and Cheers.

I probably don’t have a whole lot of utility as a TV critic.

The West Wing is a recent addition to the rotation, probably because Netflix put it on the screen enough times and I clicked. It’s a show I watched during at least its first couple of seasons, enough to pick up on the characters and remember a bunch of plot points, but beyond that memory is hazy. I remember my (conservative Republican) parents being into it.

We’re a couple of seasons in now, more or less. This can be a weird and kind of depressing show to experience in the deepening gloom of 2018, in my late 30s, after 15 years or so of watching the American state do the things it does. It was probably a weird thing to watch in its own time too, with Bush in office for most of its run and its whole premise an ever-more-obvious counterfactual.

Some of the plot material is overtly bad. There’s this whole thing where Sam Seaborn sleeps with an escort he doesn’t know is an escort in like the first episode and it keeps coming back up, and though in the end it’s not as badly handled as it could be and I’d guess at the time “sex workers are just people and your judginess is bullshit” was probably intended as a brave moral stance for late turn-of-the-century network TV, it’s also full of moments where I almost decided to stop watching the show as a whole.

The dialog is hooky and clever, but also almost a parody of itself from the very beginning (like the endless walk-and-talk sequences that the show pauses to make fun of itself for before the first season is up) and occasionally veers into these swelling-music-and-earnest-sentiment moments that don’t really earn their implied significance. Some of the stuff I remembered as a really great fuck you to the Bad Guys of the time now reads as a little bit cheap and pandering. (This one sequence, for example, where the President humiliates an obvious stand-in for Laura Schlessinger in what is apparently actually a lecture lifted from an e-mail forward. Not that Dr. Laura herself wasn’t a frankly evil force in the culture just then.)

It’s also a narrative that can’t quite decide whether politics are inherently fucked and no progress is possible, or whether deep down we’re all on the same team here and we can rise above our etc. The left-ish but also kind of pragmatically neoliberal Democrats who make up the Good Guys are constantly shooting themselves in the foot by compromising some belief to perceived political necessity, which is frustrating to watch, especially when the show goes out of its way to demonstrate that they’d do better if they just did what they knew was right, but then reverts to the same pattern an episode later. Things have a tendency to get kind of patronizing and American-exceptionalist whenever a foreign policy plot comes up.

There’s a lot of other stuff I’m not sure about. I mean, I’m not especially sure how I feel about the entire project of American government at this stage of history, which complicates how I feel about these kinds of stories. But whatever. All that said, it’s a good show. The cast are amazing. The writing is frequently cornball and sometimes juvenile but also really entertaining. It’s often hopeful in a way that I have mostly lost track of how to be. It makes you want to work with good people on something important, and that feeling is most of the reason that I’m such a sucker for workplace drama stuff like this.