Friday, October 28, 2011

Attack of the Fussbudget: West Wing s5e1

I don't want to be negative, but I hate everything, which presents a problem.  'Everything' is a (slight) exaggeration, though, because I have been known to occasionally like things.  For example, The West Wing, an examination of the executive branch of our own United States government, written for the first four seasons by Aaron Sorkin, who also penned the long-running, critically acclaimed Studio 60 and a little art-house movie called The Social Network, which I think was about Friendster.

The West Wing is actually one of my favorite shows, but I always have to say that with a caveat.  You see, the first four seasons are brilliant television.  The acting is wonderful, and the writing is top-notch, addressing comedic and dramatic moments with an even hand.  Sorkin's dialogue is distinctive, like art or pornography, and when it became known that he would be leaving (along with Thomas Schlamme, who specialized in the "walk and talk" style that was part of the series' signature look) I'm sure the nascent blogosphere of '03 was all a-twitter (sans Twitter) about just what would happen.  Well, here's what happened; one of the most brilliant shows on television started to fucking suck, that's what.

For a while I didn't pursue this too hard, mentally speaking, simply chalking it up to the fact that Sorkin had left and, because Sorkin is not a very nurturing person by all accounts, no proto-Sorkins had learned his ways sufficiently to take over.  Therefore, executive producer John Wells, of ER fame, was left to do what he did best, which was do fairly average, by-the-numbers TV drama.  I had planned never to revisit the bad seasons again, but I had gotten Brynne into the show and she, rightly, wanted to know what the hell happened after season four's agonizing multiple cliffhangers.  My warnings were insufficient and so we watched the first episode of season five.  And you know what?

 It was still terrible.

But something amazing had happened.  In the intervening years I had developed a strange superpower.  I was not only able to determine that what I was watching was bad, but why this was the case.  And so now I have decided, because I may not hate everything, but I certainly hate myself, that I'm going to go back through and write down everything that is wrong with this terrible, terrible episode, partly because hopefully some of that self-loathing will penetrate the bubble of John Wells' career success and make him feel bad about himself, as he should, and partly because I spent two hours this morning fucking around with Pandora in an attempt to make it play the music I wanted it to play instead of the excremental dubstep/drum-and-bass garbage it was into and I'm lashing out instead of just having a good cry.  (Note: I do feel bad about hating on John Wells since he was responsible for The Company Men, which I haven't seen, but the subject matter of which I appreciate and wish there was more attention paid to by pop culture, but which was also a commercial failure.  However, I do still hope he has a couple evenings where he eats ice cream alone and listens to sad music while lying under the covers.)

- Before we start, some overall things.  There really isn't a better phrase to describe the season in general than 'tone-deaf.'  Everyone involved on a production level (the actors aside, they do their damndest with what they're given, bless their little hearts) is absolutely deaf to what made The West Wing a compelling show.  It's really like watching something else entirely; it could easily be episode 2 of a brand new series called Executive Branch (episode 1 had set up these plotlines and established characters) and I feel like actually calling it that from now on, so I shall.

- A brief recap of the events leading into this episode: President Bartlett's daughter, Zoe, was kidnapped in the penultimate episode of season four, and after trying to deal with the crisis Bartlett admitted to Leo, his chief-of-staff, that he wasn't really capable of dealing with it, because he wasn't thinking as a leader, but as a father.  The antepenultimate episode saw Vice President John Hoynes resign, so Bartlett's decision to step down temporarily and leave the acting Presidency to the next in the line of succession results in the current Speaker of the House taking over the position.  The problem this presents is that the Speaker (Glenn Walken, played by a scarily-overweight John Goodman) is a prominent Republican, and Team Bartlett are Democrats, so this is obviously a situation fraught with tension.  Meanwhile, five Bahi operatives (I believe the Bahi are a fictional terrorist group within the West Wing/Executive Branch universe) have gone missing, and no one knows if that's related to Zoe's kidnapping or not.  Finally, Danny Concannon, a reporter whose name is not at all spelled like I thought it was, has uncovered evidence that Bartlett ordered the assassination of a foreign leader named Abdul Sharif (in the season three finale).  The question of whether the kidnapping was retaliation is up in the air; if it is, then obviously that's something for Bartlett to deal with, but if it isn't the worry is that airing this publicly will lead to Zoe's execution.

- No one involved in the show has any idea what humor is, or how to convey it (again, actors aside).  To me what made the show great was how deft the humor was; it was ostensibly a drama, but I think of it as a comedy, and a lot of my favorite moments are comedic.  Like life, the first four seasons was comedic and dramatic as necessary, whereas the future seasons are largely devoid of wit, spark, humor or sass.  They see the Drama label and suddenly its a Drama, which means Everyone Shouts a Lot and furrows their brows.

- The producers of this show seem to think that we cared about the characters because we cared about the politics and the drama.  It's the other way around, of course; as in most things, we only give a damn about the politics and the drama (in other words, the circumstances) because the characters care about them and we care about the characters.  Now, I am someone who cares about politics in a general sense, but the fakey made-up politics in this show are not the politics of the real world, and so I only give a fig about how the economy is in Executive Branch because of what it means for Josh or Toby or Bartlett.

:00 - The opening recap is painful because it opens with the last bit of cleverness we're going to see ("I don't think this is going to come as a galloping shock to anyone...") out of anyone.  It's also cut to be all dramatic and shit, which is unnecessarily hitting us over the head with what happened last season.  As we'll see throughout this episode, the writers don't trust us to understand the importance of things on their own without dramatic cuts and shouting and music stings.

:01 - The media babble here isn't too terrible, but the camera work and effects here are just too heavy handed.  Brynne is the one pointed out a lot of the specific visual problems with the episode, but even a non-visually oriented person like myself can notice that whoever was in charge of the show's look up to this point (i.e. Thomas Schlamme) has left the building (as indeed he did, along with Sorkin).  As a result, it now looks like every other show on TV.  This is a bad thing.

:01 - I am not down on Joshua Malina, nor am I mad that he usurped Rob Lowe's position as a cast member, but was he really the first one we needed to see?  Probably a minor point given that he's heading to more familiar faces.

:01-:02 - I don't have a huge problem with this scene; Josh is appropriately Joshy, shouting about what the news anchors aren't saying about the new, hopefully temporary President.  I think that after a term and a half at the job even Donna would know how many rooms there were in the residence, but that's a minor quibble and it gets across info the audience needs to know and underscores the conflict of the episode (how does the two Presidents thing work and what are the consequences).

:02-:03 - Again, none of this is terribly offensive, and we're entitled to some seriousness given the situation, but Jesus, the cuts!  Way too many way too fast for a show used to assume its audience had an attention span.

:03 - "What are all these people doing here?" "They work here."  I was premature in saying there's no wit.

:03 - There is an impact to Leo coming into the Oval and having Walken there instead of Bartlett, but it's something that the recap already established two-and-a-half minutes ago and so it just feels dull and obvious rather than something with impact.

Takes him from dreamy to "get away from my kids."
:04 - I'm just saying, if I was in an elevator and it was trapped between floors and I was waiting for rescuers, and Bradley Whitford was there with me, I would have sex with him.  Unless he had that mustache that he had for The Good Guys.

:05 - "I had a dream."  And here we go.  Bad, slow, obvious dramatic writing.  It tries way too hard to get us to Care Very Much about something we already care about.  We're invested already!  It's a mother and father with a kidnapped child!  Stop pushing!

:06 - "How do I look?' "Like you slept in your clothes."  C.J., the C.J. we know and love, at any rate, would follow that with a quip.  Even in tragedy she's a smart, funny woman, but you wouldn't know it from this.

:06 - Brynne pointed out quite rightly that C.J. would never be so blunt ("a Secret Service agent with a bullet in her head?"  Y'all got some heavy hands) with the response to that third question.  What she says makes it look like she's exploiting that aspect of it to cover something up, when that's obviously not the case.  It's a stupid question, but there's no need to have the answer be stupid as well.

:07 - They were doing so well with Josh, but his burqa sales quip is both insensitive and out of character.

:08 - "No.  Something came up at work."  This made me laugh, I'll admit.  It's all downhill for Toby from here, unfortunately.

:08 - There's no reason at all for Josh not to say, "Zoe," instead of, "the President's daughter," especially given that he was one of the last people to see her, and, because of that last fact, no reason he'd conjure the, "tied up in a gas station," image.  The shape of the sentiment (that Bartlett has sympathy because of the kidnapping) is right, but the execution is dead-wrong.

:08 - We already got, in a much more artful way, the sentiment from Toby that, even though he's been a father for only a short period of time, he's give in to whatever demands were offered if it were his kids.  We got it in the previous episode, and it can be subtext for him, but it didn't need to be so boldy (and poorly) re-stated.  And even though Toby's been pretty incendiary himself about Muslim extremists I'm still not 100% comfortable with the 'carpet-bomb Mecca' comment.

:09 - Danny is a professional journalist, and while that doesn't mean a whole lot today given the low standards of journalists Danny has always been portrayed as someone who understands the give and take that comes with being a political correspondent.  In addition, he, as is stated in an earlier episode, "literally wrote the book," on Abbey Bartlett, and is quite well-acquainted with the President and his family.  The idea that he would get so upset about the deal that Leo made with him in the finale (wherein he would get an exclusive on the Bahi operatives that were outed this episode during C.J.'s press conference in exchange for delaying the Sharif story) is absurd; the deal was made before Zoe's kidnapping and Danny is someone who understands the reality of national security concerns.  Because of this, all the shouting in this scene just comes across as unnecessary, but how will the viewers know it's dramatic unless someone is shouting, right?  This should have been light, and there should have been an acknowledgement that the deal was off and some implication that C.J. owed him one, but there shouldn't have been the 'I'm gonna put it online' temper tantrum because it just makes him look petulant, and in theory we want these two to screw so we want to avoid that.

:10-12 - Walken comes off like he knows what he's doing, but there's just so much obvious stuff here ("Screw the Europeans,") and there's none of either the gravitas or humor that Bartlett used to bring to these proceedings.  Also, again, cut cut cut.

:13 - Why does Bartlett have ideas and answers all of a sudden?  If he's been up all night and can still think this clearly then why did he have to step down at all?

:14 - This is almost right, but the look over to Abbey on the phone foreshadows a pretty major misstep about the whole Sharif plot.

:14 - Brynne liked the Caesar quote but to me it just seems like something a writer thinks a smart person would say.  It fits, but it's obvious. To me it feels like a placeholder quote, something you put in until you can think of something better.

:14 - "I'm really not at liberty to discuss that with you, sir."  Nice moment, well played by both men, but the scene to that point needed to have a little more humor in it.  The moment is that these two men are acting as they always do, as a team, and then the reality of the new status quo, that Bartlett is no longer the acting President, comes between them, but because the previous moments have been so Dramatic it already feels that way, and so the line doesn't land quite right.

:15 - Again, sentiment right, execution lacking.  The Xerox paper line is nice, but the whole scene lacks subtlety.

:16 - Brynne pointed this one out.  The bit with Leo looking for things on his desk would be funny if we were in a medium-long shot.  As it is, with the awful quick cuts to rustling newspapers and Margaret's frantic assistance, it's more tense than it is humorous.

:17 - "Even Republicans think Haffley's a fascist."  Something a caricature of a liberal might say rather than something Josh, specifically, might say.

:17 - Ah, how comical that a large man such as Walken would have a small dog!  And how oafish of him to allow it to be in the Oval Office while business is being conducted!  The only remotely acceptable aspect of the whole business is Lily Tomlin's line reading of, "He has a dog."

:17 - "We close them, the terrorists win."  And here it is, the moment that any right-thinking individual who was previously invested in the show should have turned off their TV and done something else with their time, confident that they could stop watching the show with a clear conscience.

Toby Ziegler is one of the best writers in the world of the show (or at least of The West Wing; Executive Branch is another matter).  He is a brilliant and unique thinker and any writer who thought that he would let such a pedestrian, shop-worn construction as, "if we do <X> the terrorists win," should be dismissed as a hack and never given a writing job again.  It is a stunning underestimation of the character.  "You don't think that's what they want?", "You're playing into their hands?", "I think it's a terrible idea," all of these get the same point across and don't make Toby look like a schlemiel.

:18 - At least they make reference to the fact that Goodman is b-word fat.

1:14 in the Patton clip - "Paul get ready I'm about to dismout."  Patton Oswalt is so fucking funny I can't stand it.

:18 - It is very Will to be pedantic about the line of succession, but the Speaker of the House would know that already and it just makes Walken look stupid that he doesn't.

:19 - I understand that Balding Republican Assistant is someone we're not supposed to like, but Sorkin usually let those people still have points.  This guy is just mean and aggressive, and the MS line is too much; it should have been unsaid.

:19 - Also, C.J. says they convinced him to hold onto the story several days ago, but by my count it's only been a day.

:20 - Unsubtlety Watch - Do we need the close-up on the hand?  Really?  They'll be holding hands in the mid-shot in like two seconds, how dumb do you think we are?

:21 - If the previous Danny scene had had a lighter touch then C.J. going serious and saying, "post the story now," pays off what she owes him and heightens the stakes.

:21 - Hat tip, once again, to Brynne, who pointed out why this visual gag doesn't quite work.  Because the blinds are so centered in the frame, and because Josh is banging on the window instead of the door, we know that something is going to happen with the blinds and so the joke when Will peers through them is mostly lost.  The shot is Josh in front of the door knocking on it instead of the window, so that Will can peer through from the lower right side of the window, as it he was lying on the couch, feet towards the door, and is sitting up to look out.  Then we laugh.

:22 - Mostly okay scene, getting by on chemistry rather than material.  Also one joke about Will's hair was enough.

:23 - You've always been too close to Bartlett?  He's the chief-of-staff, what the hell do you expect?  Dumb, dumb, stupid writing.  John Spencer handles this scene very well, I have to say.  I love it when he's bitchy.

:24 - Brynne again; the lamp in this shot is just awful.

:25 - Walken's remarks here are sexual harassment and, again, just serve to make him look like a buffoon, rather than what he should look like, which is a viable alternative to Bartlett.  Also, the Speaker of the House wouldn't need C.J.'s assistance in preparing for a press conference.

:25  - Also also, while I'm harping on this moment, all that's needed here is, "The things that unite us are far greater than the things that divide us."  Walken doesn't need to push this point home, just emphasize that, as he says, he's not the enemy.  That makes him seem more above things than Josh, who's been freaking out about how Walken's leadership will affect them politically, and creates tension for the audience.  We want to root against him because we're Team Bartlett, but it's hard to do that if Walken is reasonable.  Unfortunately, the whole approach with Walken has been one step forward, two steps back.

:26 - I will give this episode this; Walken gives a better answer for me about why killing Sharif was necessary than the entirety of season three.

:27 - He looks too unhealthy, however, for Donna and Josh's tag team line about looking Presidential much credence.

:27-28 - This is unbelievably off-base plotting and scripting, and here's why.  Abbey acts as if the decision to assassinate Sharif would, as a matter of course, lead to retaliation against her family, when the same could implicitly be said about anything Bartlett did or does, including getting out of bed in the morning.  Her specific line of argument, where she acts like she was entitled to be involved in a national security decision, is utterly asinine.  Being upset in a general way makes sense, but for her to be pissed off at Bartlett here is just terrible, and she's too in love with Bartlett and who he is (and this includes his Catholicism and moral code) make her last line completely out of character.  She would know instantly what the decision to assassinate Sharif would cost a man like Bartlett and no matter how angry she was she would never excoriate him for it.  But husbands and wives fight sometimes!  Drama!

:29 - There is, however, a nice moment of subtlety when Elly brings her dad coffee, in light of the earlier episode focusing on their relationship (of course, as Brynne pointed out, she sets the mug way too far away from him).

:31 - I admit it's very Josh to antagonize Balding Republican Assistant, but it just seems off to me, plus it causes a blocking problem.

:31-32 - To wit: Ed says, "Hey, guys," while Josh is standing right next to him.  Josh then has to ignore him to go back to do the exchange about the cameras, making it look like he's both blind and deaf, because he has to walk by Donna to do so, and Donna has noticed what Larry is talking about.

:32 - In this clip, Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about writing South Park, and how if your storytelling beats are linked by, "and then," you should go back and rework them so that they're linked by, "but," or "therefore," or something along those lines.  In other words, things shouldn't just happen in a story, they should happen because of what preceded them.  The bombing in Turkey is obviously horrible but it feels like a disconnected, "and then," beat.  I know the Sharif assassination was just revealed, but the plot we care about is Zoe's kidnapping, and this is an extraneous complication to that question.  It doesn't need any more tension. We already care, and it just feels exhausting when they try and get us to care more.

:34-35 - Again, well-acted scene between these two, largely ruined because it's just the same in tone as everything else that's come before.

:36 - I realize we need to get Will in the doorway, but his question is idiotic.

:37 - Speaking of idiotic, Will would know why they need two speeches.

:37-40 - We had a disagreement about the suitability of the song; I was fine with it, she thought it was insensitive.  The scope of the Zoe memorial is nice, although I think it would have more dramatic impact if Donna hadn't mentioned it before.  Also, this is the kind of dramatic ending montage that we usually have on this show in dramatic episodes, but due to the ham-handedness of the previous forty minutes it feels largely unearned.

And there you have it, one bitchy takedown of an eight-year old episode of television long after it would have any importance or impact on any sort of conversation going on.  But here's the thing: this episode of Executive Branch is insultingly bad in comparison to what came before, and I do feel like it's part of a larger conversation to be had about the nature of serialized entertainment and the creators of it.  Think about this new season of The Office, which hasn't been terribly well-received.  Should they have called it quits when Steve Carrell left, and had, "Goodbye, Michael," be the end of the series?  Should it have ended when Greg Daniels left?  How much of a creative work created by multiple people, from a television show to a comic book to a video game franchise is wrapped up in a particular individual?  Are seasons five through seven of The West Wing still The West Wing, or should they have printed up Executive Branch labels for those three seasons?


  1. I agree on the loving the first 4 seasons of The West Wing thing. But I never cared for Joshua Malina or his character. And thinking about my love for seasons 1-4 has reminded me that John Spencer is no longer with us, and this makes me very sad. Martin Sheen will always be president in my heart. Let Bartlett Be Bartlett, Now and Evermore.

    Oh, and the reason I started this post was to tell you that there is a name for the patented Sorkin walk-and-talk. It's called a pedi-conference. Or somebody calls it that or called it that or something. Because I didn't make it up, I swear.

  2. It has been over a year and I still have not made it past this episode.