Monday, March 4, 2013

TV Series Review: The West Wing

The West Wing
Created by Aaron Sorkin

To everyone who thinks that television has to be dumbed down in order to appeal to masses; to all those who believe that government office work will make  boring entertainment and finally to all those factions who doubt that drama can be entertaining without action or emotion or sex, please see The West Wing.  TWW proves that the roots of  good drama lie in good writing and solid performance.

The West Wing falls under the genre of political drama. It highlights how the US president's office performs its duties on a day to day basis. Set under a fictional democratic administration of President Bartlett, played brilliantly by Martin Sheen, the show starts one year into his office and covers his next seven years in seven seasons.   Created and written by Aaron Sorkin,  the series has been credited to portray quite accurately the inner workings of the White House.

The Dream Job
Working in the White House is like the dream job; an opportunity to work and serve your country.  Characters in TWW are often involved in more than one event at the same time, they get a sleep time of no more than 5 hrs, weekends are working and they enjoy, care and respect what they do.  The opportunity to serve your country, the potential to affect policy that would benefit millions, working with colleagues who understand you and are your best friends, a belief in yourself that what you do matters, and the power to build a future as you want it to be, this is everybody's dream job. Ours is a time when most people do not like their jobs, today the ultimate fantasy of any individual is to find the one, his true calling,  dedicate his life to fulfill this purpose of his life. The feeling that his existence has not been in vain.
Among the many accolades that i want to express for Aaron Sorkin, if i have to choose the one that resonates the most it is his ability to create such ordinary yet powerful characters who feel proud of what they do and making us believe in them. At the same time, Sorkin reminds us that all of this comes at a cost. In an episode, Leo (John Spencer),  Chief of Staff to the President, after forgetting his marriage anniversary because of a last minute meeting, tries to convince his wife to not leave him. His wife asks him - "... what you do, is it more important than your marriage?" To this he replies that it is and his time at White house is more important than anything that he has done or will ever do. She leaves him the next day.

The Dream-pragmatic administration
Imagine how an ideal democratic government would look like? A corruption free group of really smart individuals who are truly concerned for the welfare of people. People who know that policy making is an art as much as it is a science.  A government that is more about the future as it is for the present. TWW delivers this ideal structure. TWW juxtaposes it with  republicans who come off with their alternate ideologies, with congress who has its own pace of working, with media which acts as a watch-dog but at the same time is also hungry for daily trivialities such as the shoes of the first lady at a state dinner.

 In the last season, an entire episode is dedicated that focuses on presidential debate between the democratic and the republican candidate, a great performance by Alan Alda. The debate as it unfolds is an ideal debate that citizens want from their candidates, a discussion on policy and ability to question where there are differences in an open format. As a subtext, the episode completely ridicules the current debate format where questions are pre-determined and even the answer/rebuttal time is pre-ordained.

Toby Ziegler
Although each TWW character is likable, the one that impresses me the most is that of Toby Ziegler, the Director of Communications. Toby stands for the pure, the ideal in the messy game of politics. Where compromises is the key to keep all factions happy, where every step gained comes at a sacrifice of equal cost, Toby comes off as the countenance of an idealist with his pain, an image of the right thing to do but also with a realization that the world does not work as he wants. Richard Schiff plays Toby Ziegler in a controlled and mature manner. It is a performance that requires multiple viewings to understand its full depth. He is also Jewish and Sorkin adds more flavor to him by providing him with a satirical tongue. 
Toby is also one of the few people who can stand up to the President and argue with him on policy.

Josiah Bartlett
What do you mean when you say this person is or is not "presidential"? What are the qualities that makes one presidential?   Yes, it involves an ability to deliver speeches with impact and grace, it involves the ability to listen to others, to work collectively with everyone, to enforce yourself at the right time and countless more. Martin Sheen as Josiah Bartlett brilliantly portrays all of them and among all presidents ever portrayed in big screen, he surely is the most "presidential". To add to that, Josiah Bartlett is also a Nobel prize winning economics professor, a geek, a nerd, and is an aficionado of facts, history and chess who never fails to enlighten others with his knowledge.  With all these qualities, you want Josiah Bartlett to be your president, you want him to lead.