Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The West Wing: Through The Eyes Of A Romantic

The West Wing: Through The Eyes Of A Romantic

To everyone who thinks that television has to be dumbed down to have mass appeal, to all those who believe that government office work, in particular politics, will make boring entertainment and finally to all those factions who doubt that drama can be entertaining without action, sensationalism, or sex, you all are proven wrong. For the rest of us, the days of despair are over. There is hope. There exists The West Wing.

The West Wing is an American political drama television series, created by Aaron Sorkin. West Wing is the section of White House which houses the American President, his advisors and senior staff. The West Wing (TWW) ran for seven seasons between 1999 and 2007 and covered the two term presidency of a fictitious Democratic president – Jossiah Bartelet. Noted for its accuracy in depiction of lives and workings of people who work there, The West Wing features amongst the top five TV dramas of all time. It holds an IMDB rating of 8.6 at the time of this writing, and has won twenty six Emmy awards and two Peabody awards for its excellence in broadcasting.


I had a rebel streak while growing up. I saw myself as a young Howard Roark who would not submit to society, a Robin Hood who did good just to satiate my personal self. I saw myself as this crusader of goodwill, the one who would clean government of its ills, the one who would join politics and make it work, for good. After Tehelka introduced the phrase “sting operation” to my vocabulary, i invented scenarios in which i would bare corrupt politicians, expose bad cops and would clean this entire 'system'. As we mature, that rebel streak gives way to cynicism but along the way, it sows seeds of escapism. We are all born idealists. We all live as escapists. Political escapism is something that we all have dreamt of. “Things would have been so different if only...”, followed by a sigh and then a silent resignation, this is the reality of our politics. Sadly, it is same, be it India or USA. Yet, all said and done, it is eventually an escapism.

Sorkin roots his brilliant idea in this escapism and applies it to the cream of American politics – The President and his close staff who are responsible for shaping up policy and public debate. In Jossiah Bartelet, we have a fictitious democratic president who is an academic economic professor, a nerd with encyclopedic knowledge, a nobel laureate, a conservative liberal who believes in church yet believes in separation of state and religion, a man not afraid of making unpopular calls because that is what is is right, a family man whose integrity and commitment to his nation and its people is beyond question. If it was an Indian mythology, he would be the equivalent of Lord Krishna in Dwapar Yuga. His staff consists of people who dare to walk the talk, work night and days and have little life outside, are not hesitant to reform archaic laws, tame lobbyists, control opposition and at the same time maintaing support from their own party. We are talking about a bunch of idealists who believe in the greater good. These people are immensely talented, understand each other, and have been given the charge to run a nation. One can not ask for more idealized escapism than this.

Practice v Idealism

Each episode of TWW gives an in-depth look at the process behind how policy framing works. We witness what the White House spokesman says to media and what is the reality behind. How members of each party try to stall the opposition and the means in which they go about it. Through various legislative and executive loopholes, it shows how processes are reinterpreted to suit the need. For many, including me, it occasionally acts as lessons in civics as it has to inform first, dramatize later. But rarely, it is comes off as didactic. Sorkin sprinkles dry humor and wit as dressing to make it palatable. Frequently, he has been accused to trivialize complex issues such as social security, or health care, but television can be educational only to an extent. Yet, even with all the theoretical politics thrown in, once all the layers are undone, it is fundamentally a play between idealism and practicality.

Politics is a dirty game played by dirty people”, my uncle told me as he dipped his Marie biscuit in his hot cup of morning tea. I wanted to argue but knowing the eventual futility, i kept quiet. The Nehruvian idealism was a lost cause for him. Every nation, in its evolution, goes through these phases of idealism and immediate reality. My shining eyes brimming with hope were no match to his years of resignation. Not surprisingly, he had also not heard or seen TWW. TWW concedes that it is a dirty game but adds a twist that when good people play the game, it does not has to be dirty. It can be played smartly.

The tussle between these two poles is layered both systemically and individually. All characters in TWW can be plotted on a linear scale where one end is the ideal ideological beliefs wherein principles can not be compromised at any cost, while the other one is the impending reality to get things done - to survive a day more, another day to ignore and forget. Sorkin paints most of its cast as white, each lying closer to the ideological end. But the one character who impresses most is Toby Zielger, the Director of Communications in this democratic administration. Played brilliantly by Richard Schiff, Toby stands for ideals amidst a messiness of shortcuts and hacks. Schiff's nuanced and textured performance provides a countenance to this pain of an idealist who has to step aside every time he understands that the world does exactly works as he wants to. One has to pick battles, one has to understand when to keep quiet and when not to take it sitting down. This sublime art of balancing two extremes is extremely difficult in real life but to do justice to such an emption in acting is an extraordinaire effort . Toby's performance is a celebration of agony of an idealist wherein each victory is a triumph of conviction and each loss is a lesson towards perfection.

The Dream Job

Imagine the opportunity to serve your country, the potential to draft policy and change future, to work with colleagues who understand your thoughts before they are to be said, to work with your best friends, to have a belief in oneself to deliver and to deliver what is most important. To work with people who are equally passionate as you are and to be surrounded by really smart individuals who equally care, enjoy and respect their work is something that many of us search throughout our lives. To be able to do what you really want is a gift.

Sorkin brings this work ethic front and close and does not pickle it with undue sentiment or unnecessary sex. Romantic flings, trash talks exist but are minimal and mostly kept in the background. It is Sorkin's magical genius to create such powerful characters and to make us believe in them. At the end of each episode, there is a wish on everyone's lips to be a part of this on-screen team and do the kind of the work that they do; everyone wants to enter politics.

Furthermore, Sorkin layers each episode with long, meaningful and quite pedantic dialogues and expects his actors to do justice to them. He has a keen eye to remind us the cost of idealism as well. Leo Spencer, the Chief of Staff in this administration lives alone as his wife left him because he did not have enough time for her. Other characters are also mostly single, either unmarried or divorced, but rarely in relationships as there is no time outside work. But their love and togetherness for each other is warmer than any family could be be. In one episode, here is Leo talking to his colleague -

This guy's walking down a street, when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up "Hey you! Can you help me out?" The doctor writes him a prescription, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here!" and the friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out."

A rich production quality, crisp editing, solid performance and exceptional script, yet, TWW is not an easy watch. It takes time to get used to its style. It is a demanding TV series. It expects viewers to rise up and take notice, audience participation is mandatory as it dissects one issue after another. It refuses to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That it has a mass appeal is indeed a surprising end result, even for its die hard fans. It reaffirms our faith in humanity. People want to be treated with respect and the shows that treat people with respect get it back as well.

Dr. Eric Rabkin, a professor in Literature department at University of Michigan describes fantasy as “ the diametric, diachronic reversal of the ground rules of the narrative world”. Considering the present level of politics, Sorkin's The West Wing is fantasy of orgasmic proportions. It comes very close to political porn for nerds and idealists. The first time I saw TWW, i watched it back to back, in its entirety, all seven seasons. Since then, i have seen it three more times now. The itch to watch it another time is getting stronger. As they say, once a romantic, always a romantic. 

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