I love ‘The West Wing’. It’s on the short list of the best things that bastion of mind-numberry TV has ever produced (in case you’re wondering, some other inhabitants of that list: “The Wire”, “Freaks and Geeks”, “Firefly”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Slings and Arrows”, “Sports Night”, a few others). It was that good (at least until NBC decided to fire creator Aaron Sorkin and the show quickly turned into the glib, shallow, thinly-veiled liberal polemic idiot critics shrieked that is was for its first four brilliant years.) A heartfelt-yet-hardnosed show about the committed, smart, funny, conflicted and, yeah, liberal members of the fictional Bartlett administration as they tackled problems, both huge and tiny, with art and grace.
That being said, I have some issues (especially with the first season, when Sorkin seemed to be finding his legs).
1. Mandy. Look at this picture.
Now, this is not necessarily about Moira Kelly. I mean, it is, but… Mandy was a media consultant brought in by the Bartlett people to pry the President’s foot out of his mouth (he’d just offended some pro golfers with a joke). She’s also Josh’s ex-girlfriend, meaning that, in addition to supplying the “sassy, smart-mouthed outsider contrarian” voice on the show, she was also to provide some Hepburn and Tracy back-and-forth with Josh Lyman. Two problems with that plan.
One- her role seemed to be intended as a sop to more conservative viewers (read: jerks and TV critics), offering counter-arguments to the series’ characters invariable liberal (read: humane, progressive, and correct) ones. The problem was, the show didn’t need that; sure “The West Wing” was liberal, but it was thoughtful, and responsible in being so. The show’s perspective was it’s own, but it wasn’t blinkered or didactic; Sorkin respected that the issues faced by the Bartlett administration were maddeningly complicated, and that leading wasn’t easy. Less liberal voices were always part of the discussion- they didn’t need a dedicated mouthpiece as their locus. And especially not Mandy’s. Sorkin never got a handle on the character (or, perhaps, he quickly realized she wasn’t necessary), and Kelly’s strident delivery certainly didn’t help matters. She, almost immediately, became the mistress of the paper tiger argument, the cynical, media-driven PR point of view which was invariably shut down by a more elegant (and better-delivered) response (in later seasons, Ainsley Hayes was brought in to perform a similar function and, although Emily Procter was a much better actress and was better written, it didn’t work then either.) By the end of the first season, Mandy was reduced to trying to get two new pandas for the Washington Zoo. She did not appear after that, and she was never spoken of again. Seriously.
Second. The Hepburn-Tracy vibe did not materialize, and when the Josh-and-Mandy show popped up, it was sitcommy and slack. A dead spot up there on the screen. Josh wasn’t the problem (Bradley Whitford is my dark horse pick for the best actor on the show), as his later, similar-yet-completely-different relationships with the likes of Joey Lucas and Amy Gardner revealed. Kelly’s dressing up in big girl clothes, and nobody’s fooled. Good riddance.
2. In the premiere episode, fundamentalist jackass John Van Dyke gets into it with Toby over Josh’s snarky insult to hideous, bigoted co-fundamentalist Mary Marsh on TV and Van Dyke, sputteringly trying to nail his point home misidentifies the first commandment!?!? It’s all so Bartlett can make a great first entrance and shut the blowhard down, but the man’s a fundamentalist preacher! All he does is pore over the bible trying to find new ways to condemn kids to hell for watching cartoons and he’s gonna get the first commandment wrong? A monumental artistic miscalculation from Sorkin that totally takes me out of the moment.
3. Charlie couldn’t take the body man job. He’s a twenty year old single man taking care of his minor teenage sister as her sole guardian and source of support, and he’s going to take on a “20 hour-a-day job”? The lovely Mrs. Elsa S. Customer pointed this one out and also pointed out that one sentence about social services assistance could have removed it from the list.
4. Mallory. Leo’s daughter (former ‘Kate & Allie’ child star Allison Smith) was intended to bring that similar Tracy/Hepburn thing, this time with Sam, and it never, ever worked. Smith’s banter was too calculatedly-overwritten, and her performance too glib, and she and Rob Lowe’s Sam never generated any heat. Mallory, too, faded away…
5. Also in the first episode, Sam, having just discovered that the lovely lady he’d bedded the night before, was, oops, a call girl. So, when roped into giving a tour to some schoolkids and taken to task by their teacher over his complete lack of knowledge of the history of the White House, he takes her aside and rattles off a litany of his problems, concluding with the fact that he accidentally slept with a prostitute last night! Umm, Sam? Total stranger. Huge PR and possible legal issue. It’s not a thing Sam would do, and just a contrived way for Sam to be awkwardly introduced to his intended love interest….Mallory!
6. Jumping to the second season episode ‘In this White House’ (perhaps most famous for President Bartlett’s Biblical smackdown on the episode’s Laura Schlessinger manque), introduces blonde, leggy Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes who, after whooping Sam on a TV talk show, gets offered a job at the
White House by the Prez’. As previously mentioned, Ainsley was a significantly more palatable version of Mandy- the more cynical (or, in this case, conservative) outsider whose role it is to voice opposition to the administration’s (and the show’s) relentless liberalism, humanism, and general rightness about everything. Dramatically, it makes sense, and Sorkin makes good use of the type to provoke debate (and juicy conflict), and Emily Procter’s take on her character is lively, adorable, and has some intellectual integrity (as much as a conservative can have, anyway). Problem is, in this episode, her journey from Anne Coulter wannabe to reluctant White House recruit to Bartlett fan (and White House junior counsel) is played for its deus ex machina plot device-ness to a plausibility-straining degree. In her brief sojourn in the West Wing, she wanders, largely unattended, into situations she just wouldn’t have access to in order to advance the plot. First, she’s in the press room, chatting with a junior reporter who inadvertently reveals that C.J. may have compromised herself (along with a top secret investigation). Then she meets up with C.J. (in C.J.’s office) and advises her legally. Then she’s peeping into the Oval-freaking-Office (!) when she overhears the clearly massively secret conversation between the Prez and an African leader (the absolutely heartbreaking Zakes Mokae)?! I like Ainsley’s character, for the most part, but this introduction is pretty sloppily written.
More to come…
(And support your local video store. Like, say, Videoport (207)773-1999. 151 Middle St. Portland, Maine 04102. Still alive and kickin’ (arse) after a quarter of a century! )