Monday, August 19, 2002

Watty's been watching television:

There's an element of cultural snobbery at work here, I'm sure of it - I review books quite regularly, and films occasionally, but hardly ever television. This is partly because I no longer watch very much television, but it doesn't, somehow, feel as valid as reviewing a novel (which I'm aware I haven't done for some time now...). Well, all that notwithstanding, I watched the final three episodes of Season 2 of ' The West Wing' over the weekend, and I'm moved to comment:

Let's get the awkward stuff out of the weay first, shall we? 'The West Wing' is concerned with protecting the quasi-mythical status of the office of US President. It does this in all the insufferably arrogant ways you might imagine - it can actually be discomfiting watching this programme as a non-US citizen; do they really think it's all so damned important? But yes, they do, and it's the universe in which the programme is set, so we'd all better get used to it.

In truth, of course, the writing and acting overcome all these objections with room to spare, and the net result is intelligent television with impeccable credentials, and when it works, it really, really works...

So there's a season finale to work up to, and there's a major plot development to set up, and there are about a dozen storylines to take care of, including the sudden, shocking death of one of the regular cast; there's emotional crisis; there's a pretty fundamental issue going to the heart of the Presidency - what is almost certainly going to be judged as a cover-up on a massive scale - and there's been some kind of military coup in Haiti. Oh, and there are things falling out of the sky, and a tropical storm, and a funeral, and a crisis of faith, and an emotionally resonant flashback, and... You get the idea. All this in 3 hours (less ad breaks) of television. Did it work? Oh, yes. Was it mawkish, as such things tend to be? Not at all - President Bartlet's crisis of faith in the aisle of National Cathedral was as powerful and affecting piece of work as you could ever expect to see on the 'serious' stage, never mind prime time television. Was it confusing? Not even slightly - it's so tightly plotted, and so well written that nothing is missed, and the rhythm of the thing is the dominant force throughout. Could it have been improved? No. Not by one word, gesture or rainstorm. There was a ghost at the end - or that televisual device which stands for ghosts - and although we were looking at it, we knew it was internal dialogue. But the cutaway to the empty chair still made me gasp. And the last five minutes was played out underneath Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms, and it actually bloody worked.

Two illustrative moments - why this is great television. One from an earlier episode: the President has gone to see his Counsel. There has been an elaborate setup with a rogue recording device in the counsel's office which won't stop recording, and the appropriate joke has been made: "Yeah, like that's never been a problem before". We are past the light relief moment, and prepared for the serious stuff - there's going to be some crackerjack dramatic moment into the opening credits. The President makes his confession - "I need you to tell me if I have perpetrated a fraud and a conspiracy to decieve" or some such. There is a heartbeat - the moment for the music to start and the credits to roll. Nothing. Then the counsel picks up his ceremonial gavel, and pounds his tape recorder into a million pieces. Then the credits roll. I cannot remember a more effective use of humour as a subverter of expectations - I still laugh out loud about it now, whenever I think about it.
The other piece of genius is a living metaphor. Like all real-life presidencies, this one has opinion polls as its lifeblood - everything takes place in a vacuum until it can be verified with the public. The favoured, most trusted, pollster is deaf. In a world where the spoken word is everything, the presidential staff have to find other ways to communicate with their one link to the outside world. A more perfect metaphor for the relationship between a president and his people I cannot imagine.

No comments: