It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue. Read more
Have recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s 2004 book on pop culture: Everything Bad is Good For You. A fascinating read – and certainly helps to explain the prevailing resurgence in TV programming (and makes me feel a bit better about my West Wing (et al) obsessions – after all it’s always good to understand one’s own hang ups a little better). Like a lot of such books, its case could probably have been presented in half the space. But there you go.
The main thesis is that pop culture (in particular movies, tv series, computer games, internet etc), far from the bain of all bookworms and luddites is actually beneficial. It stimulates the mind in unexpected but constructive ways and even prepares people for the complexities of modern life! Well how about that! Here are a few quotes:
The impact of computer games
To non-players, games bear a superficial resemblance to music videos: flashy graphics; the layered mix of image, music, and text; the occasional burst of speed, particularly during the pre-rendered opening sequences. But what you actually do in playing a game – the way your mind has to work – is radically different. It’s not about tolerating or aestheticizing chaos; it’s about finding order and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that order. (p62)
Then check this out:
The game scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the ‘probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink’ cycle:
1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment, clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.
Put another way: when gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method. (p44-45)
On what ACTUALLY happens if you are addicted to computer games:
Another recent study looked at three distinct groups of white-collar professionals: hard-core gamers, occasional gamers, and non-gamers. The results contradict nearly all the received ideas about the impact of games: the gaming population turned out to be consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively. They also showed no evidence of reduced attention spans compared with non-gamers.
The impact of TV
On the complexities and in-jokes of modern series like The Simpsons:
According to one fan site that has exhaustively chronicled these matters, the average Simpsons episode includes around eight gags that explicitly refer to movies: a plotline, a snipped of dialogue, a visual pun on a famous cinematic sequences (Seinfeld featured a number of episodes that mirrored movie plots, including Midnight Cowboy and JFK). The Halloween episodes have historically been the most baroque in their cinematic allusions, with the all-time champ being an episode from the 1995 season, integrating material from Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Godzilla, Ghostbusters, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Pagemaster, Maximum Overdrive, The Terminator and Terminator 2, Alien III, Tron, Beyond the Mind’s Eye, The Black Hole, Poltergeist, Howard the Duck, and The Shining.
The film parodies and cultural sampling of The Simpsons usually get filed away as textbook postmodernism: media riffing on other media… But I think it’s more instructive to see both these devices as sharing a key attribute: they are comic devices that reward further scrutiny. The show gets funnier the more you study it – precisely because the jokes point outside the immediate context of the episode, and because the creators refuse to supply flashing arrows to translate the gags for the uninitiated. (86)
On why the famed TV debate between Nixon & Kennedy might not have been set such a bad precedent after all:
So what we’re getting out of the much-maligned Oprahization of politics is not boxers-or-briefs personal trivia – it’s crucial information about the emotional IQ of a potential president, information we had no access to until television came along and gave us that tight focus…
That’s not to imply that all political debate should be reduced to talk-show banter; there’s still plenty of room for position papers and formal speeches. But we shouldn’t underestimate the information conveyed by the close-ups of the unscripted television appearance. That first Nixon-Kennedy debate has long been cited as the founding moment of the triumph of image over substance – among all those TV viewers who thought Nixon’s sweating and five-o’clock shadow made him look shifty and untrustworthy in the end. Perhaps all those voters who thought he had won after they heard the debate on the radio or read the transcript in the papers simply didn’t have access to the range of emotional information conveyed by television. Nixon lost on TV because he didn’t look like someone you would want as president, and where emotional IQ is concerned, looks don’t always deceive. (102-103)
In the 70s the mandate of TV producers was to provide Least Objectionable Programming (LOP – in order to maximise ratings) – mainly because you would only see a programme once and not again. But with the advent of DVDs and the web, the chance to rewatch programmes has multiplied. Now the aim is to produce Most Repeatable Programming (MPR) Neil Postman was reacting rightly to the shallow and pathetic of 70s TV. But things are different. Programmes like The West Wing, Lost, 24, The Sopranos, The Wire, are light years away from 70s stuff – which is why they are so addictive, and more significantly, rewatchable:
The MRP model cultivates nuance and depth; it welcomes ‘tricks’ like backward episodes and dense allusions to Hollywood movies. Writing only a few years after Klein’s [LOP] speech, Neil Postman announced that two of television’s golden rules were: ‘Though shalt have no prerequisites’ (meaning that no previous knowledge should be required for viewers to understand a program) and ‘Thou shalt induce no perplexity.’ Postman had it right at the time, if you ignored the developing narrative techniques of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. But twenty years later, many of the most popular shows in television regularly flaunt those principles. (162)
The impact of the Internet
Steve Jobs on why the Internet is better than TV
Almost all forms of online activity sustained are participatory in nature: writing e-mails, sending IMs, creating photo logs, posting two-page analyses of last night’s Apprentice episode. Steve Jobs likes to describe the difference between television and the Web as the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. The networked computer makes you lean in, focus, engage, while television encourages you to zone out. (Though not as much as it used to, of course.) This is the familiar interactivity-is-good-for-you argument, and it’s proof that the conventional wisdom is every now and then, actually wise. (118)
On how the internet actually reverses a decades-long cultural trend:
Television and automobile society locked people up in their living rooms, away from the clash and vitality of public space, but the Net has reversed that long-term trend. After a half-century of technological isolation, we’re finally learning new ways to connect. (124)
Perhaps, the book overstates its case a bit. But it was definitely stimulating and thought-provoking. Which is all one really wants in a book. Especially if it is going to keep me away from watching the West Wing extras disk in my TWW boxed set.
On receiving his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire, back in 1982, he famously cried ‘The British Are Coming!’ Well, the British film industry hasn’t exactly taken over the movie-making world, so it sounds rather like hubris in retrospect; although British presence at this year’s Golden Globes (and therefore presumably the Oscars too) was not to be sniffed at.
But the funny thing is, his prediction has come true rather in some ways – not on the big screen but on the small screen. I’ve not seen anyone spot this yet, or at least draw the link. But i guess some have. But many have recognized the fact that we seem to have been enjoying bit of a golden age as far as American TV series are concerned. There’s the obvious: West Wing of course, then 24, Alias, Heroes, Lost etc etc. But it suddenly struck me that 3 actors have taken US TV by storm – by playing Americans, utterly convincingly in House, The Wire & Band of Brothers.
But here they are: Hugh Laurie playing House, Dominic West playing McNulty in The Wire (which is being hailed as the greatest and grittiest TV drama ever) and Damian Lewis in Spielberg’s Band of Brothers (and now starring in his own cop show, LIFE).
But you know what – besides all 3 being remarkably good British actors, who all pull off being authentically American (such that American friends simply can’t believe they’re not home-grown), they all have something else in common. They all went to Eton. Well fancy that.
In the mists of my memory, the 3rd series wasn’t nearly as good as the 2nd. But having seen it through again now, I think it is still pretty much up there. The humour, drama and intrigue are all sustained throughout, although there were perhaps not as many individual standout episodes. Here are some of my favourite individual moments:
- Josh revealing that he wanted to be a ballerina (aged 4) – in 3:3 Ways & Means
- Toby’s speech to his staff after someone had leaked to the press – instead of a rocket, he inspires about what leadership and teamwork are all about – in 3:5 War Crimes
- Jed deciding that he can recover from his censure by announcing a cure for cancer by the end of the decade – in 3:11 100,000 Airplanes
- The chess games Jed plays with Toby & Sam, illustrating the complexities of international diplomacy (especially when China is concerned) – in 3:14 Hartsfield’s Landing
- Donna discovering that she might actually be Canadian and therefore can’t go to Abby’s birthday party; in the same episode, Marbury makes a stab at explaining Northern Ireland – in 3:15 Dead Irish Writers.
- CJ having a go with Simon Donovan’s gun in the training centre, and Donna having to listen to arguments for North Dakota dropping the ‘North’ – in 3:20 We Killed Yamamoto
But the episodes that are worth noting are:
- 3:9 – Bartlet for America – the episode where the heat gets turned up Leo on the Hill over Jed’s MS and he finds himself under attack for his alcoholism. He weathers the storm in true Leo-style, but what sets this episode apart are the various flashbacks he has. We see Jed as New Hampshire Governor, dealing with the most banal and parochial issues – it makes one wonder why anyone would want to get local politics at all. But Leo has the way out for him. And then the conclusion of the episode is enough to make grown-men weep (well it made Leo blubber, anyway).
BARTLET: What do you want to talk to me about?
LEO: I’ve been thinking about getting back into politics.
BARTLET: I think that’s great, man. I think it’s about time. You probably mean the House, but I think you should consider the Senate seat in Illinois in two years; I can help raise money.
LEO: No, I wasn’t thinking about the Senate. I was thinking about the White House.
BARTLET: Hey, Leo, I swear to God there’s no one I’d rather see in the Oval Office than you but if you run there’s going to be a lot of discussion about Valium and Alcohol. I mean, it’s going to come out; this is the world.
LEO: Yeah. See, I wasn’t thinking about me.
LEO: I’ve been walking around in a kind of daze for two weeks and everywhere I go…planes, trains, restaurants, meetings…I find myself scribbling something down.
Leo takes a napkin out of his pocket, licks it, and sticks it on the posterboard easel. It reads “Bartlet for America.”
A very revealing comment about alcoholics who relapse when Leo is asked why he kept it quite…
LEO: I went to rehab. My friends embraced me when I got out. You relapse, it’s not like that. “Get away from me” – that’s what it’s like.
BARTLET: Did you get a date with her?
LEO: It’s none of your business… [walks around behind his desk] I just came back to catch up on some work. [joking] See how badly you screwed up this church thing in Tennessee.
BARTLET: I did the church thing in Tennessee okay. I did it without you.
LEO: You mind if I make some calls – see if Tennessee’s still one of the states and stuff?
Bartlet smiles, stands, and picks up a small package with a big red bow from the table beside him.
BARTLET: So anyway, I have a present for you.
Bartlet walks over to Leo’s desk. Leo is surprised and acts like Bartlet really didn’t have to get him anything – although he’s clearly pleased Bartlet hands him the gift.
BARTLET: Merry Christmas, Leo.
Leo removes the bow, revealing a small square black frame holding the “BARTLET FOR AMERICA” napkin from their first meeting in New Hampshire. It’s wrinkled but it’s still legible. Leo stares at it for several moments, then slowly looks up at Bartlet. Clearly, he’s very moved.
BARTLET: That was awfully nice of you.
Leo looks down at the frame again and starts to lose control over his emotions. Bartlet senses this and leaves, walking through the passage to the Oval Office. Once Bartlet is gone, Leo shifts back and forth on his feet and holds the frame to his chest. When he can’t stay standing any longer, he sits down heavily in his chair. And then he allows himself a good cry.
- 3:12 – The Two Bartlets – West Wing works best when it interweaves seemingly unrelated narratives and this episode is a case in point. Josh has to deal with an old friend who is an environmental protester, Sam is on the case of alien bodies being stored in Fort Knox, Donna has trouble with jury duty and Josh promises Amy a trip to Tahiti, all while Jed is kicking off the last campaign of his career. In the midst of it all, there is actually a sensible discussion about affirmative action – thus West Wing again avoids simplistic liberal bias. And then there is that extraordinarily real conversation between Toby and the President.
C. J.: I’m the wrong Democrat to talk to about [affirmative action].
C. J.: Because… After my father fought in Korea, he became what this government begs every college graduate to become. He became a teacher And he raised a family on a teacher’s salary, and he paid his taxes and always crossed at the green. And any time there was opportunity fo career advancement, it took him an extra five years because invariably there was a less qualified black woman in the picture. So instead of retiring as superintendent of the Ohio Valley Union Free School District, he retired head of the math department at William Henry Harrison Junior High.
Toby: Your father used to hit you, didn’t he, Mr. President?
Bartlet: Excuse me?
Toby: Your father used to hit you, sir?
Toby: Not like a spanking.
Bartlet: He hit me. Why?
Toby: He punched you.
Bartlet: I’m done being polite now.
Toby: He did it because you made him mad, but you didn’t know why.
Bartlet: Toby, it was a complicated relationship. Can I help you?
Toby: It was because you were smarter than he was.
Bartlet: It was a complicated relationship.
Toby: He didn’t like you, sir. That’s why he hit you. That’s why people hit each other. He didn’t like you. You were smarter than he was.
Bartlet: Why are we talking about this?
Toby: So maybe if you get enough votes, win one more election, you know? Maybe your father…
Bartlet: You have stepped way over the line! Any other president would have your ass on the sidewalk right now.
Toby: Yes sir.
Bartlet: They’d have had your ass on the sidewalk a long time ago. I don’t know what the hell goes on in a Brooklyn shrink’s office, but get it the hell out of my house!
- 3:21 – Posse Commitatus – the series climax, which inevitably ends in disaster, but of a much more personal kind than previously. Finding a new secretary for the President has its moments, while Jed has to work out what to do about the Qumari defence minister which gives him sleepless nights, and the political supersedes the personal for Josh and Amy while Jed and the crew go to watch our beloved RSC perform the bard’s history plays. It’s great that to see Lily Tomlin join the show, while Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ seems almost written for the moment.
CHARLIE: Mr. President, this is Deborah Fiderer. I’ll be right outside. [exits]
MS. FIDERER: Fideler. Fiderer. It’s Fiderer.
BARTLET: [while signing papers] I saw your resume, so we don’t need to talk about that. What have you been doing recently?
MS. FIDERER: I’m an alpaca farmer.
BARTLET: Like the sweaters?
MS. FIDERER: Before they’re sweaters.
BARTLET: Uh-huh. And before that?
MS. FIDERER: [rolls her eyes] Craps and blackjack.
BARTLET: You’re a professional gambler.
MS. FIDERER: I like the way that sounds.
MS. FIDERER: Bally’s… mostly.
BARTLET: Okay. Why did you leave the White House?
MS. FIDERER: Well, Mr. President, if you want to talk about getting screwed with your pants on…
She drops her bottled water, bends down and picks it up.
MS. FIDERER: I guess I… I got pretty-pretty well-doinked.
CHARLIE: [walks in] Yes, sir.
BARTLET: Can I have a minute?
CHARLIE: Yes, sir.
BARTLET: [to Ms. Fiderer] Would you mind waiting outside just a moment?
MS. FIDERER: [as she walks out] No, not at all.
BARTLET: [to Charlie] Is this a joke? If it’s a joke, it’s both funny and well-executed, but I think you and I both know that it’s not. I send you out to replace Delores Landingham, and that’s what you came home with?
CHARLIE: Was she…?
BARTLET: She was an alpaca farmer who needed two tries to get her own name.
CHARLIE: Well, sir, maybe…
BARTLET: Don’t worry about it. I’m gonna get the Personnel Office on it. I got to go change for New York.
Bartlet (to presidential rival, Ritchie): In the future, if you’re wondering, “Crime. Boy, I just don’t know.” is when I decided to kick your ass.
So now to Season 2 and still a long way off from the Santos/Obama prophecies. TWW had definitely got in its stride in this season – it was gritty and punchy, and still gripping. I think it is actually even better than the 1st Season.
The hand of Sorkin could be felt throughout, even in the episodes for which he didn’t take the final writing credits. We knew the main characters well by now, but there was still much to learn – and the series ventured into more backstories than the first season (eg how the staff was recruited onto the original campaign, Toby’s marriage to Andi, Bartlet’s relationship with his father and with Mrs Landingham etc). It was very hard to choose which to include, with some great set pieces. For example:
- CJ falling into the swimming pool when Toby comes to LA to recruit her
- Josh’s counselling for his post-traumatic stress.
- The the deliberations about who would sit where at the Leadership breakfast only to realise they’d left the President out
- Ainsley Hayes’ first (disastrous) meetings with Bartlet
- the epic Senate filibuster by Stackhouse etc.
But here are my stand-outs:
- 2.1 & 2.2 – IN THE SHADOW OF THESE GUNMEN (pt 1 and pt 2) – you really need to take these 2 together. Fascinating to see how the team came together – especially because Bartlet doesn’t come across as particularly attractive character to begin with. This also sows the seeds for big questions that will come towards the end of the series, namely who is in power when Bartlet is unconscious.
Josh: The Democrats aren’t gonna nominate another liberal, academic, former governor from New England. I mean, we’re dumb, but we’re not that dumb.
Leo: Nah, I think we’re exactly that dumb.
Margaret: I can sign the President’s name. I have his signature down pretty good.
Leo: You can sign the President’s name?
Leo: On a document removing him from power and handing it to someone else?!?
Margaret: Yeah. Or do you think the White House Counsel would say that’s a bad idea?
Leo: I think the White House Counsel would say that’s a coup d’état!
Margaret: I’d probably end up doing some time for that.
Leo: I would think!
(Margaret retreats to her office as C.J. enters)
Leo: And what the hell are you doing practicing the President’s signature?
Margaret: It’s just for fun.
Leo(*to C.J.): We’ve got separation of powers, checks and balances, and Margaret vetoing things and sending them back to the Hill!
- 2:4 – IN THIS WHITE HOUSE – the one about AIDS in Africa. I’ve mentioned this episode in a previous post. It is one of the best of the best – it avoids both an easy slam of pharmaceutical companies (even though they of course have much to answer for, they are not entirely dens of iniquity), and rosy-tinted or naïve solutions for Africa. Pres Nimbala of the fictional Equatorial Kuhndu is played by the wonderful Zakes Mokae (right), with real dignity, agony and integrity. The impact of this episode has not diminished since the first time i watched it – and having known friends die of AIDS in E Africa, and seen the tragic cycles of violence and corruption that compound the problems, it is painfully close to the bone. The conclusion of the episode breaks your heart – but is all too realistic. But as ever, the intensity and seriousness is given Shakespearean counterpoint, with the whole sequence of Ainsley Hayes’ drubbing of Sam and her subsequent recruitment.
Leo: (closes the door) Were you offered coffee or something to drink?
Ainsley: Yes, the woman who works out there, who I imagine is your secretary, offered me coffee or something.
Ainsley: She was also kind enough to ask for my coat.
Leo: Excellent, and…
Ainsley: She seems to be a very good secretary.
Leo: She’ll be happy to hear that, she’s standing right outside the door.
(He thumps his hand on the door.)
Margaret (Voiceover): Ow.
Nimbala: It’s a terrible thing to beg for your life. Terrible. My father… [slips back into mother tongue]
Interpreter: [to Nimbala] A proud man.
Nimbala: Proud? Ah. My father was a proud man. He built homes. He wouldn’t like what I came here to do.
Toby: Yes he would, Mr. President. I swear to God, he would.
Nimbala: [after a long silence] Thank you, sir.
- 2:8 – SHIBBOLETH – the one about Chinese stowaway immigrants arriving over Thanksgiving. As ever, high drama is interwoven with absurdity and comedy (this time provided by CJ’s agonised decision about which turkey the president should ‘pardon’. But it is not everyday that you get justification by faith discussed in earnest (albeit incompletely) described in a top tv show. It is very moving indeed.
C.J.: They sent me two turkeys. The more photo-friendly of the two gets a presidential pardon and a full life at a children’s zoo, and the runner-up gets eaten.
Bartlet: If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.
Bartlet: How did you become a Christian?
Jhin-Wei: I began attending a house church with my wife in Fujian. Eventually, I was baptized.
Bartlet: How do you practice?
Jhin-Wei: We share bibles–we donít have enough. We sing hymns. We hear sermons. We recite the Lord’s Prayer. We are charitable.
Bartlet: Who is the head of your church?
Jhin-Wei: The head of our parish is an 84 year old man named Wen-Ling. He’s been beaten and imprisoned many times. The head of our church is Jesus Christ.
Bartlet: Can you name any of Jesus’ disciples? If you can’t, that’s okay. I usually can’t remember the names of my kids, or for that matter…
Jhin-Wei: Peter, Andrew, John, Phillip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas and James. Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts. You’re seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise for a better world. For we hold that man is ‘justified by faith alone’ is what St. Paul said. ‘Justified
by faith alone.’ Faith is the true… uh, Im trying to… shibboleth. Faith is the true shibboleth.
Bartlet: Yes, it is. And you sir, just said the magic word in more ways than one. Thank you. It was a pleasure to meet you.
- 2:18 – 17 PEOPLE – the one where Bartlet’s MS comes centre stage. It is quite brilliantly constructed and written, as we watch Toby over a number of days working out what has been going on all the time. It is tense. And it begins Bartlet’s bullishness about his failure to disclose that will last right into Season 3.
Sam: I flat out guarantee you that if men were biologically responsible for procreation, there’d be paid family leave in every Fortune 500.
Ainsley: Sam, if men were biologically responsible for procreation, they’d fall down and die at the first sonogram.
Toby : Leo said you had an attack last year.
Bartlet : Huh?
Toby : Leo said you had an attack last year.
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : Couple of nights before the State of the Union.
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : Wasn’t that also the night you saw satellite pictures of India moving on Kashmir?
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : India and Pakistan were staring each other down and control of some nuclear weapons had been put into field.
Bartlet : Yeah.
Toby : So in the middle of a– I don’t know what you call it.
Bartlet : An episode.
Toby : You were in the Situation Room as commander in chief.
Bartlet : I know. I can’t believe we’re all still here.
- 2:22 – TWO CATHEDRALS – the season climax, and what a climax! The focus is of course Mrs Landingham’s funeral in the National Cathedral, but serious issues weave in and out (the crisis in Haiti, the legal battles with big Tobacco, the questions over whether or not Bartlet will stand for another term). This episode is TV drama at its absolute peak – and it breaks the heart with its raw, intense grief and its profound articulation of doubting God’s goodness in the face of suffering. We see Jed’s boyhood battles with his stern uncompromising headmaster-father and the beginnings of his relationship with Mrs Landingham. This all lays the groundwork for the extraordinary final scene. From a theological point of view, however, the reason that Bartlet is so angry is partly because he has a works mentality that assumes life is a divine/human quid-pro-quo. But that aside, if you’ve never been tempted to utter such pained and extreme grief-filled doubt, then you’ve never really suffered. Here are two longer quotes, one with Bartlet alone in the Cathedral, and the second with him discussing his situation with the imaginary ghost of Mrs Landingham.
Bartlet: You’re a son of a bitch, you know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours except praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year, 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? It fixes the other ships. It doesn’t even carry guns. It just goes around and fixes the other ships and delivers the mail. That’s all it can do. Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico. Increased foreign trade. Thirty million new acres of land for conservation. Put Mendoza on the bench. We’re not fighting a war. I’ve raised three children. That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem. Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui. Officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem!
Bartlet: Damn it! Mrs. Landingham!
Mrs. Landingham: I really wish you wouldn’t shout, Mr. President.
Bartlet: The door keeps blowing open.
Mrs. Landingham: Yes, but there’s an intercom, and you can use it to call me at my desk.
Bartlet: I was…
Mrs. Landingham: You don’t know how to use the intercom.
Bartlet: It’s not that I don’t know how to use it. It’s just that I haven’t learned yet.
I have MS, and I didn’t tell anybody.
Mrs. Landingham: Yeah. So you’re having a little bit of a day.
Bartlet: You gonna make jokes?
Mrs. Landingham: God doesn’t make cars crash and you know it. Stop using me as an excuse.
Bartlet: Party’s not going to want me to run.
Mrs. Landingham: Party will come back. You’ll get them back.
Bartlet: I’ve got a secret for you, Mrs. Landingham. I’ve never been the most popular guy in the Democratic Party.
Mrs. Landingham: I’ve got a secret for you, Mr. President. Your father was a prick who could never get over the fact that he wasn’t as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Why? Because there are people way worse off then you.
Bartlet: Give me numbers.
Mrs. Landingham: I don’t know numbers. You give ‘em to me.
Bartlet: How about a child born in this minute has a one-in-five chance of being born into poverty.
Mrs. Landingham: How many American’s don’t have health insurance?
Bartlet: 44 million.
Mrs. Landingham: What’s the number one cause of death for black men under 35?
Mrs. Landingham: How many Americans are behind bars?
Bartlet: 3 million.
Mrs. Landingham: How many Americans are drug addicts?
Bartlet: 5 million.
Mrs. Landingham: And one-in-five kids in poverty?
Bartlet: That’s 13 million American children. 3 and a half million kids are going to schools that are literally falling apart. We need 127 billion in school construction and we need it today.
Mrs. Landingham: To say nothing of 53 people trapped in an embassy.
Mrs. Landingham: You know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because you think it’s going to be too hard or you think you’re going to lose well, God, Jed, I don’t even wanna know you.
There are loads of these articles around which compare the USA2008 election to Seasons 6 & 7 – but here is one of the better ones (HT Brie Barton) – Following the Script (NYT Oct 29 08)
Indulgent but important! This is the start of a little blog series, season by season.
TWW is seminal television. And let no one dissuade you of the fact. It is not just because Season 7 was an almost word perfect prediction of the 2008 US Presidential race; nor because it’s essentially left-of-centre political fantasy; nor even because it (still) seems to be at trendy thing to be in to. [I'd just like to point out, as i do frequently, that i was THERE, hooked from the VERY FIRST episode on Channel 4 way back in 1999.] No, the reason is that it is just great drama. It is television at its best – it’s entertaining with great characters, it’s thought-provoking on serious issues without preaching (well not that much); Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is just a feast for the ears (pacey, brittle, witty, concise and even occasionally hugely informative – in short, just brilliant). And it manages to make me laugh – sometimes a lot.
Now there are of course nay-sayers. They usually object to the rosy-tinted view of the world where earnest, well-motivated and essentially honest people try to do their very best for their fellow man and woman. We all know that life just isn’t like that. I remember a good American friend describing Washington (and he might easily have described the worst corners of Westminster as well) as ‘a white-washed tomb’. But hey – a bit of escapism never did anyone any harm, surely? Then, because it is American TV and because I’m a cynical world-weary Brit, there are definitely moments of American schmaltz and sentimentalism which even a diehard like me can’t quite stomach. But truth be told, there’s a part of me that wishes we weren’t always so cynical.
So here is my list from Season 1 – in airing order because I can’t think of any other order to put them in. The reasons for inclusion range from being dramatic to dealing with real matters of substance, from being downright hilarious to being genuinely poignant. Do let me know what you think and what you’d add/subtract.
- 1:5 – THE CRACKPOTS & THESE WOMEN – One of Leo’s big block of Cheese days. Some great dialogue and especially good to see CJ trying to take the wolf highway people seriously. Also, quite poignant when Josh gets the Secret Service card admitting only him to safety in the event of a nuclear attack.
Toby: It’s “Throw Open Our Office Doors To People Who Want To Discuss Things That We Could Care Less About… Day”
- 1:14 – TAKE THIS SABBATH DAY - The death penalty one. Mixes both high drama (will Bartlet commute a drug-pusher’s death sentence?) and almost slapstick humour (Josh wearing Sam’s all-weather sailing dungarees, after a boozy stag night, at his first meeting with the wonderful Joey Lucas). But the final scene with Karl Malden (cameoing as Bartlet’s old priest, Fr Cavanaugh) is simply amazing. As Martin Sheen himself said of this episode: To see the most powerful man in the world get down on the floor of the Oval Office and ask forgiveness for his sins – finally I got to do something personal.
Father Cavanaugh: You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’ The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, ‘Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’ A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, ‘Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?’ God said, ‘I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?’
- 1:21 – LIES, DAMNED LIES & STATISTICS – The FEC campaign finance one. All about the machinations involved in getting the people you want into the positions you want. Seeing Barry Haskill’s face as he gets ushered into the Oval Office in the Leo-prompted assumption that it’s ‘where we keep the drinks’ is a peach. Also good is the moment where Bartlet asks an old businessman friend (Mitchell) to hire an ambassador:
Bartlet: Let me just tell you, I need a favor. I need you to hire a guy.
Mitchell: Who sir?
Bartlet: A former ambassador to Bulgaria.
Mitchell: Who is that, sir?
Bartlet: Ken Cochran.
Mitchell: Well, isn’t Ken Cochran the current ambassador to Bulgaria?
Bartlet: Not for long. Look, he’s a good man, a smart man, I think he’d make a very good corporate officer.
Mitchell: Why is he being fired, sir?
Bartlet: Gross incompetence. I’ll be right back.
On a separate but not unrelated note, here is the transcript from an imagined conversation between President Jed Bartlet and Senator Barack Obama from the New York Times last month.
So how about this?
Obama wins the Democratic nomination – and then chooses Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Totally ridiculous of course, especially as those who know about these things think it impossible. Not least because Lieberman is only just a member of the Democratic Party. But get this:
Obama is on the left of the Democratic Party; Lieberman is very much to the right. Together they could bring the whole party with them, as well as build a national consensus. Of course, their contradictory positions on Iraq could be the deal-breaker here though.
Obama is the new kid on the block – he’s the ‘Change we can believe in’ etc. But Lieberman would bring the years of experience he lacks. Quite a combination I’d say
But this is the most intriguing aspect of their potential pairing:
Obama is half white American Christian and half Kenyan Muslim, (ethnically if not religiously). Lieberman is Jewish. Just think of the statement that could make for the intractable problems in the Middle East. Could this not bring a brand new credibility to the process, which the current administration could only dream of, let alone that of ‘our man’ out there, Blair?
Thanks to Andrew Burkinshaw for this link. But it seems that the West Wing similarities observed before are not so accidental. Check out Jonathan Freedland’s article from yesterday’s Guardian. I mean, just check out this photo:
Barack Obama v Matt Santos
- Young, handsome and charismatic member of Congress, attempts to become America’s first non-white president.
- Began political career as a community organiser in a big city (Chicago) before winning first election at local level. Married, with two young children.
- Faced stiff opposition in Democratic primary against occupant of the White House during previous Democratic administration (first lady Hillary Clinton)
- Rivals attack him as inexperienced after just four years in Congress, but triumphs through grassroots support, inspiring speeches and message of change.
- Republican opponent is veteran moderate senator from a western state, unpopular with conservative base (John McCain of Arizona).
- Young, handsome and charismatic member of Congress, attempts to become America’s first non-white president.
- Began political career as a community organiser in a big city (Houston) before winning first election at local level. Married, with two young children.
- Faced stiff opposition in Democratic primary against occupant of the White House during previous Democratic administration (vice president Bob Russell).
- Rivals attack him as inexperienced after just six years in Congress, but triumphs through grassroots support, inspiring speeches and message of change.
- Republican opponent was veteran moderate senator from a western state, unpopular with conservative base (Arnie Vinick of California).
I hope I’m not breaching copyright rules, but it seemed to me that this is yet another example of Private Eye genius (from this week’s – issue 1203, 8th Feb edition). The photo (from the Guardian website) below is of official campaign badges – one can only assume that the team is desperately hoping that Bill won’t derail Hill.
But the Flintstones is not the only TV link in this year’s US election. For as Ross Hendry mentioned to me this week (and managed to put his finger on something that was only a vague thought in my mind), this election is getting more and more like West Wing by the minute. As such this is not an original thought and pundits this side of the Atlantic from the Daily Mail to the Guardian via BBC news online, are drawing obvious parallels.
But as Ross observed, the plot of the 2008 primaries seems to be careering towards that of TWW Season 7:
…the current race bears remarkable similarity to West wing season 7? old moderate conservative, slightly outspoken sweeps the republican party nomination, whilst the democrats have a close race that goes down to horse trading at the DNC. And we may end up with a young charismatic ethnic minority candidate! Let’s hope the televised debate is as good as the West Wing….
So in keeping with Quaerentia’s ground breaking tradition of punditry, how about this:
McCain = Vinick
Obama = Santos
Which just leaves Billary…?
So if we follow this logic, is it not fitting that Obama’s chief rival is in fact 2 people: Billary. Which also seems to fit rather nicely with TWW. Since in Season 6, Santos’ rivals in the contest for Democratic nominee were the 2 Vice-Presidents , ‘Bingo’ Bob Russell and John Hoynes. Which all means that Billary will lose.
Making a stand
It’s always difficult to join a bandwagon – but then, if that bandwagon is heading in the right direction, then not to join it is itself problematic.
- So good to see Gordon Brown making a strong stand for the EU-AU summit (yesterday)
- Also inevitable to see Mugabe shrugging it off (today)
- Also, in case you missed it, is the news that China is withdrawing backing from Zimbabwe (report 31st Aug) after years of propping up the decrepit and discredited Mugabe (see photo).
Perhaps this humble blog is making a difference after all… And perhaps our beloved Prime Minister will get the prize from Quaerentia’s very own Spot The Difference competition.
Art imitating life?
Incidentally, I am acutely sensitive to the way that Africa gets portrayed in fiction and on screen (i have a forthcoming review of Last King of Scotland coming soon). So much is patronising, ignorant or profoundly unhelpful.
So I had my antennae out on stalks last night when we watched Season 5, episode 4 of SPOOKS (known as MI-5 in the US) - the new boxed set happily arrived last week! After a pretty iffy and unrealistic concept and start, it did improve – not least because of its portrayal of the moral dilemmas inherent in involvement with African politics. Read the synopsis here if you’ve not see it and don’t want to. It revolves around a G8/AU (African Union) summit to deal with fair trade deals for Africa – obviously a perennial and knotty issue. It is obviously tv – and real life is much more complex than could ever be conveyed in a spy thriller. But dare i say it, i couldn’t help wondering whether or not there were any deliberate similarities between the fictional President Sekoa of West Monrassa (played by the excellent George Harris) and President Museveni of Uganda – both lauded in the west as African pioneers and leaders, while getting up to all kinds of dodgy stuff behind the facade.
And while we’re on this tack – one of my favourite West Wing episodes, and one which really breaks the heart, is Season 2 episode 4: In This White House. While all kinds of different plot lines are being followed (in true TWW style), the primary concern is that of a dialogue between the CEOs of major US Pharmaceuticals and an African president looking for ways to get cheaper HIV/AIDS drugs to his continent. Played by the brilliant South African actor Zakes Mokae, President Nimbala of Khundu comes across as a sympathetic leader doing his best against impossible odds – but thwarted at every turn. The ending is simply tragic – but not implausible (which makes it all the more affecting). And yet without being patronising or generalising, the episode realistically and movingly conveys the agonies of the continent. There are no glib solutions here – and that is precisely the point.
very sad to read today of the death of Ian Richardson – what a great actor; what a real loss. House of Cards was another seminal series (alongside West Wing) – and an improvement on the books – not least because of Richardson’s incarnation as Francis Urquhart. awesome. I’m tempted to find a way to include the words ‘You might think that but i couldn’t possibly comment’ into this posting – but will resist the urge.