Monday, December 19, 2005

Channel Surfing
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Being a (relatively) normal and (fairly) well-adjusted individual, I note rather than mourn the deaths of celebrities. So I can't say I'm mourning the unexpected death of John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry on The West Wing--but I'm noting it more than most. As I wrote over the weekend, McGarry, as White House chief of staff, was a pragmatic but principled manager who offered the sort of leadership we'd all like to see in the real White House. As an actor, Spencer never seemed to work at it--but he'd been like that when he was on L.A. Law, too.

The West Wing hadn't done well by Leo the last couple of seasons, giving him a heart attack (which is what killed Spencer) and moving him out of the chief-of-staff's office, then rather implausibly making him Jimmy Smits' running mate in the ongoing election storyline. But in the most recent episode, broadcast just last weekend, it looked as if Leo was going to take a more central role in managing the campaign. So The West Wing finds itself in a bit of a pickle.

The season's final episodes are yet to be shot--nine have been aired so far and, based on the exhaustive West Wing Continuity Guide, five more are either produced or in the production process. The campaign story arc is currently about 60 days removed from Election Day--so if the producers intend to write Leo out, they'll be doing so perilously close to the election. There's no obvious choice to replace him (the Pennsylvania governor, played by Ed O'Neill, maybe?), so the transition is likely to be an awkward one, no matter what. According to producer Lawrence O'Donnell, the writers won't start trying to figure it out until after the holidays.

Meanwhile, in the parallel presidential universe of Commander in Chief, things are not so good either. According to an acerbic syndicated TV column that ran across the country last week, the takeover of executive producer Steven Bochco apparently hasn't made the show any less simplistic or preachy, and the ratings are trending down. That hasn't stopped some people from continuing to view the show as part of insidious plot to make Hillary Clinton president, as a Google search quickly reveals. I'm guessing that the people making this accusation have never actually watched the show, as they'd see pretty quickly how silly it is to imagine any parallel at all between their supposedly vicious and amoral Mrs. Clinton and President Mom.

And finally, Fox has ratcheted up its on-air promotional push for 24, which returns for a new season on January 15. It isn't a show whose primary purpose is to examine the workings of government, but it's more topical than either The West Wing or C-in-C in one important way. For several seasons now, special agent Jack Bauer has shown he's willing to commit torture and various other illegal but putatively useful acts to save the country from Insensate Evil. But before anyone cheers Bauer's do-what-is-necessary-no-matter-what methods, they ought to be sure they understand what they're seeing. The first time the show depicted government agents using torture (in the third-season opener), it seemed far-fetched. Now, not so much. Last season, agents at CTU used it frequently, even on each other. (The scenes where it was used on people viewers knew to be innocent were the most disturbing in the history of the series.) However, the overriding message that seemed to come from most of the torture scenes is that torture doesn't work. It's doubtful that the producers intended to send that message--they're usually too busy trying to figure out where the story is going to go, because in previous seasons, they haven't known how it's going to end until after they started. But by putting it on our TV screens, they remove it from the realm of the theoretical, which it is, for most of us. To see it practiced and see its effects, even in a fictional setting, is useful in helping us gauge it for what it is, and isn't.

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