Monday, April 03, 2006

The Long Election Night
So they finally made it to Election Day on The West Wing last night. We don't know how it's going to turn out yet, of course--and with six episodes to go, we might not know for a while. There were lots of speeches by characters in both the Santos and Vinick camps about how the exit polls look screwy, which, given the sometimes-unsubtle plotting of the last three seasons, is probably an omen of a Florida 2000-style deadlock. (The producers are still being coy about the outcome, but I doubt there's anyone left who thinks Arnold Vinick has a chance to win, given that the series has been telegraphing a Santos win since the season's first episode.)

(Digression: If there is a deadlock in the fictional election, it will be interesting to see whether any mention is made of the Bush/Gore fight in 2000. Until this season, The West Wing has studiously avoided crossing its fictional universe with the real political universe of recent times. The most recent real presidency I can recall being mentioned is JFK's, and in an episode a couple of seasons back, we met two former presidents from the fictional universe. This season, however, starting with the live debate episode, the real and fictional universes have mingled to an extent never before seen. Since the debate, they've mentioned Bono's work on poverty and debt relief, and in the last two weeks we've seen Jon Bon Jovi and Foo Fighters in largely pointless cameos. So they'd be holding to form if they mentioned Florida 2000.)

The Mrs. and I have quit watching "scenes from next week" on our favorite shows, because the network promo monkeys are forever giving away too much. But from what I can gather from the web, it looks like next week's episode will involve Leo's former White House colleagues finding out about and reacting to his death. Also, the show will begin to address the fascinating question of what to do when a dead man is elected vice president, but that may not be resolved right away if the election is headed for overtime. We will also probably get more followup on Josh and Donna finally hitting the rack, a long-awaited boink following years of sexual tension, which was handled poorly by the writers--unless we were supposed to take bedroom discussions of exit-polling and get-out-the-vote efforts as geeky pillow talk.

As it happens, yesterday The Mrs. and I watched several of the series' first season episodes on DVD before switching over to the new episode. While the current episodes provide the occasional chuckle, we laughed out loud five or six times during each of the early episodes we watched--the quality of Aaron Sorkin's writing, even from the show's embryonic days, is astoundingly good. Not only that, the show portrays political life in a very realistic way from early on. One of the show's failures during the last three seasons, and especially during the recent campaign arc, is its largely simplistic and generally unreal view of how politics works. Recent seasons' attempts at patriotism or idealism have often seemed forced or false, but Sorkin could work those buttons as skillfully as he brought the funny. It's worth noting that the show won the Best Drama Emmy only during Sorkin's four years at the helm, and has never won again since he was forced off the show.

There was a rumor last winter that Sorkin would return to write the final episodes, but that wasn't to be. Last night's episode, pivotal as it was, was credited to Lauren Schmidt, who can't have written more than one or two others. (Some fans on the Internet think executive producer John Wells wrote it and put Schmidt's name on it--which, if true, would go a long way toward explaining a lot of what was wrong with it.) I'm hopeful that the six remaining episodes will be written by people who have more history with the show, or at least by those who have shown themselves capable of understanding the form of a good West Wing episode.

At the moment, Sorkin is working on a new show that will appear this fall called Studio 60, set behind the scenes at a Saturday Night Live-type variety show. Given the Internet buzz already surrounding this show, it may be the first one to qualify as must-see TV before it hits the air.

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