The Lost Wing

From Warren Ellis‘ Bad Signal:

There are two kinds of television drama. The shit, that gives in to expectations, in order to comfort and sedate the viewer. And the kind that challenges your expectations in order to engage you.

The first episode of the new series of THE WEST WING bumps up hard against my expectations only insofar as it seems to have thrown out everything that engaged me.

Creator/writer Aaron Sorkin and director/producer Tommy Schlamme left the series at the end of the last season, and original co-producer John Wells came downstairs to run the show. John Wells runs ER, one of the more glaring recent examples of Not Knowing When To Stop. He said at the start that WEST WING was no longer going to sound like Aaron Sorkin — Sorkin put almost every script aired through a final rewrite to give the show its unique voice. Like Tarantino ten years ago, Sorkin made it okay for characters to talk a lot again, great mad symphonies of banter and explication and oratory.

The biggest shock is the quiet. No-one has anything to say. No-one is funny. No-one is smart. Brad Whitford and Janel Moloney look choked. Alison Janney wanders around like someone stole her purse. When they do get to talk, it sounds like someone swapped out their brains over the summer. Suddenly none of them are any good at anything. The Secretary of Defense appears to have a whole different personality.

The storyline has Republicans invading the Democratic White House as the President, without a VP, invokes a Constitutional system to create an interim President of the Speaker of the House, as he doesn’t trust himself to be commander-in-chief while his kidnapped daughter is still missing. The change in tone, with such a massive storyline shift, would seem on paper to be of a piece. The President’s staff would naturally be stressed, concerned and wrong-footed. But no-one talks. They’re sitting around waiting for their lines. The Republican staffers now swarming in the Oval Office have no dialogue.

Oh, and on the subject of Republicans taking control of the White House of THE WEST WING, one of the new consultants hired by John Wells, conservative columnist John Podhoretz, recently had this to say about Aaron Sorkin: “I don’t know about you, but I don’t need any lessons on theology, destiny, public service, job creation, pay equity or conservative ideology from a crack addict.”

John Goodman, as the new President, looks sick and ill. Brad Whitford’s character is called upon to gloomily note that in a press conference Goodman’s character looks “Presidential.” Goodman can barely fucking talk and looks like he could puke blood at any second. Of course, no-one is helped by the direction, which throws out Tommy Schlamme’s prowling naturalistic visual vocabulary and has the characters lit in the style of a 1960’s Superman comic. The President’s new quarters appear to be the Clocktower from the BIRDS OF PREY TV show, and at one point, when Martin Sheen and John Spencer stand at the window, Sheen is lit in blue and Spencer is lit in red, no more than a foot between them.

If you were going to put money on which actor was to commit suicide first, it’d be Spencer, who, even beyond the demands of the script, looks beaten and doomed. Richard Schiff, given maybe five lines, just looks embarrassed to be there. He’s the one who’s spoken publicly about WEST WING being the heir to the challenging cinema of the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s. Now he gets to sit there and report on the location of his ex-wife’s newborn twins three or four times.

Joshua Malina, never more than a quick fix for the departure of Rob Lowe, just keeps struggling, his weirdly grating voice still ploughing through. WEST WING never succeeded in expanding or adding to the core staff. Clever as Sorkin is, he could never keep all his balls in the air, and smart actors like Emily Proctor (currently seen wasting her days as one of Carusobot’s drones on CSI: MIAMI) were allowed to just drift away. (That said, any series that puts Sofia Milos on TV has my vote. Even if she is there as Less-Talented Police Carusobot Stooge and Carusobot Human Love Interest. And, incidentally, the new CSI: MIAMI shows Carusobot has been programmed with a new trick. It smiles. It is a creepy, awful smile designed to frighten Carusobot’s human prey.)

But Malina could have a voice like honey and a presence like Brando and he’d still have fuck-all to work with. If you take away the dialogue,you’re just left with a bunch of people emoting at each other like they’ve been dropped in the sea and are flailing for a handhold.

And if you’re determined to do that, and determined to make all the characters look bad, then why in hell did you want to run the show in the first place?

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