Monday, May 15, 2006

 

So long, West Wing

For diehard fans of the series, last night's finale was a bit anticlimactic. Instead of featuring the kind of rapid repartee and thoughtful dialogue that made the show great, the episode mostly featured swelling theme music and lingering close-ups. I'm willing to bet it was one of the shortest screenplays in the history of the series, so sparse was the dialogue.

So let me just get off my chest what every diehard fan of West Wing is thinking this morning: "Boooooooo, NBC. Booooooo. Not only have you pulled the plug on one of the best shows on television; you didn't have the decency to let the show's fans say goodbye." Apparently NBC cancelled plans for a one-hour retrospective because it didn't want to pay the actors to participate. So instead the series finale was preceded by a rerun of the pilot episode. Our local television critic pretty much nailed it: "A rerun is no way to send off a series that has brought such honor to a network for seven years." To add insult to injury, the show was followed by a two-hour season finale to the third-tier Law and Order franchise, Criminal Intent.

I'll miss West Wing, and not just for the usually stated reasons that it elevated the tone of political discourse and wasn't embarrassed by its intelligence. (One of the television reporters portrayed in last night's episode actually used the word "eschew.") I have to say I'll also miss its unabashed utopianism. I'm aware that the show was often criticized for presenting a naively idealistic vision of White House politics and for populating the West Wing with leftist fantasies. (Case in point: in the final episode, as White House staffers are packing up the Oval Office, the camera reveals that President Bartlett has a copy of a book by Michel Foucault on his bookshelf. It's fantastic enough to imagine that a book by a Frenchman would even be on the grounds of the present White House, much less a book in the Oval Office and much less a book by Foucault.)

But we need fantasies. We need utopias to show us what kinds of alternative realities are possible, especially when most of what we get on the airwaves these days falls under the rubric of "reality" television. Survivor island is a paltry substitute for Gonzalo's. Yes, the West Wing writers knew they were idealists, but that's why they didn't have to start every episode with a disclaimer about how the characters and storylines are all fictional, as many episodes of Law and Order do. The writers had no problem with the fact that they were writing fiction, and so they just concentrated on doing a fine job of writing fiction. And at their best, the fictions they constructed helped Americans visualize different possible worlds. Yes, it was utopian for newly elected Democratic President Matthew Santos to offer a cabinet-level position to his opponent, Republican Senator Arnold Vinick. (And yes, it was even more utopian for Vinick to accept.) But that's the function that West Wing served: it articulated the wildest dreams of its audience and then showed how those dreams, if actualized, wouldn't be so bad.

I'm not praising the utopianism of the West Wing just because it happened to be a liberal utopianism. (And to be honest, there were aspects of President Bartlett's presidency with which even a leftist could quibble mightily, especially his Clintonian eagerness to use air strikes to solve international crises.) I'm confident that the show would have served the same important function if the White House had been held by a Democrat for the last six years. And according to this column, the writers were actually planning to elevate Vinick, the John McCain-like Republican candidate, to the presidency if the show had not been cancelled. That would have been a fascinating transition, and I guarantee I would have kept tuning in. Our current political culture suffers not only from a lack of utopianism, but also from the fact that any utopian vision is immediately branded as the fevered dream of a present-day partisan. West Wing, for the most part, gave us well-realized utopias without shoe-horning them into our current political categories.

One of the good pieces of dialogue from last night's episode was between Santos and his wife just after they had attended an Inauguration Day mass. Pictured inside their limousine, Helen Santos turns to the President-Elect and says that the priest was pushing "that swords into ploughshares" thing pretty hard. Without missing a beat, Santos says, "That's what we need," or something to that effect. It might as well have been a bit of dialogue between an NBC executive and a West Wing writer. Utopian visions of swords turning into ploughshares may not sell shares, but they are definitely what we need.


Collective Improvisation:
I hate to disagree with you, but the finale was perfect evidence that the show had run out of steam and was ready to go. No discussion of the VP-less inauguration; almost no discussion of the actual issues; the false tension over Toby's pardon (these producers didn't have the guts to not pardon him, which would have been entirely in character for the character Bartlett); the political tension of power transition replaced with sentimentality. It's fine, but it leaves me feeling like the show was done, not that the show had anything interesting left to say.

I loved it, but it's time to move on.

Posted by Blogger Ahistoricality on 5/15/2006 05:59:00 PM : Permalink  

It's true that the show has been rudderless for several weeks now. But I blame that partly on the unexpected death of John Spencer, the actor who played Leo, and on the cancellation of the show, both of which meant that the major storylines lost steam a good five or six episodes ago. At the very least, those events account for the sharp uptick in sentimentality. For instance, my suspicion is that if the show had gone on and Vinick had won, Bartlett would have been more likely not to pardon Toby.

Even at its weakest, it was better than most of what was on offer on network television (which is all I have access to). I would have an easier time moving on if I knew there was another show of its caliber waiting in the wings. (Although, to look at this from the "glass half full" point of view, I'll no longer have to choose between The Simpsons and The West Wing.)

But it's not like I'm in tears over here. I certainly see your point.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 5/15/2006 08:26:00 PM : Permalink  

quick question from an argentinian WestWing fan.
watcthing finale episode I missed what Foucault's book was the one on the President Barlett's shelf.
Will you please help me?
gracias, kwsz

Posted by Anonymous kwsz on 6/13/2006 11:23:00 PM : Permalink  

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