West Wing S01E21: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

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There’s a return to focus in this episode. It’s on-message. Sorkin treats us to a conveniently cheeky stratagem to stack the electoral commission, some amusement to illustrate the tedious, nerve-wracking business of national polling, and the final instalment of the Sam Seaborn relationship with high class callgirl, and freshly minted law graduate, Laurie Rollins.

In its focus on electoral reform this episode shows its age. The game has entirely eclipsed the iniquities of the past to rise to new heights of partisan bastardry. For a long time, The West Wing was revered for proposing a Democrat agenda, should they ever reclaim the White House after Clinton’s less than glorious exit. It was part of the show’s lasting status as high quality television.

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The West Wing S01E20: Mandatory Minimums

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The course of history has overshadowed some of the enthusiastic optimism of the fictional Bartlet administration, and no more so than for this episode, which features policy examples that have all worsened rather than improved over time. On top of that historical scuffing of the gloss, the episode is less a coherent whole than a roll-over continuity play. More like glue rather than the pieces it holds together, or a pause in the ongoing narrative, like a breath between sentences. I suppose it is testament to the fact the show had ‘arrived’ that it did not seem out of place for this episode to be a loose collection of anecdotes, none strong enough to be a unifying core theme, but all necessary to lead into future episodes.

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Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993)

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For a high school story, the conception wasn’t bad at all. Far more lyrical than anything I wrote until decades after leaving behind that wretched age of half-manhood. But as a drama it was too weightless.

Steve Conrad’s script might well have pleased Hemingway, but it was too eventless to draw me in. I found my attention wandering repeatedly during the Odd Couple routines of Frank (Richard Harris) and Walter (Robert Duvall) in matching their old guy loneliness to different ways of trying to recapture some sense of machismo.

More than death, I’m terrified of loss of faculty, and more than the gradual fading away of sex and fighting instincts, I am afraid of losing my mind. Neither Frank nor Walter seemed excessively burdened with thoughtfulness in their pre-histories, nor in the present of the story. That made me distant to the premiss.

Harris was 63, playing 75, and Duvall 62 going on 70. MacLaine seemed about right for her 59 years. There’s no question they all did fine jobs at evoking their characters. It was just that their characters were shallow and not sympathetic. I see no merit here in trying to force my tastes through contortions to appreciate an absence of what engages me.

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The West Wing: S01E19 Let Bartlet Be Bartlet

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For all the talk in fan sites and snippets of media coverage about the haphazard writing of the scripts, the opening summary of this episode clearly shows a deliberate breadcrumb trail of suggestions, in previous episodes, that the Bartlet presidency has stalled. That summary tells us this will be the main focus of the present instalment.

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The West Wing S01E18: Six Meetings Before Lunch

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A legendary episode among afficionados, for Allison Janney’s lip-synching of ‘The Jackal’ (Ronny Jordan, The Quiet Revolution, 1993). An act so out of character for CJ Cregg, and yet so naturally Janney, that Sorkin wrote it into the script after seeing her do it on-set during down-time. It’s an ingenious device to build Cregg’s character without taxing Janney to adopt alien characteristics.

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The West Wing S01E17: The White House Pro-Am

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During the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the first lady was less passive than most since Eleanor Roosevelt. She had what is politely called ‘an agenda’. Meaning she arrogated to herself the privilege and power of a high but unelected state functionary. Hillary Clinton pursued ‘liberal’ causes that her husband thought too tough to fight in his own name. Her major project, the 1993 healthcare plan, failed to materialise. She is credited with playing a significant rôle in child health and welfare reforms. Subsequent to Bill Clinton’s presidency she did seek and win public office, in time losing the Democrat primary to Barack Obama, who made her his secretary of state.

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The West Wing S01E16: 20 Hours in LA

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This one’s my favourite episode for season one, but for reasons that have changed a little bit over time. Initially it was the Zoey Bartlet secret service bodyguard Gina Toscano interview on Air Force One, and the private Ted Marcus conversation at the fundraiser. Today it is probably more the almost-reconciliation between Bartlet and Hoynes over the ethanol tax credit nonsense, and the dig at producers delivered by the MBA-type hustlers at Ted Marcus’s party, who are unable to explain what Hollywood ‘developers’ actually do, and what ‘development’ actually involves. Not that the other events aren’t also important for the overall impact of the show.

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

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A personal reflection in which revisiting a seminal story forty years on is like returning to an old neighbourhood to find it both familiar and lost to a time that can never really be recaptured.

Sometime in the mid 1970s my schoolmasters in England objected with alarm when it became known that I was carrying with me the novel that made of MI6 employee David John Moore Cornwell the career novelist John Le Carré — John ‘the Square’. Their concern, they said to me, was that the concepts in the book were too complicated for a boy my age. I was twelve, probably looked nine, and spoke the broken English of a recent arrival from parts foreign. My appearance notwithstanding, however, I suspect what my masters really meant was that if there ever were modern existentialists battling despair, ennui, and the pain of choosing between flavours of mediocrity, it would have been the English between the 1930s and 1970s. And their high priests were not French philosophers or beret-wearing poseurs, but authors like John le Carré. Maybe my schoolmasters didn’t want me to know that. Or maybe they were concerned I would interpret le Carré’s contempt for the Germans in his novel as a general British prejudice. As if I had not immediately noted a British contempt for all who came from across the waters. A contempt made diffident by loss of empire, agency, and confidence.

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The West Wing S01E15: Celestial Navigation

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I always thought of this episode as just well written and executed tragicomedy. It made me smirk along with the verbal pratfalls, and gnash my teeth at the injustices of circumstances, much in the way I imagine Sorkin wanted me to. But last night, on my fifth or sixth viewing, I thought there was something more to it than the laughs.

It reminded of my first acquaintances with Shakespeare plays in the 1970s, where some amateur directors used a narrator to explain what settings we should imagine for the mostly bare stage that an amateur budget stretched to. And that made me think of Josh Lyman delivering his speech about being the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. Lyman on stage became an anchor point for disparate narratives that would otherwise have required a more complex focal point, and less sketchy exposition.

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The West Wing S01E14: Take This Sabbath Day

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You know it’s an unusual episode when there’s no ‘previously on The West Wing’ introduction summarising previous events. Everything that happens in this episode requires no knowledge of continuing sub-plots.

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