Tuesday, May 16

Requiem For The West Wing

Sunday night marked the end of my all-time favorite TV show, "The West Wing." Many years ago there was a series called "Family" that I enjoyed almost as much and I rank "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Designing Women" in my list as the only TV worth watching, but "West Wing" beat them all by a mile and it breaks my heart to see it go.

Now get this -- I'm a conservative Republican. Most of the time, at least. That's the basis of my political . . .er, faith? That word comes closest to the one I want -- you have to have faith in the people you elect and I can't have much faith in Democrats. Except for Joe Lieberman. But I digress again.

The West Wing had a lot of flaws. They made mistakes -- in the last episode, for example, they began with a mistake. Bartlett said that Jefferson, Adams, etc. had set January 20th as Inauguration Day. Not so. Presidents were inaugurated in March for many, many years. The January date is a modern one -- something to do with "lame duck" legislation.

Another mistake: Once they had Bartlett flying Air Force One out of Nashville after a visit to Oak Ridge -- Tennesseans, especially Knoxvillians, giggled at that one. And Bartlett's diatribe over homosexuality was so inadequate and Old Testament oriented that it was a silly farce. They needed a real conservative to help with some of their issues, for there were more, many, many more inadequate arguments for the opposition -- but their ineptitude just made it more fun to watch.

What I loved most, though, was the respect shown for the office of President and the political process. (That respect was totally lacking in Commander in Chief; they treated it like and everyday job.) There was irreverence, sure, but never for American institutions -- there was a tenderness for the ideals, a sense of treasuring the Constitution along with a respect and downright awe of the system and those, to me, were the very essence of the show. As it is the essence of our country.

I loved the characters -- Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg was spectacular and she demonstrated her talent as an actress as we watched her grow first as Press Secretary and then into the Chief of Staff job. Poor Janney had to give up her flattering blondish hair in favor of dark brown when she took over Leo's job as Chief of Staff (probably the producers thought it gave her more credibility but it doesn't go with her coloring). It's just like TV to be that shallow; Janney's a fine actress. She could have pulled off that credibility in a show-girl blonde wig!

If the producers had any imagination at all, however, they would have explored her role as a woman in politics. Unlike Geena Davis, whose talent ranges (as Dorothy Parker once said of a young Kate Hepburn) "from A to B," Janney would make a viable and believable President of the United States. They could have put her in the Vice President's slot in the series, then killed off Jimmy Smits so she could take over the job. That would have been good for another eight years of drama, humor, repartee and political issues.

Janney says she hopes The West Wing was one of the greatest shows on television. It is. She helped make it so.

I haven't grieved over the death of a media star since I discovered -- when I was 10 -- that Rudolph Valentino had died long before my birth, but I honestly grieved when John Spencer died. Not only for his character, Leo McGarry, but for him as an actor. Finer acting doesn't appear on television or movies nowadays.

Dule Hill, who played the inimitable Charlie, said he hoped The West Wing had raised the bar for television. It did. It brought back the quick repartee-type dialog of movies of the 1930s and addressed current issues and even relationships on multi-levels. One reason re-runs are so interesting is that I always hear something I missed the first time. THAT is non-existent in most television.

One critic said that people don't quip like that in real life. I guess that depends on who you're running around with. My friends do, and I love it. Keeps me on my mental toes.

And there's where Commander in Chief erred. The writing and dialogue were just average, the kind of thing you see on soap operas everyday. Plots were unimaginative and predictable, "trudging" is the best word for them. The characters were just that -- characters. Donald Sutherland can act but he didn't have to as Nathan Templeton. All he had to do is seem a bit ominous in the background and issue a bland threat now and then.

Now I confess I watched only two Commander in Chief episodes -- the first one and the one when they came back on the air, supposedly "improved." And I've watched every episode of The West Wing that has been aired -- at least twice, more for many of my favorites. I feel I gave Commander a fair chance. It just didn't deserve more of my time.

And Geena Davis didn't deserve to win the Golden Globe instead of Allison Janney. Janney's growth in the role of Chief of Staff last year was a glorious demonstration of fine acting. Davis has never come close.

So goodbye Donna, Josh, Claudia Jean, Toby, the Bartletts, Charlie, Sam, Will and all the rest -- you "did good," guys. Thanks for the happy hours, the entertainment, the challenge to the industry. Here's best wishes for continuing success for each of you, you have earned your credentials as actors.

And thanks for a great show, Aaron Sorkin. I'll watch your new one a couple of times but the subject doesn't interest me like politics does.

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