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The West Wing - 7th and Final Series

by Zettel 

Posted: 26 April 2006
Word Count: 952
Summary: Supping with a long spoon

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America’s genius is business. In its irreducible form of free market capitalism. Absolute commitment to this form has created the most consistent engine for the creation of surplus value - wealth, public and private - the world has so far seen. Power. Currently, the only economic game in town. But free markets can’t make moral choices – so there is an implacable consequence, totally consistent with the form - even the soul has a price.

The downside of this Faustian bargain is that anything from the obscene profitability of obscenity in a multi-billion dollar porn industry, to the idealistic moral and political heart of The West Wing must find its way to public consciousness through the capitalist structure. Anything, but anything, that creates a reaction, has an impact on people, is tuned in to their constantly reinforced instinct to buy. Profit or die. American culture has commoditised life itself – literally by patenting the human genome and metaphorically by turning thought into a brand so that it can be sold. Thus transforming argument into marketing, debate into promotion, and ideals into mere ideas. Prophets to profits.

Until one realises and accepts the rigorous necessity of this cultural context, the truly extraordinary achievement of The West Wing cannot be fully appreciated. Necessarily, given the arguments above, it is a highly successful product. Even by the standards of the competitive commercial culture to which it had to conform to exist at all, it is a phenomenon – 24 Emmys and 2 Golden Globe Awards, 7 prime time series, about 150 hours of television entertainment of the very highest quality – writing, cinematic, casting, performance, direction.

We live in an age defined by political and social cynicism. Our journey to this point was marked by key milestones on the way: 3 assassinations, two Kennedys and Martin Luther King; Vietnam and now Iraq; Nixon and Watergate, Kissinger, Enron, New Orelans. And quintessentially – Bush and Cheney. Mr Blair’s disgrace is to belong in this company.

The fact therefore that a work of the imagination should be one of the few examples of the continued credibility and appeal of genuine, not manipulated democratic values is both depressing and oddly heartening. There is a kind of miracle in the simple empirical fact that a nation that elected both Richard Nixon and George Bush twice, has been watching in sufficient numbers to keep on air, prime time, an articulate, humane, civilised, intelligent, idealistic, programme about a world of politics most real voters view with contempt. Perhaps, for American culture – even politics has become virtual.

The last series (7) currently airing on More 4 in the UK and soon to end in the US, includes a televised presidential debate in which the 2 candidates (Jimmy Smits as Matt Santos, Alan Alda as Arnie Vinnick) mutually agree to throw out the sanitised rules and offer a direct clash of sincerely held opposing political beliefs. This episode, though of course scripted, was brave in media terms – in that it was broadcast live. Almost unique in American TV outside sports. (And even there the rules and structure of games have been honed into an almost ‘script-like’ form).

Thus paradoxically, The West Wing sups with the commercial devil in order to have a platform to disseminate political ideals the real world politicians will not risk. Smits’s live, believable performance as Santos even mounts a convincing defence of liberal ideals and values to an audience who watched John Kerry sleepwalk, gun unconvincingly over arm, through a real presidential campaign he tried not to lose by never saying what he really believed.

The series has perhaps shifted to more ‘centrist’ views since creator Aaron Sorkin stopped writing it at the end of series 4. But its political and moral heart is still in the right place. It has always managed change of cast brilliantly and Smits and Alda are both fine actors living up to those traditions. Despite substantial changes in this area in this last series, TWW is still able to produce an hour of the most absorbing, engaging drama available on TV. The recent episode that resolved the storyline of which of the key central West Wing characters leaked National Security information to the press for morally defensible reasons, was well up to the very best of The West Wing’s high standards.

The unique opportunity a long-running series offers, is that the characters have been well established over a very long period. Therefore the dramatic contexts into which you can place them and the knowledge people have of them, their strengths and weaknesses, are enriched. We in a sense ‘know’ these people and the pleasures of anticipation and expectation are rich sources of humour and emotional engagement that can never be achieved in movies, and very rarely in TV. Comedy does it most often - Dad’s Army, Only Fools and Horses, Friends, or quintessentially Mash. Hill Street Blues is the best purely dramatic parallel I can call to mind.

So when this final series ends, I cannot help but feel that the American people will have lost something of real value. Beyond just entertainment. And more than merely a supremely successful, immensely profitable, product. For myself, however sad it sounds, I will miss the challenges, failures and triumphs of a group of characters - people - as varied, funny, engaging and fascinating as any in Dickens. And a mirror of the imagination held up to the troubling, unjust and dangerous world we actually inhabit, that has also been Dickensian in its scope and insight.

Whether the creators of The West Wing, in supping with devil to get to it made, have used a long enough spoon – you must judge for yourselves.

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Comments by other Members

Jim Beard at 14:43 on 27 April 2006  Report this post
Hi Zettel

Thanks for this entertaining and enlightening perspective on what is perhaps the best TV series ever made, particularly in a way that does nothing to reveal the plot lines. You see my wife and I are TWW junkies and we cannot watch series 7 until it comes out on DVD. By which time we will be in straight jackets and will look to relieve our withdrawal symptoms with a massive viewing hit of marathon proportions. Although knowing this to be the last series we may just take it in more manageable proportions this time.

Your treatise served well to remind us of TWW’s moral stance in an age of ever rampant consumerism and you juxtapose well the subjugation of entertainment in its basest form, through the profit motive, with the total absence of political ethics today. However, surely profit does not necessarily equate to evil. Is not the argument the extent of the exploitation of labour, or in this case entertainment through the medium of TV, that is at issue and how that wealth is distributed?

I am unable to comment on the debate between Matt Santos and Arnie Vinnick but from what you say TWW has yet again shown the way to a political model that few people in the past have witnessed and even less, if any, in the future ever will. Come on Amazon where are you when I need you most?

On matters writing, I did feel that the opening did not flow as well as it could have and a few conjunctions throughout the piece may have helped. But what the heck it was a great read.

Thanks pal for getting me going again just when I thought that my feverish condition brought on by an enforced deficiency of genuine entertainment was under control. Now look what you have gone and done!

Best regards


Zettel at 21:22 on 27 April 2006  Report this post
Jim - we must perhaps start WWA - West Wing Anonymous. One of the greatest strengths of this axtraordinary piece of work is that, like a very good book, one gets more and different things out of it each time you see it. Some episodes stand on their own as equal n qaulity to many very good movies_ e.g 'Two Cathedrals', 'In The Shadow of the gunmen' and the one about CJ's Altzheimers afflicted father to mention just 3. Also the special post-9/11 programme they did using the fictional context of TWW to explore some of the history and deeper issues of the Islam/Jewish,Christian conflict was public service broadcasting at its best.

No profit does not have to be bad - but it is the impact it has on motivation and quality that poses the questions. Every 50 minute episode of the WW costs about $5million. YOu can make a lot more profit from a game show at a fraction of the cost. And of course TWW is being taken off primarily because of a drop in ratings and a move out of prime time.

Thanks for the comments.



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