Monday, February 12, 2007


Am a little behind on my American telly. Have seen up to the end of Season 4 of 24, up to the end of Season 2 of Lost, and nothing at all of New Battlestar Galactica – not even the acclaimed mini-series. I blame Scott Andrews, who so spoiled me with lendings of Buffy.

I am keeping up with Heroes (****** is ******’s ***!) and have just finished the sixth season of West Wing.

Like Will, I found Season 5 something of a slog. West Wing could do daft and not-brilliant stories before (like CJ visiting her dad), but the whole fifth year seemed out of whack, predictable, derivative and boring.

In Season Six, Toby is given a bit of advice about how to win over the media. He’s not pretty, so he needs to be smart and funny. It’s this that the show had forgotten.

Season 6 is definitely an improvement, though it’s still much too often Bad Star Trek.

GeordiRiker: “The whole universe if going to blow up, and there’s just four minutes left of the episode!”

Geordi: “How about I invent something technobabbly magic?”

Riker: “What, pull a deus ex machina out of your bottom right at the very last minute?”

Geordi: “If I explain it in long words while talking quite quickly, people won’t notice it’s bollocks. I’ll say ‘diagnostic’ a lot.”

Riker: “And whatever made-up old nonsense it is, we’ll say that from now on it’ll be known as the ‘Geordi manoeuvre’.”
While Season Six West Wing can be odd, hilarious and even rather insightful, it still manages to solve issues in Palestine, China and Cuba all in the 40th minute. The implication is that there are quick and easy fixes to foreign policy, if only the US mucks in. This strikes me as a little dangerous.

It would help if it could be less abusive of foreigners. The opening episodes struggle to accommodate all sides on the issue of Israel, and generally avoids giving offence. But a couple of weeks later there’s concern about Turkey, when an adulteress is stoned to death.

Um. No. Turkey is a secular state and doesn’t behave quite like that. Perhaps they were thinking of (or chickening out of) some other Middle Eastern country. Having decided to give up the made-up state of Kumar and instead discuss issues in the real world, you’d think they would be a little less fundamentally ignorant.

Was similarly annoyed by the crudely realised Thatcher-avatar ruling as Britain’s PM. If they’re making a point about British politics, it’s one quarter of a century out of date. And, where previously the eccentric British ambassador had also been brilliant and wise, in this episode he’s an idiot and liability.

Likewise, Bartlett’s Japanese counterpart (played by Mako!) is a rude and mean buffoon. Bartlett can have a serious conversation with him – and heed his warnings about the US economy – but only when Mako has made a fool of himself cavorting too hard on the dance floor.

I suspect this would bother me fewer were the real US administration not so eager to bomb Iran. They say this will make things better and safer for American people. What about the rest of us?

Democratically elected representatives are answerable to their constituencies, and any politician will serve their country’s interests first. But the West Wing attempts such a liberal ideal, I find the self-centred attitude to policy difficult.

When not laughing at Johnny Foreigner, it’s got much better with dissenting viewpoints. It’s perhaps good for the ratings to be more overtly bi-partisan, but it also leads us into some really interesting areas.

These questions are usually asked in high-calibre performances from some brilliant cameos. Penn and Teller burn an American flag as part of a show inside the White House, and so question what freedom is. Christopher Lloyd and Brian Dennehy both play roles that ask what America’s role is in promoting democracy elsewhere. A Sam Cooke song sung by James Taylor is in retrospect all about the Bartlett administration.

It also seems happier to acknowledge that Bartlett’s lot aren’t above doing “necessary” things. Season 3 ended on the cliffhanger that sometimes a President might agree to Black Ops. Here it’s rather taken for granted that the US have spies everywhere. Some stupendous wigs rather a spoil a flashback to Kate and Leo’s first meeting, when neither of them should have been involved in Cuba.

Making leading Republican Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda) so appealing helps to raise the political stakes. He’s wise and funny and middle-of-the-road, and we can see why people would vote for him. There’s a nice scene late on of Bartlett and CJ silently wowed by his speech.

Yes, because Season 6 also sees the start of the run-up the next presidential election. Things are changing for the regular cast, and though it’s nice to see some character development, some of it feels a bit forced. Donna and Josh both leaving the White House does work very effectively. But CJ and Charlie’s promotions feel more plot-convenient than real.

They try really hard to convince us that CJ’s elevation is somehow credible – by showing how difficult she finds it. Yet I still can’t help feeling it’s how you reward a cast member of a long-running TV show does for its, not how a White House administration would work.

Much is made of different characters being asked to step off cliffs. For a show that so loves rational debate, presidency is a matter of faith. Characters choose their jobs and their politics by which contender for office they believe in.

Princess Leia’s adopted dad gets to be another put-upon good guy. Matt Santos is the underdog hero, a man who fights fair and speaks from the heart, and won’t exploit the colour of his skin to win points. Not having MS to lie about, he’s even squeakier clean than Bartlett.

Watching him struggle to get himself noticed is probably the best element of the whole show. It says a lot that by the end of the year, I was disappointed when the episodes were set squarely back in the White House.

Santos being offered the Vice Presidency is a nice moral dilemma. It also, I guess, owes a lot to the 2000 election and the position of Ralph Nader. They certainly pile on the odds, and his winning California really comes as a surprise.

Yet this is also comfort-telly, with everything coming out okay. And by the end of the run we know Santos is going to make it (don’t we?). These obstacles are just about making him more dazzling and perfect. When I get round to borrowing Season 7 off Nimbos, I’m hoping to see Santos fall on his arse.

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