Lunchtable TV Talk: The West Wing

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I force-fed myself seven annoying seasons of The Gilmore Girls recently, thinking it could play unassumingly in the background while I did other things. But it was so annoying with too many fast-talking, high-pitched, histrionic characters that I could neither concentrate on and absorb it nor concentrate on everything else I was meant to be doing.

The West Wing, also seven seasons long, 22 episodes per season, is the opposite. (Hard to believe that it has been almost ten years since it ended!) It’s equally fast-talking and sometimes a bit preachy, but it is designed in a way that I can pay attention to it and do whatever else I need to do and get the most from both. I even heard Rob Lowe exclaim in exasperation, “Good night, nurse!” – an expression I had only ever heard my grandmother (and the character Mike Sloan in the long-gone but much-loved show Homefront) use (most people don’t believe me when I tell them that yes, in fact, this is a real expression).

I had seen isolated episodes of The West Wing during its original run, but most of it happened during a period when I did not watch much telly, much less ingest it like a pig at the trough as I do now. I was always impressed with The West Wing – its stories, its cast, its pace – but only now, thanks to Netflix, am I watching it from end to end. And it’s providing sheer contentment. I haven’t reached the point yet where Rob Lowe leaves or where John Spencer dies, depriving the show of one of its greatest assets.

Can you argue with a show that at its worst seems a little like a “very special episode” on some issue – but never overdoes it, really? And at its best, weaves words like “ensorcelled” into the script? Or with a show that during its run had a stellar leading cast and unparalleled caliber of guest stars (Oliver Platt, Edward James Olmos – he’s Admiral Adama now and forever for me, or Jaime Escalante!, Mary Louise Parker, John Larroquette, – great in his recent role in The Brink, Marlee Matlin, Gerald McRaney – who turns up everywhere, usually as a former or current military guy – and an insane, bursting list of others) but many others who were virtually unknown at the time but went on to other, big things (Ty Burrell of Modern Family, Evan Handler of Sex and the City and Californication, Nick Offerman of Parks & Recreation, Clark Gregg of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Danny Pudi of Community, Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives and American Crime, Lisa Edelstein of House and the mercilessly shitty Girlfriends Guide to Divorce, Jorja Fox of CSI, Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe and Connie Britton, looking teenager-young, of Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and Nashville…). And more… so many more.

This show encapsulates Aaron Sorkin‘s golden age. America wasn’t ready for him or his style in the too-clever but too-soon Sports Night, and he went too far with the overblown The Newsroom. But The West Wing was the pinnacle.

Lunchtable TV talk – American Crime: Don’t believe everything you read

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After spending a lot of time watching ridiculous shows, I thought American Crime, with its gritty realism, would be a good change of pace. In many ways, it is. It is gritty and real and tells a story from multiple perspectives. Characters are real, complicated, vulnerable and flawed – mostly unlikeable – but then, aren’t most people, especially on TV? While most characters are exaggerated for television, I find the exaggerations are only slightly true here. For example, with grief exploding from the uptight mother of a murder victim, she is desperately trying to keep it together, tightly wound, and keep control over her emotions and how things play out (a stellar performance from Felicity Huffman). Ultimately, most of what comes out of her mouth is critical, unpleasant, drives wedges between other characters and her, and above all, comes out as racist and short-sighted.

Who am I to say that her lashing out (however controlled it is) is exaggerated? Her insistence in a recent episode that “this family was never normal” strikes me as funny in that it’s true that no family is ever normal. The brother of the murder victim seems to be one of the only clear-headed, normal people here. His handling of the manipulative demands and undercurrent of racism his mother has always doled out is inspired. He finally confronts her – he seems to be the only one confronting anyone with reason in this show – and it’s hard to watch. It’s for scenes like these that I continue to watch, even though I am not finding the show particularly meaningful or compelling.

I read a lot of articles introducing the show before it started. I had high hopes. But the show unfolds slowly and is mundane. Perhaps this is what things are like – slow and murky. In the criminal justice system, justice is not swift and even if the outcome is “fair”, it is not going to seem fair to all parties. Crime and its aftermath has a way of revealing secrets under the surface – which then tear people apart on top of the grief and loss they are already feeling. It can unravel tenuous “peace” – in families, in societies. For example, we can see a relatively deft handling of the racial and cultural issues at play in society as a whole here, and these tensions lead to stupid decisions and explosions. Nothing is obvious, but it is undoubtedly taxing to try to create a story from all angles. For example, the story explores divides within one community. The father of a Mexican-American family that is central to the story condemns “illegals” as giving the rest of them a bad name. Naturally this does not go over well within his community (his family is shunned from their church after the father’s tirade on “illegals” is broadcast on the news).

The point is – the show’s treatment tells it from many sides, but as one online outlet explains:

“The problem with frank conversations about race and prejudice, particularly as it pertains to American life, is that the issue is so enormous that it’s impossible to have a comprehensive discussion on the subject. There’s too much at stake with too many affiliated tendrils to ever feel as if it’s a topic that has anything close to a solution, much less one that could be reached by simple dialogue. So instead of having the big important conversations about race and really digging into the main course that is oppression, society tends to prefer it’s race conversations in amuse-bouche portions, just bite-sized bits of conflict that fuel the Twitter outrage fires for days until they eventually burn themselves out, often just in time for another flare up.”

Perhaps I find the show frustrating because the characters are weak and human and do exactly what real people would do rather than what you want them to do – or what they should do (and what TV characters looking for “redemption” would do). In that sense, even five episodes in, I am not sure what I think about American Crime.