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: The Brink

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Eager to find out how The Brink, a satirical comedy focused on a geopolitical crisis that ignites in Pakistan, ends, I keep watching. It’s a relatively funny journey – not too taxing or challenging given the political story (which can bog down shows attempting to be “light”, as this one aims to be). What sets this show apart is its stellar ensemble cast. Just when I get pulled into the scenes with the incorrigible, frenetic Jack Black and his driver, played by the multitalented Aasif Mandvi, the shift focuses to the sex-obsessed, liberal but never-taking-his-eye-off-the-ball US Secretary of State, played to perfection by Tim Robbins. But the show also has somewhat smaller but still standout roles for Pablo Schreiber, Carla Gugino (who also turned in a good performance recently in Wayward Pines) and John Larroquette.

On an entirely unrelated note, Larroquette’s presence sent me off on a nostalgic mental parade of past television, including Larroquette on the 80s sitcom classic, Night Court, of which he was the best part. But Night Court also included Harry Anderson, a most non-descript guy who nevertheless carved out a niche for himself as a magic aficionado and as a night-court judge, as a frequent guest star in Cheers and in the 80s/90s sitcom Dave’s World, based on the life of comedy writer, Dave Barry. And my twisted obituary-laced brain immediately recalls that Dave’s World’s Meshach Taylor (also famous for his turn as Anthony the ex-con in Designing Women) is dead – too young. Going back to Night Court, once again, whatever happened to Markie Post, the female lead in the show? Back in the 1990s she was in a little-watched but nevertheless entertaining Hearts Afire with the late John Ritter. (Of course my brain would lead me here – always the grim reaper.) Hearts Afire ended up being about a married couple working on a hometown newspaper in the south, but it started off being thematically not too different from Alpha House and The Brink – without the farce, of course. Incidentally, Hearts Afire also starred Billy Bob Thornton. But people were not quite ready for Billy Bob yet.

In some ways, ensemble shows like The Brink, as topical and sharp as they are, end up making me more interested in making connections – playing some kind of six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon connect-the-dots. Obviously. Nothing about the unfolding crisis and underhanded political rivalries playing out in high-stakes, behind-the-scenes conflicts should lead someone to forgotten two-season sitcoms like Hearts Afire. But for a TV-crazed lunatic like me, they do.