The West Wing and “What’s Next?”

As a consequence of Rilla being away for a considerable stretch of time I’ve engaged in two major activity. One, I’ve been growing a protest beard to register my disapproval at not having her around. Two, I’ve been watching a hell of a lot of The West Wing. Reams of it.

One thing that I’ve started finding vaguely irksome about the show (and I’m guessing proper political people feel the burn of even more) is how they never actually have to deal with anything. For a show that’s fixated on highly dramatic and tension-charged situations, almost nothing they do ever has any ramifications after the credits roll.

This leads to a weird kind of wonderful world for them as political agents, since they get all the glory of taking the tough decisions and so on, but none of the fallout. By which I don’t just mean “how do their decisions affect the common man and woman on the street?” but rather, “does anything they decide ever have anything to do with their future whatsoever?” Answer, very, very rarely.

This is a pretty standard kind of setup with these shows. While I think there’s been a clear attempt by lots of the “contemporary TV” (though The West Wing is rather old now) to break away from the formulaic nature of so much TV, the typical one being the sitcom in which the comedy rests on everything being exactly the same each week, so as to have a base to jump from. Phoebe is always whacky, and Wile E. Coyote never dies. The new shows forward much more complicated and, you would think, changeable situations – Tara is four kinds of crazy, Walter is a chemistry teacher on the edge, and Josiah is POTUS.

Yet nothing changes – nothing can change – in these shows, because if anything changed appreciably the situation would be threatened, and thus the entire premise and engine of the show. The staging then becomes a pretty amazing smoke-and-mirrors job to appear to be running full tilt through dramatic and catalytic moments, while remaining in place. Like that cool dance-move from when I was young, the Running Man.

The West Wing brings it out with full fury because the people in the show make about 5 massive decisions about the future of an entire country every episode. And each time, nothing happens. They pass a massive new health bill, and then… it’s passed and that’s that. They almost, but not quite, fire the Surgeon General over drug philosophies, don’t, and then… there’s no fall-out. “Nothing happens” with more zest and fireworks than in any other show I can recall.

And Josiah Bartlet looks at us with his flinty eyes, says, “What’s Next?” and means “You are getting sleepy… none of this ever happened… everything’s back to normal…”

8 May 2011
← next words previous words →