Redheads & Pratfalls

Bravo is rebroadcasting West Wing, and I’m watching it again. I used to watch it devotedly while I was traveling, in the late 90s, and now I’m trying to watch it in order. This was going to be a feminist review, but now it’s just a review-review.

I don’t like Sorkin’s writing- it’s a bad derivation of my least favorite aspect of Mamet. It’s intellectualism for the sake of intellectualism. He has oft-repeated stylistic tics that drive me batty. I’m lured in though through a love of American History, and some plot lines. Some of his episodes are very well crafted, but the dialogue drives me batty. Did I say that already? Sam?

My first objection, with the benefit of hindsight, is that Sorkin plays our heartstrings worse than NPR’s interviews with the homeless. He preys on simplistic moral gut-checks. At that time, the Right was taking away our government, so I fear that we were lulled into a fantasy world where smart people were ruling the country well.

Two: it plays into an odd aspect of our taste, as American viewers, to want to watch people work, and work hard, long hours, at meaningful jobs. Do we like it because we don’t have it? That’s just depressing (and why I love the Office).

Three: I don’t begrudge the actors. Rob Lowe- he has the same absent-minded “genius” arrogant style that Bradley Whitehead fine-tuned. It’s the writing. “Sam! Sam! Sam!” Sam is the most distracted, hearing-loss character in TV history. Beautiful women are always saying his name repeatedly, assertively, calmly, much like you would a 3-year-old that has long since tuned you out. They all say it with an odd inflection, too, like “say yam” vs. “sam.” I want to give Sam a time-out for not listening to his secretary.

One thing I love about watching West Wing, is how Sorkin elevates the role of writer. From this show, you’d think the speechwriter was the most appreciated, lauded person in the White House next to the President. After the State of the Union, the lead speechwriter is praised. The “fine tuning” the “polish” that Sam gets acres and acres of time to work on – halting the work of almost everyone else in the machine. It’s kind of great. But a little egotistical.

OK, now onto the meat of it. Sorkin has a serious thing for redheads, with pale skin and dark lipstick. It keeps coming up- new characters with the same style of make-up. It’s TV land so they style everyone the same, still, it makes me wonder. The dark hair and pale skin, thing. Donna Moss & Ainsley (the blond republican), still sport that dark lipstick too. Thank god the NSA woman came on the set- and yet, it reeks of tokenism. Not sure if it’s just a trend in the late 90s or what- along with the fuzzy mood lighting.

Oh, and there’s really only one way of knowing something: jaw-dropping arrogance and spewing statistics. There’s one-upmanship, and then there’s another style of discussion Sorkin loves: repetition. People never discuss something without providing tons of background info, usually wrapped up in a lecture. I LOVE it when CJ yells at the President, “don’t you dare lecture me.” (season 2, Manchester). The worst technique, though, I call the pratfall. An example:

Candidate for Asst. Attorney General: We want reparations (he is African-American).
Staffer: That’s stupid.
Candidate: We want retributions. (did I say Sorkin loved repetition?)
Staffer: (Here comes the statistic dump- memorized, of course) 122321 widows didn’t receive pensions from the Civil War, 32343 union soldiers lost their left leg, and it would cost each person $1232,222 to repay the slaves
Candidate: That’s all good, Say-yam, but we want retributions! (raise the emotional bar a bit, to show illogic)
staffer: (the one-liner last word, usually delivered by Tobee) My grandfather didn’t get retributions for Auschwitz.

In an interview with Rob Cordry, on Fresh Air, Rob confirmed that Sorkin rarely lets his actors read the script before filming. Rob’s character was showing his parents around the Studio 30 set when his father starts to guilt-trip him for working in TV, while “your brother is in Iraq” (or it may have been Afghanistan). During the interview, Rob admits he had no idea he had a brother, or that he was in Iraq. This was noted by Terry Gross as “great writing,” but to me, that’s awful. Classic pratfall, at the expense of Rob. Not only does Sorkin do it to his characters, he does it to his actors! Briliant.

Actually, in that episode about retributions, Josh did agree regarding reparations in a strange about-face. This brings me to the humiliating-the-other-side, and the Last Word, mostly used by Tobee. Liberals are always right, if they have the last word, like they do in fantasy TV-land. Queue creepy music, as we let Bushco take over the country.

Probably my least favorite episode is the Jackal, where everyone has to mention how they’re “missing out” if they don’t see CJ lipsync a rap song. I really like Allison Janey and she seems mildly embarassed to sing this song-made-up-for-the-show, as well as further sexualize her character. Oh wow- that’s a real song. Insane. Ronnie Jordan, sung by Dana Brown.

There are redeemable moments in West Wing- when they make fun of themselves. Joey the survey queen redeems women in general, as the token savvy political strategist. She of course has to be sexually available. Stockard Channing is probably the most wasted resource. I remember liking Bartlet’s secretary Mrs. Landingham, but she had the worst of all Sorkinisms, non-sequiturs, repetition, and repeating the character’s name to get his attention.

Women rarely have the “not listening to their name being called” tic. CJ once in a while, but she’s a man in a woman’s clothing- she is the fawning “knows nothing” person. She’s actually well-adjusted, too, unlike the OCD over-achievers who are so hyperverbal they can’t kiss someone of the opposite sex without discussing it at length. “Is this a date?” Say-yam asks Melanie about 10 times. If you have to ask…

I see Sorkin’s writing as forgivable in that it was the best at the time. Much like The Wire, which is my favorite today, it’s an evolution. Screenwriting for TV is much like novel writing in the 1900s (I guess, if I was living then.) You’re at the mercy of audience each season, so you really have to pander. It makes for a lot of pressure, and a lot of innovation. I’m impressed that he made Washington sexy. I remind myself of that frequently- when women are asking dumb questions about process or I can see a pratfall coming- that he actually made 8th grade civics interesting. And who knows, maybe women’s make-up was a decision left to someone else on the team.

A show about comedians, that isn’t funny! OK don’t get me started on his other sitcom. Currently, Sorkin is working on a movie about FaceBook. “Pedoconferences” and the hyper articulate, in Stanford start-up world? I’m worried.