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“Today’s priority is not world peace.” Sep 24

The fifth season of The West Wing is not its best. While such assessments are by their nature subjective, I suspect most fans of the series would agree that the show’s fifth season is its weakest.

I noted when I wrote about the first season that some of the dialogue, while very good, seemed less subtle than we were used to from subsequent years. As Aaron Sorkin settled in, the writing became (even) more sophisticated; with Sorkin gone, it is as if someone has pressed a reset button on the writing staff, the institutional memory lost. Even so, the same process does eventually take hold again: the new writers acclimatise and the standard returns to the excellence we expect.

Where is there left to go after four years though? We’ve had a presidential election, albeit almost tokenistically at times; we’ve had presidential and vice presidential scandals; the administration has assassinated a foreign diplomat; white supremacists have put the president in hospital; every kind of international crisis has reared its head. The production team don’t seem to know the answer, and as a result season five meanders – slowly and still often entertainingly – until it settles finally on leading up to the most tragically tedious conflict in the world, between Israel and the Palestinians.

First, though, to where we left the series at the end of season four. John Goodman’s President Walken is in charge following the abduction of Zoey Bartlet. While there is a certain amount of mileage from President Bartlet’s powerlessness – developed in the rest of the season – the knowledge that he can return to office at any time of his choosing does lessen the tension. We see the new White House residence kitchen set that will provide the background to the season’s domestic dramas. The first episode unfortunately subjects us to another mawkish montage of sequences accompanied by an awful song.

Zoey is recovered at the end of the second episode, allowing the President to return to office. It’s a relief that the series can get back to normal, although it’s sad to see Walken leave with so little time on screen, and does leave us wondering whether the contrived sacrifice of John Hoynes was really worth it. However, the loss of the Vice President does bring the reward of the process of finding his replacement.

The administration’s chosen successor to Hoynes is Secretary Berryhill, a character mentioned numerous times over the years but never before seen. He’s played by William Devane who’s most famous for Knots Landing and is, as far as I can ascertain, the only West Wing actor to have been in an Alfred Hitchcock film.

The second episode also introduces us to Josh Lyman’s new intern Ryan Pierce, played by Jesse Bradford, who, the Internet Movie Database depressingly informs me is a week younger than me. The Laws of TV dictate that Ryan should be a dreadful character, like the young heroes of kids’ shows who say “I’m a genius” as if that endears them to the audience. He’s rich, arrogant, and only working for Josh because his uncle’s an influential senator – he should be insufferable. Instead, through a combination of light writing, regular putdowns from Josh and an understated performance from Bradford, and by restricting him to only nine episodes, Ryan becomes useful comic relief and gets several good scenes, the most notable of which is his getting Josh to pretend to fire him in “Full Disclosure”.

The third episode, “Jefferson Lives”, includes a good example of the less subtle writing on show in this season. Several times a flashback is used to a scene where Zoey is riding her horse at the Bartlet’s farm in Manchester. It’s intended to demonstrate, through moody closeups and careful cutting, that she isn’t holding up well following the trauma of her kidnapping but is putting a brave face on for her father. Its clumsy storytelling, though, ramming the meaning down the viewer’s throat rather than allowing us to work this out from the dialogue and the actors’ performances. The first mostly good episode of the season, but let down by scenes like this, which leaves the job of being the actual first good episode to “Han”, not least for the mocking speech in which Toby and Will take out their frustrations over the choice over underwhelming new Vice President Bob Russell (no, not that Bob Russell):

“In a triumph of the middling, a nod to mediocrity, and with gorge rising, it gives me great nausea to announce Robert Russell – Bingo Bob himself – as your new Vice President.”

“Constituency of One” is a nice little episode, yet another where a hubristic Josh makes a bit of a cock-up. It’s also one of a few West Wing episodes to mention “clean coal”, which Ming Campbell drops into his environmental speeches every now again. Everything I Know About Clean Coal I Learned From The West Wing, so I always flinch when I hear Ming mention – because here’s what CJ Cregg has to say about it:

“Clean coal’s like saying healthy botulism, child-safe plutonium.”

Nice. But, hang on – where’s Sam Seaborn? Nope, still so sign, and no explanation. Still, here’s Terry O’Quinn as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the episode “Disaster Relief” which has its moments, but in which CJ is given what must be termed a “Bring Back Sorkin” speech. That sparkle is still missing in “Separation of Powers”, but it’s the best episode so far, helped along by the brief return of Matthew Perry and a strong performance from Duran Duran (no, really) as Roy Ashland, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Ashland’s confrontation with Bartlet in the Oval Office is suspiciously similar to the President’s meeting with the retiring Justice Crouch in “The Short List” in season one.

“Separation of Powers” also benefits from a particularly classy finale, leading directly into “Shutdown”, another new high for the season. Bartlet faces off with new Speaker of the House Jeffrey Haffley, played by Steven Culp off of Desperate Housewives. (Pop fact: Culp played Robert Kennedy in Thirteen Days; Martin Sheen played JFK in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy.) Haffley is the first recurring antagonist lined up as a regular enemy, providing a proper opponent for the administration. He may be the political equivalent of a pantomime villain at times, but he does provide a useful dramatic target. In “Shutdown”, Josh redeems himself by running rings round Haffley, suggesting the President’s iconic walk to Capitol Hill.

“Abu el Banat” is a nice little episode, and is followed in “The Stormy Present” by a welcome return for President Walken and an appearance from film actor James Cromwell as another former president. Josh almost gets a girlfriend in the form of a NASA administrator and CJ gets some good scenes against abrasive new talk show host Taylor Reid, played by Jay Mohr. Mohr’s Go co-star William Fichtner who, along with Glenn Close and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Robert Picardo, appears as a possible new Supreme Court judge in “The Supremes”. Close and Milo O’Shea give particularly memorable performances in this episode, which vies with “Shutdown” for the title of season’s finest.

The year’s experimental episode is “Access”, told in documentary form, shot contemporaneously but transmitted once the Bartlet administration has left office. It’s got a fresh feel to it, with lots of handheld video and new characters, but the underlying plot doesn’t really live up to the effort. Built around C.J. Cregg, it boxes the series into a corner plotwise with its closing narration, telling us that:

“[C.J. Cregg] remains the only woman to have served two terms as the White House press secretary.”

As we will see, this is proved wrong in around seven episodes’ time.

“No Exit” sees the White House once again locked down and is a fun episode with a sting in the tail. “Gaza” launches a series arc tackling the Middle East crisis, the most tediously and repetitively depressing conflict in the world – so quite a challenge to turn into interesting, balanced drama. “Gaza” goes out of its way, successfully, to be balanced towards both sides, but it’s less engaging than you’d hope and the storytelling device – Donna emailing Josh – is as stilted as when it was used way back in “The Stackhouse Filibuster”. It also suffers from an Irish character with a less than convincing accent (the actor, Jason Isaacs, is better known as Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter).

The final episode, “Memorial Day”, is better than I remembered, with Josh playing the spy and Bartlet struggling to pitch a ball. There are nice flashback scenes to the days after Bartlet’s election as president, building to the breakdown of Bartlet’s relationship with Leo down, Bartlet symbolically leaving him behind in the final moments of the season.

Some of the production team’s confidence appears to have returned by the finale, but the show’s storytelling is still a little jumbled. Fortunately, that’s about to change.

Look out for: Toby singing; a character called Dr Milkman; the comparison “more mind-numbing than a Radiohead concert”; Bartlet, in flashback, annoyed with his predecessor for saddling him with a war in the Phillipines – he will do something similar to his successor.

Six degrees of Alan Dale: Lewis Berryhill is played by William Devane, who went on to be Secretary of Defense in 24. Michael Hyatt, who plays Democrat operative Angela Blake, also appears in an episode of 24 Day 4, as does David Andriole from “The Stormy Present”. We are introduced to Fitzwallace’s replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Alexander, played by Locke from Lost. Joaquim de Almeida, who played villain Ramon Salazar in the third series of 24, flirts with C.J. as the Argentine ambassador in “Slow News Day”. Carlos Gómez, who plays Admiral McGill in “An Khe”, plays Luis Annicon, the Districit Attorney assigned to Salazar’s case, while also in Day 3 and “An Khe” is Brian Catalano. Day 1 villain Andre Drazen, Zeljko Ivanek, appears as a Walken aide. Maz Jobrani – Prince Bitar in “The Stormy Present” – is in 24 Day 2.

Albie Selznick, the documentary maker in “Access”, appeared in a couple of episode of the fourth series of 24. Like a perhaps unsurprising number of Middle-Eastern-looking American actors in The West Wing, Zina Zaflow, Navid Negahban were also in 24, as was Endre Hules from “Memorial Day”.

Tony Lee provides this season’s best connection: he plays pianist Jai Yung Ahn in “Han”, Sun’s friend Jae Lee in Lost, and is in one episode of the second series of 24.

Best episodes: Shutdown, The Supremes

“You’re relieved, Mr President.” Sep 06

It is conventional wisdom that The West Wing jumps the shark at the end of season four with the departure of writer and creator Aaron Sorkin. There is a case to be made, though, that the rot sets in a little earlier, with the sense that season four itself is where the series began to lose its way. It picks up as the season progresses, but we must call in evidence the opening two-part story, “20 Hours in America”. A road trip in which Josh, Toby and Donna get themselves stranded in Indiana and attempt to get back to Washington D.C., it’s probably the worst of the series to date. Here I have to repeat the caveat that even bad West Wing is still fairly good TV, but these episodes really only have one element worth watching, and that’s scenes featuring Lily Tomlin as Debbie Fiderer – oh, and Alan Dale‘s in it! Extra points are deducted for the use of a Tori Amos cover of I Don’t Like Mondays.

“College Kids” isn’t a great improvement, but it features a very classy tracking shot and a nice little situation room scene between Leo and lady friend/international lawyer Jordan Kendall. “Debate Camp” is this season’s flashback episode and not hugely enthralling, but it’s followed by “Game On”, a much better episode, which has some nice handheld shooting and one of my favourite teaser sequences of the entire run, in which Bartlet and co. gang up on Toby. It’s the big election debate, though whether the Republican election candidate, dumb Southern governor Rob Ritchie, is a cipher for George W. Bush is left to the viewer to decide… The episode also features the return of Albie Duncan, one of those minor characters who stick in the mind despite only making a few appearances. He flirts gently with CJ: “I like you. You’re the one I like.”

“Election Night” comes and I don’t think it’s a surprise, mid-season, that Bartlet wins. There’s a brief hint of an MS attack, although it’s not followed up on this year, and a lovely scene in the following episode where Bartlet mixes cocktails in the residence for himself and his wife, dabbing alcohol amorously behind his ears. Christian Slater turns up as Donna’s brief love interest but most of the plot involving the character manages to take place without the actor.

Skipping on past some OK-but-nothing-special episodes, we reach “The Long Goodbye”. This is a departure from standard West Wing fare and sees CJ returning home for a school reunion. It features Donald Moffat (Edgar Halcyon from Tales of the City) as CJ’s father, who has Alzheimer’s, and film actor Matthew Modine as an old school friend. It’s a nice enough little episode, and experimentation is welcome, but it’s also a bit of a trial and, I’m afraid, not really what I tuned in for.

The inauguration two-parter (oddly split into “Part I” and “Over There”) has its moments, and then we get “The California 47th”, in which the Bartlet administration inadvertently does everything in its power to scupper Sam Seaborn’s run for Congress. This is a fun episode, full of amusing gaffes. It’s a good episode too for slightly annoying new character Will Baily, who has to turn White House interns into speechwriters overnight – an enjoyable subplot, although not an entirely realistic one. “Red Haven’s On Fire” then waves goodbye to Sam Seaborn – or, rather, doesn’t, as he simply falls off the radar, with hardly a mention after this episode and no explanation as to why he hasn’t returned to the West Wing as a newly-promoted senior counsellor to the President.

We lean towards the home strait with “Privateers”, another good episode with lots of fun to be had around Amy’s first day as Mrs Bartlet’s Chief of Staff and a particularly silly scene featuring a woman accusing the First Lady’s ancestor of being a pirate. “Angel Maintenance” continues the run of better episodes, as does “Evidence of Things Not Seen”, which introduces Matthew Perry’s pivotal minor character Joe Quincy.

Then we have “Life On Mars”, with possibly the most dramatic teaser in the whole run. Most of the episode is told in flashback, so we’re presented at the very beginning, out of the blue, with the resignation of the Vice President of the United States. It’s a top notch episode, helped by the presence of Tim Matheson as Vice President Hoynes, demonstrating how quickly things can change in politics (compare it to the slow revelation of the President’s multiple sclerosis that followed “17 People” in season two).

And then the big climax – the kidnapping of President Bartlet’s youngest daughter. One school of thought says that this is so absurd and unlikely that it undermines the series’ realism (as if Zoe’s boyfriend’s rubbish French accent wasn’t already doing that). I buy into that a little, but I have more sympathy for the second case: that since, thankfully, we’ve never seen this sort of thing happen in the real world, The West Wing can use its role as fiction to examine the hypothetical issues that would arise if it did. John Goodman was an excellent choice for President Walken and makes his mark despite only being in charge for three episodes. The season cliffhanger: President Bartlet is no longer President…

This was weakest season so far, but still with plenty recommend it. It covers surprisingly little of the election campaign, and finally picks up once the President has been reinaugurated. But now the creator has gone for good: “You’re relieved, Mr Sorkin.”

Look out for: The episode “Arctic Radar”, in which the US Ambassador to Bulgaria who was sacked in season one is referred to as the ambassador to Brazil, and in which Josh has a little rant about Star Trek fans:

Let’s list our ten favourite episodes. Let’s list our least favourite episodes. Let’s list our favourite galaxies. Let’s make a chart to see how often our favourite galaxies appear in our favourite episodes.

Also look out for: A character asking “What kind of day has it been?” – the title of the last episode of season one; Megan Ward from Dark Skies, who has a small role in “Guns Not Butter”; from Alan Dale and Harry Groener, who had previously played cabinet members, returning briefly in “25”; Donna comparing herself to Tippi Hedren when a bird (possibly a Tappy-Head Wren) pecks the window repeatedly. OK, don’t look out for that, it was just an excuse for a bad pun. Do look out for the suggestion of Leo as the new VP, which (inadvertently, I suspect) foreshadows the end of season six.

Six degrees of Alan Dale: where we pick out actors in The West Wing who also appears in Lost or 24. James Morrison, who plays Bill Buchanan, the best head of CTU in 24, is the pilot of Air Force One in “Angel Maintenance”. Bernard White, who plays the surgeon in “Swiss Diplomacy”, is an Imam in Day 2 of 24. One of the chaps at his mosque in that episode, who appeared in a different role in Day 4, was Faran Tahir, who appears in two episodes this season.

Tobin Bell, a villain in the Saw movies, plays Colonel Whitcomb in “Process Stories” and in the villainous Peter Kingsley in the second season of 24.

Nick Jameson is an excellent find: he has a small role in “Game On” and “Process Stories” as the panellist who asks the first question in presidential debate, but he goes on to appear as the spooky Australian psychiatrist Richard Malkin in Lost, and as the Russian President in the fifth season of 24. Oh, and, of course, there’s only Alan Dale himself. Jim Robinson in Neighbours; some bloke in The O.C.; Vice President John Jim Prescott in 24; Desmond’s rich potential father-in-law in Lost; and the Secretary of Commerce in the first and last episodes of this season of The West Wing.

Best episodes: Game On, Election Night, The California 47th, Life On Mars

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On the box Aug 31

I have come down with a cold, so after a fuggy day at work yesterday I’m resting at home today and watching TV.

I’ve taken in a couple of episodes of Countdown, which I played along with and didn’t do too badly despite being unwell. I’ve watched Hairspray on DVD, and earlier in the week Good Night, And Good Luck, which is a very good film (and surprisingly short). It’s a little predictable (a lame criticism of a true story, I know) but stylishly made and very educational if you don’t know (as I didn’t) about Ed Murrow’s work against McCarthy. Last night I watched the stark John Hurt/Richard Burton film of 1984, as I trudge on through the book.

And now I find myself watching George W. Bush on BBC News 24. He’s in Salt Lake City giving a speech on terrorism and my word is he unbearable. His use of the term The Enemy implies that there is some sort of homogenous, scheming organisation at work, and reminds me of the propaganda of Big Brother. 2009 really can’t come soon enough.

“In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime. Boy, I dunno’ is when I decided to kick your ass.” Aug 18

Before we can move on to the canonical episodes of season 3 of The West Wing, we first must deal with the “play” that was broadcast in place of the season opener in response to the events of 11th September 2001. It’s called “Isaac and Ishmael” and I didn’t like it when it was first broadcast. It’s grown on me a little but I’m still not a fan. A friend saw it in America when it was first shown and commented that he thought it should be shown in every classroom there. He’s probably right, but it demonstrates the audience to which “Isaac and Ishmael” is pitched. The main plot involves a group of swotty schoolkids visiting the White House who are taught by the regular cast the meaning of right and wrong. Well, about the terrorist threat, but it’s not far off. I don’t have a problem with the message, which is reasonable and balanced, but it’s not delivered in the most subtle way.

What redeems “Isaac and Ishmael” is the other plot, in which Leo interrogates an Arabic staffer suspected of being a terrorist. It takes quite a risk in painting one of the lead characters as a little bit racist, but it works well – and as Lord Stevens comes out with unpleasant stuff about passenger profiling, it’s worth noting Leo’s subsequent apology:

“That’s the price you pay… for having the same physical features as criminals. That’s what I was gonna say. [...] I’m sorry about that.”

Back to the series proper, which begins with the President kicking off his re-election campaign, resolving season 2’s cliffhanger in flashback. There is a sense that, compared to the previous years, episodes are a little less self-contained, with the series becoming more of an ongoing story. Nevertheless, episodes still tend to be defined by a specific incident. The cast continue to hit the mark throughout – and the several Babish/Mrs Bartlet scenes are very welcome.

Highlights include “The Indians in the Lobby” – not so much for the Native American A-plot, but for the delightfully silly scene in which the President calls an information line to get their advice on cooking stuffing.

“If I cook it inside the turkey, is there a chance I could kill my guests? I’m not saying that’s necessarily a deal-breaker.”

CJ’s character goes a little over the top in “The Women of Qumar”, but this is quickly forgotten as it is followed by “Bartlet for America”, another flashback to the campaign trail, in which Leo takes centre stage. It introduces Joanna Gleason as Jordan Kendall, who makes up a top double act with John Spencer, and is funny as well as poignant. “The Two Bartlets” offers another enjoyable and dramatic two-hander between Martin Sheen and Richard Schiff, and leads to the welcome return of Adam Arkin in “Night Five”. “Dead Irish Writers” is great fun: Roger Rees makes another entertaining appearance as John Marbury (to tackle the US’s conflicting attitudes to Islamic extremism and Irish terrorism) and Stockard Channing gets several good scenes as Abigail Bartlet celebrates her birthday. “Stirred” is a nice little episode about the Vice-President, Ian McShane pops up in the following episode with a memorable appearance as a Russian diplomat (even if his Russian accent is a little less than convincing), and then we’re into the final three: “The Black Vera Wang”, whose final scene is rather sinister for The West Wing; “We Killed Yamamoto”, which is pretty much a setup for the finale; and “Posse Comitatus”, which features historical Shakespeare on stage and political intrigue, murder and assassination off it. There’s a great Sam and Toby scene with the press outside the theatre in New York, and the final shots of the tainted President in shadow and in silhouette are evidence of yet more quality direction. I couldn’t help feeling though, as Jeff Buckley sings over a sequence of tragic, dialogue-free scenes, that the production team had decided that “Brothers in Arms” had worked so well over the climax of “Two Cathedrals” that they should do the same thing again. Despite the dejà vu, it’s still a marvellous episode.

Look out for: CJ mentions Freedonia, later used in more detail in a season 6 episode of that name. Several different characters say, “Don’t talk to me like I’m other people,” a line which has cropped up in previous seasons too. CJ calls Simon Donovan “Agent 99“. CJ (again), singing Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” in “Gone Quiet”.

Don’t look out for: Armin Shimerman off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Although credited in “Posse Comitatus”, you’ll struggle to find him. I suspect his dialogue was cut.

Six degrees of Alan Dale: even more actors from The West Wing who pop up in Lost or 24. Connie Britton from Spin City plays adviser Connie Tate; she also appears as Diane Huxley in 24 Day 5. Kevin Tighe, who plays Indiana Governor Jack Buckland, is Locke’s father Anthony Cooper in Lost. Randy Thompson, who has a small role as a potential donor in “Bartlet for America” is a bomb technician in the finale of the third series of 24. Gregory Itzin pops up in one scene in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic”; he went on to play rubbish president Charles Logan in 24. Now the biggies. Jenny Gago appears in “The Indians in the Lobby” and uncredited in an episode of the first series of 24; she also appears as a CIA agent in the first season Lost episode “The Greater Good”. Finally, Evan Handler plays Doug Wegland in three episodes of The West Wing, is in an episode of Day 4 of 24 (as mentioned in my review of that), and plays Dave in the Lost episode “Dave”. He is also one of many West Wing to appear in the pilot episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Best episodes: Bartlet for America, Dead Irish Writers, The Black Vera Wang, Posse Comitatus