a grotesque lack of subtext

TV My speedy rewatch of The West Wing has reached the handover between writer Aaron Sorkin to John Wells, the close of season four to the opening of season five. I've not been looking forward to this. It’s a while since I’ve seen these episodes and originally two whole years, just long enough for me to forget how good Sorkin’s writing really was. Having seen them in quick succession, here are some brief remarks.

In Twenty-Five (the last episode of season four) as Bartlett hands the presidency to Walken, I think Sorkin is writing about himself. I think that Zoe symbolises his own problems both personal and with the studio, that effectively he’s the president and that Wells is Walken and he's communicating the off-screen handover. It’s significant that the closing shot is of Bartlett leaving the oval office just as Sorkin writes his final lines for the series.

How clearly you see Wells trying to get to grips with such a complex show and characters as far as we can tell he’s never written for before. 7A WF 83429 looks the same, all of the actors are there, the directing style hasn’t changed much and yet there’s something missing. It’s in small things such as how different characters are referred to both in the first and third person – at one point Leo coldly talks about the kidnapped daughter as ‘Zoe Bartlett’ in the Situation Room when clearly even there, he’s still he calling her Zoe.

It also lacks history and precedent and literature. Episodes in the Sorkin era were thick with characters talking about something which happened to another figure or there’s a quote from literature or philosophy. Some of the first words from Walken’s lips in Twenty-Five are about Franz Ferdinand. It’s always relatively obscure and pertinent. The best Wells can come up with is ‘Cry havok and let slip the dogs of war’ which is sad.

7A WF 83429 is also without a greater theme. Twenty-Five was about Toby realising that he can be a great father by watching the President’s reaction to Zoe’s kidnap; there’s even often a moment usually between Josh and Donna or a flashback structure which iterates what the story is trying to say. There’s none of that in Wells’s script. You detect that what he wanted to do is talk about Jed seeking forgiveness from God. Instead, he simply takes communion, even though you’re dying for a reference back to Two Cathedrals in which the President told God what he thought of the metaphysical being and his policies towards the human race.

Some beats ring true: CJ telling Danny to run the story about the assassination before Walken can get it out there; Ellie comforting her Dad at the kitchen table; Walken’s yappy dog and its effects on CJ's clothing. But overwhelmingly there are scene after scene in which characters blandly say what they mean or nothing at all – there’s a grotesque lack of subtext and I’m already annoyed and I’m only an episode in. It’s going to be a long three seasons. I might wait until the real world US politics have blown over before continuing…

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:16 pm

    I found that The West Wing got very dark going into season 5, to the point where I nearly stopped watching it. In fact, I've recently started re-watching the series in order, but somehow stopped on Season 5. It's just a bit depressing, I find.

    Sorkin is a very talented writer, though. I agree with you. I think they all missed him for the last few seasons.