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September 22, 2008

i have some problems with the west wing

Posted by dogpossum on September 22, 2008 11:32 PM

Spoiler alert: I give the entire game away in this post. If you're keen to watch The Wire, don't watch the clips - they will ruin it for you. I'd even be careful with some of the text.

I have some problems with the West Wing. I no longer think it's the bee's knees. Partly because I've since watched The Wire, which is the bee's knees, but also because we're rewatching season one now, while we also watch The Wire.
What issues do I have with the West Wing?

1. the music is really intrusive and pushy. The Wire has ruined me for telly with a score. There's no music in The Wire, beyond what the characters hear in their ordinary settings. But the West Wing is rank with it, and it's pushy. It's busy telling you, 'hey, this is a really serious bit' or 'look out - he's angry, he's angry!' You're not left to figure out how you should feel on your own. The Wire doesn't baby you or preach - it figures you know how you're supposed to feel. And the West Wing has that horrid, overly florid music that really gets up my crack.

2. america is wonderful. The West Wing is, essentially, a story about the wonderfulness of the American democratic process. It almost tries to problematise some legislative issues, but it doesn't quite make it. Ultimately, any problem with the American electoral system, laws, powers of the president or general legal system are solved by the wonderfulness of the president. Jed Bartlett/Martin Sheen (and the two are inextricable) is presented as this too-wonderful man, whose sheer charisma absolves the broader structural problems in American civics. He's so smart, so charming, so wickedly brave and sneaky, our problems with his policy or with the way the government he leads works are nudged aside. This feels, ultimately, untrue and deceitful. The West Wing promises a clever, insightful gaze into the white house. But really, it offers you a bunch of fast dialogue with very ordinary, very familiar and very unradical story lines and characters.

3. the dialogue is clever. It's not. It's quick. But every character speaks, ultimately, the same way. The first time I watched this show I thought 'my, I'd love to work in a place like that, where everyone is really clever and everyone is stretched and really used for their best abilities'. But now, I'm not buying that. With rewatching, the stories and dialogue aren't so clever. I'm really not seeing any new types of character relationships or story arcs. There're some overly moralising stories about drugs or health care, but, really, it's the same old preachy shit. And while these guys are presented as the 'good guys' - the left - they're really only soft left. And I don't even want to talk about race. Well, perhaps a little. Black, in the white house? You'll be holding doors for the president, getting told off for speaking out about racism (in ep 15, season 1) or getting killed, eventually.

The Wire, in contrast, is really quite radical. We spend as much time with the drug dealers and shooters and strippers as we do with the police. In fact, the institutional structures and discourses of the illegal networks are far more complex and sophisticated than the police and 'legal' institutions. The police team working 'the wire' are really following a couple of steps behind the B&B crew, trying to figure out how they manage to hide their dealings using a telephone network. You're really left thinking that the B&B organisation - particularly under Stringer Bell's direction - is organised crime.

Issues of crime and class are dealt with in long-reaching, long-term story arcs. They're not resolved in an episode with some ideological bravado from Toby, some practical problem solving from Leo and some balderdash paternalism from Bartlet. Problem solving - solving cases - isn't quick or simple. It doesn't use high tech forensics. It uses, at best, wire taps on pay phones and blokes on roofs with film cameras. Some of the police are utterly crap and incompetent. Some of them have potential, but fail to realise it. And sometimes, the cases don't get solved. There are also frustrating moments when the characters fail to communicate and royally fuck up a 'simple' resolution. So the story lines aren't as clear and simple and easily resolved. West Wing is dealing with the disadvantages of an episodic format - it can't really work with longer, sustained (and ultimately more complex) story lines. But really, there's no excuse for dialogue that looks clever, but isn't, really.

4. the gender stuff. Basically, the chicks on the West Wing are dumb arses. They look good - they sound clever. And CJ is tall. But they're really not the smartest kids in the class. Evidence? Let's say we're faced with a tricky moment in American legislative process. We're pretty sure the audience won't understand or have any useful knowledge about this process. We need to clue them in, but we have about 45 minutes to get the story done, and really, this little narrative knot is more important for making a point about Bartlet's persona or Josh's impending romance. So how do we clue in the audience? The West Wing gets old school and uses some exposition. Basically, one of the clever characters (usually one of the lawyers - Toby, Josh or Sam) explains the process to someone else. 95% of the time that person who needs things explaining is a woman. This could be excused by the fact that the characters are in their first term in the white house -they're new to the job. But why is it always CJ or Mandy or Donna who needs to have something explained to them? It's fairly rare to see Sam having something explained. Unless it's emotional stuff. If it's something to do with dating, Sam's having it explained to him by... some chick. If it's something about being kind, Josh is having it explained to him by Donna. If there's a story about the futility of young men lost in wars, it's Mrs Lanningham explaining to young Charlie.

This is one part of West Wing that I'm finding increasingly intolerable. That and the music. I've just about had enough of hearing Toby rant to CJ or Sam explain sampling process to CJ. The latter I am almost furiously frustrated by. CJ, as a PR wiz, should have at the very least, a working knowledge of basic sampling processes, at least as they're applied to polling and public opinion surveys. I mean, fuck, my undergrads could figure it out after an hour of lecture and a couple of readings. CJ doesn't understand it? Jeez. I just wasn't buying it. And if it's simple enough to explain in three minutes of expository dialogue, I'm a little surprised so competent and articulate and clever a woman as CJ can't get it after hours reading briefing papers... or perhaps the people who write these briefs need a little help? And I don't think I need to talk about Mrs Bartlet and the cafuffle over her office in the first season. This woman should have been, by this point in her husband's career, an astute political animal. But she makes first year blunders that are really quite embarassing.

I really need to point out a few more points where The Wire kicks West Wing arse. But let's pause for a little Stringer Bell action.

The dialogue and the story lines. You think there's a lot of walking about and fast talking in the West Wing? Try figuring out the local dialects of Baltimore. Both black and white. Cop and stevedore. All-male and all-female groups. We regularly stop the DVD to try and figure out what's going on. What did he say? Who's that? What's going on now? There are zillions of characters, the story line is incredibly complicated, and there's a lot of talking. But it's all very satisfying, once you've figured out what's going on.

[spoiler alert: there's lots of spoiler action approaching]
Issues of class are dealt with in the most interesting ways. I was particularly struck by the parallels between McNulty's and Stringer Bell's struggles with class in the third season (which we've just finished watching). McNulty starts seeing (dating is too generous a term for this relationship) a well-connected white woman PR hound. She, essentially, uses him for his body. He tries, a couple of times, to hang out in her world - high powered political negotiations and shmoozing parties. He's left feeling stupid and clumsy. As he says at one point (and I must paraphrase), 'I'm the smartest guy in the western. But I couldn't keep up with what she was doing'. His street knowledge and truly formidable problem solving smarts were simply useless in that forum. He simply didn't have the social nous - or social skills to negotiate that space.

Similarly, Stringer Bell begins to move into real estate development, investing the massive amounts of money he's earnt dealing drugs. He begins to deal with the city housing officials and the complicated network of laws, bylaws and committees regulating building and industry in Baltimore (a journey paralleled by Cutty's attempts to found a boxing gym for young people, but that's another story). He fails, miserably, mostly because he simply doesn't speak the 'language' or know how to read the high-level machinations of this setting (spoiler alert: here's a nice clip where we see Stringer's frustrations played out).

Both are very intelligent men. Stringer Bell has been studying business at community college at night. McNulty is ferociously intelligent, and solves problems with a combination of terrier-tenacity and cutting smarts. Bell is perhaps the more impressive personality, managing a massive drug dealing business, organising the different local bosses into a cohesive network of businessmen. But he is hampered more clearly by his race when he tries to move between classes. Both are dealing with the greater challenges of class - of education, of not speaking the right language (or knowing how to negotiate language), of not walking or moving the right way. Even their physical experience with and relative comfort with physical violence becomes an impediment, confusing their responses to conflict. While neither does anything as ridiculous as start a fight, both use their physical threat - their posturing and willingness to physically mix it up - marring their efforts to deal with individuals and settings where violence is not at all appropriate.

This next clip is 100% spoiler. If you haven't seen season 3 or are considering watching the program, don't watch it. But it's an interesting comment on class in The Wire.

All of this is not discussed in snappy dialogue. It is expressed in a series of incidents, over a series of episodes. Both characters do spend time on exposition, but their articulation of their frustrations is in character - these are men who are also very much verbally competent. Their language skills are impressive. It's just that they're also contextually dependent and don't transfer to new settings terribly well.

The Wire is also impressive for the fact that it actually has queer characters who stick around.

There are dykes and fags, here, and they're not subscribing to gender or sexual stereotypes. Omar is a ruthless, fearless killer whose violence is triggered in large part as a response to the murder and torture of his lover. Kima is involved in a long term relationship with a lawyer and dealing with new parenthood (her relationship with McNulty is interesting - she's not interested in him sexually, but she's obviously drawn to his charismatic, chaotically destructive person and becomes increasingly like him in her behaviour). There are other queer characters who bend gender norms, but I can't give away too many spoilers.

Really, The Wire is fabulous television. And The West Wing fails.

"i have some problems with the west wing" was posted in the category television and the wire and west wing

February 22, 2007

24 sucks arse

Posted by dogpossum on February 22, 2007 11:15 AM

I am up to episode 10 of the first season of 24 and I think I'm beginning to hate it. I can overlook the dumb story line. But now that the whole 'real time' thing has become more familiar than novelty (I was a bit interested in the way a meta story arc would develop over a season if we're talking one hour at a time - a season one day long... though soap operas have been into that shit for years), I've had time to notice other things.

1. The black presidential candidate David Palmer. I'm sorry, but I'm just not accepting the idea that the US would have a black candidate as a realistic presidential hopeful. I certainly don't dig the idea that he'd have so great a chance as to prompt a complex, expensive and utterly unrealistic assassination project. But perhaps there are other issues I haven't yet met, seeing as how I'm only up to episode 10. But I'm afraid I'm just not buying it.

2. The gender stuff. Holy fuck. Rape, rape, rape. And then, most wonderfully, male vengeance for female victims. It's beginning to make me insanely angry. I hated the Crow for this little narrative element. What is it with people writing media? Can't they imagine a woman avenging her own rape? Can't they imagine a woman who is not a victim, a potential victim or man-bitch-who-you-wouldn't-fuck-but-can-kill?

While 24 no doubt thinks it's being clever, it's no I Spit On Your Grave - there are no ambiguous gender politics or opportunities for resistance here.

The rape stuff:
Let's see. First we have Palmer's daughter, who was raped seven years ago, but then avenged by her teen aged brother. Even more wonderfully, her mother Sherry colludes in covering up the brother's vengeance. Sherry is increasingly painted as a deceitful, ambitious, nasty, emasculating harpy who doesn't do as she's told. There's bad stuff in their family generally - a father with a secret (and inability to love his family properly, hence making him responsible for the daughter's rape, the son's having to avenge her and the mother's having to take control of the family), a damaged daughter, an angry murdering son and a harpy mother. It's not good. It's certainly no Bartlet family.

Then we have the hero Jack Bauer's daughter Kim's friend who is apparently date raped, or at least drugged and drunked to the point where she'll have sex in a furniture store (I'm not buying the 'safe sex' clue - the used condoms helping the mother figure out they were there. These are not condom boys). She ends up getting killed by someone the rest of the characters think is her father. Nice. No one punishes a whore like the patriarchy, right?

Then we have the daughter Kim's 'faked' rape while held captive. The male abductor(who is now her 'friend') lies to his fellow guard, telling him he's going to assault Kim, while really he uses this as a cover to sneak her out and help her escape (though she doesn't escape).
This rape story then serves as a plot device, with the implication that this character's story about having his way with Kim placed the idea in his fellow guard's mind. This guard, apparently aroused by the daughter and mother's terror as they're on their knees with guns at their heads, awaiting execution, then decides to assault the daughter.

This is the bit that makes me fucking furious. The mother, Terri, volunteers to sub in for Kim and 'allows' the abductor to rape her. Though this is revealed as her using the chance to steal his mobile phone, she is later punished with some nasty cramps.

Meanwhile, Jack is rushing to save the 'family' - the vulnerable mother and daughter - save them from... whatever. And the point is repeatedly made in episode nine that all this is to preserve their family. Their nice little nuclear family.

This whole 'mother subbing in for daughter as rape victim' thing makes me so fucking angry. I just don't see it serving any narrative purpose other than disturbing titillation. And the old 'protect virgins', 'women who've had sex don't mind being raped' thing drives me wild.
I know that that the narrative relies on the mother and daughter needing rescuing (which sucks, but well, what can you do?), but why can't they make Terri a dangerous captive whose actions mean that she is more likely to be killed, and so making Jack's speedy completion of his mission all the more important?

2a. The gender stuff - general female characters.
Ok, so now I'm seeing some serious misogyny. What female characters do we have left?

1. Jamey. Asian/Latino (I'm not sure, though Latino is implied, and one of the dodgier characters, Tony, makes a muttered (and presumably racist) comment to her as she's tied up in episode... eight or nine (I can't remember which)). She's a traitor, she 'commits suicide' (I haven't seen enough to be sure of this - it looks like it was set up by Tony, who could be a baddy, but I don't think he ends up being a baddy. I can't actually predict this show, which tells me it's either cutting edge, genre-bending plot action or just a bit messy. I suspect the latter), she's a single mother. She has to die. Quite bloodily and nastily. She was a technical wizz as well, and of course, had to die.

2. Nina. Skinny, dark hair, the hero's number 1. Is told by a nasty bloke that she used to have a good reputation, that she was 'going somewhere', but her affair with Jack has left her a low-status has-been lapdog for Jack. I'm not sure how or why, and while this male character is kind of unreliable, Nina apparently believes him.
Nina and Jack had an affair while Jack was estranged from his wife Terri. Nina is punished by Jack when he shoots her and shoves her down a hill (she's not really dead or shot, but it's suitably emblematic of their relationship). Nina is also continually jostling with the unreliable Tony for Jack's attention/the number 1 position.

Nina sucks. She's pathetic. She gets bossed around by Jack and Tony, refuses to think for herself and gets into deep shit.

3. Nina is pushed aside by the pale skinned black woman Alberta, Jack's replacement as boss of the department. The pale skinned black woman thing is important - all the 'black' female characters are very pale skinned, while the black male characters are darker skinned. This shit is so fucking old school racist it's like I'm at the Cotton Club watching the 'tall, tanned and terrific' show girls. Alberta is also painted as a bit of a ball-breaking vagina dentata. Lots of red lipstick and well-fitting suits, but nasty.

4. Lauren, the girl Jack kidnaps as a hostage.
I can't even go into this one. But she's the deceitful, morally bankrupt working class stooge character. And it makes me ANGRY because I just BET her weight (ie she's not a super-skinny stick like all the other women) is deliberately intended as a signifier of her untrustworthiness.

5. Terri, Jack's wife, Kim's mother.
Dumb. It's her fault she and Jack separated (she couldn't deal with his post-traumatic stress syndrome after a nasty secret mission). She was sucked in by the pretend father of Kim's friend. She couldn't escape properly. She's too skinny.

I really do think I hate 24. I will see out the season, though, to see if this stuff turns around. But I am really having trouble with the fact that the mother and daughter Terri and Kim are held captive in a barn (with bales of hay, no less), and there's such a nasty undercurrent of sexual tension surrounding them. It really, really makes me angry that they're just waiting there to be rescued.

There are no decent female characters in this show. It sucks.

In direct contrast, West Wing has interesting gender politics. We are up to episode five or six of season 2, and I had had some concerns about CJ's character. She was the only character who doubted her abilities/appearance and her repeated stuff ups were given lots of plot time. But the most recent episode, The Lame Duck Congress deals with that in an interesting way. We see CJ deal with a difficult general - she nails his arse (though her decision is later countermanded by the president...which is a bit disturbing, but works within the context of the show's premise - everyone has to kowtow to the president, not just chicks) and is super-clever and brilliant. I feel better about WW's handling of gender stuff because it's more complex. It's not cut and dried. I think I need to read and think more about it, because I haven't made up my mind yet, but for now, it's really interesting me and keeping me on board. It certainly kicks 24 arse.

"24 sucks arse" was posted in the category 24 and television and west wing


About dogpossum

i live in melbourne sydney, australia, like jazz music and dance, swear too much, sew, drink a lot of tea and adore puns. ask me about my phd.