Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Remember When Network Dramas Were Good?

Every time President Bartlet comes up in the bracket, I know that inevitably, I will lose a chunk of my week going through clips of The West Wing on YouTube. That's just how it works. Last time, I went back and watched some of the second season, starting with the opening two-parter, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen." Those two episodes are incredibly riveting television, balancing the aftermath of an assassination attempt against the President* with a bit of origin story for the show, telling us how most of the major players came together to be on Bartlet's team. I have long thought that the two episodes, and especially the opening of the first part, rank among the finest moments of television ever aired. It's Aaron Sorkin at his finest, with everyone in the show firing on all cylinders, down to the minor guest stars. We were too far into the week last time for me to pull this particular post off, but I knew I had to do it when Bartlet next got into the Arena: a running diary of the show's opening minutes. This is that diary.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the show, here's what's up: early in the first season, Bartlet hired young Charlie Young to be his "body man." The two of them hit it off, because they are both awesome (it also helped that Bartlet had no sons of his own). Charlie also hit it off in a slightly different way with Bartlet's daughter Zoey. Charlie and Zoey started kiiiind of dating, drawing the ire of white supremacists (Charie is black, FYI), who, as the President was leaving a speaking engagement in Virginia, opened fire from a building across the street.

And now, without further ado... (all time stamps approximate)

00:00- Okay, I have to digress. Remember when TV was making the transition to widescreen? I think the first season of TWW was in "non-widescreen" format, and they moved to widescreen in the second season. Of course, since their flashbacks were in standard, we get... standard flashbacks. Weird transitional period for TV, is what I'm saying.

00:08- And of course, that's future-past-ad woman Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, and future-CSI Jorja Fox as Zoey's Secret Service agent.

00:14- Also, if you're confused, this is Vice President Hoynes (Tim Matheson), talking with Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford). Lyman used to work on Hoynes' office before Hoynes became VEEP.

00:22- Oh, shiiiiiiiiiiit.

00:26- It kind of looks like the Secret Service is doing a shitty job covering Bartlet in this shot, doesn't it?

00:39- The super-somber title card: appropriate for The West Wing, not at all appropriate for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Just sayin'.

01:31- Great reveal showing that Ron Butterfield has a wounded hand. But... given the chaos, when did he have time to dress his injury? Especially without Bartlet noticing? Of course, that's not all Bartlet hasn't noticed...

01:37- Coop is probably thinking "aw, geez, don't drag me into this."

01:47- My only beef with this scene is that when you first watch it, it's pretty damn hard to see why Butterfield starts freaking out. For the record, I think the blood first starts creeping into Bartlet's mouth around here.

02:05- I know it might strain credulity a bit to be all "how did no one notice he was shot," but apparently this bit is based in part on the Hinkley shooting of Ronald Reagan. They were on their way back to the White House when someone noticed Reagan was shot, and then they hightailed it to GW. Anyway, obviously this is when shit starts getting real.

02:09- Daaaaaaaaaamn that's some slick driving. Maybe this guy missed his true calling?

02:36- The paramedic here is... not that reassuring. C'mon, dude.

02:54- One of the great elements of this opening is how the energy/emotional levels keep shifting, as information is withheld and then revealed. We just saw Bartlet's Secret Service detail flip into DEFCON 1, and now we're back with people who have no idea what just happened. It's a great play towards keeping the tension building.

03:35- How come nobody's asking "Where's Mandy?" Seriously, though, this bit is jarring when you watch the series on DVD. Mandy's there, and then... she's not. What?

03:48- It's funny how, no matter how many times we watch this bit, and in how many different locations, it always gets extremely dusty in the room when we hit this point.

03:52- And I just have to thin-slice this part; Toby's (Richard Schiff) reaction increases the dust in the room by exponential levels.

03:58- Of course, it's funny how only the primary cast members hear Toby's shouting.

04:03- Credits! The West Wing's theme is pretty fantastic, in case anyone here wasn't aware of that. Note how we're back in non-widescreen.

04:20- Shout-out to Janiel Moloney, promoted to first-string after a season of both a) knocking it out of the park on a weekly basis, and b) making the aforementioned Mandy redundant.

04:49- And now we're back to an emotional low point. If this were set in modern day, Bartlet's shooting would already be all the Twitter trending topics within 30 seconds. But here we are at George Washington Hospital, and they don't even have a T.V. on in the lobby to let them know shit's going down.

05:24- And here, things start to turn, and we're about to start tumbling down the roller coaster, again, some more.

05:36- "Yeah, I guess I should've just taken his word for it when he said it was a drill." Also: C.J. just said it was Monday night: why are all the kids coming down with alcohol poisoning?

05:39- This is the second-best reaction shot we're going to get, by the way.

06:08- I like to think that one line got that guy his SAG card.

06:13- I have a slight nit to pick, in that I always think that the visiting national championship teams come around the White House in the middle of the day, or at least, before it gets dark. However, the caption at the beginning of the show told us it was 9:30 at night? You're receiving an NCAA championship team (I presume the national women's basketball champs, but it's unclear) at 9:30 P.M.? But, that minor quibble I have is always overshadowed by...

06:41- That. That is the look of a man who knows he is fucked. And in case you were wondering, that is the single best reaction shot we're going to get, because... damn.

06:45- Good thing there weren't any reporters around to capture the Vice President shitting his pants. Oh, wait.

06:59- Unnecessary shouting!

07:43- President Bartlet, everyone! Of course, we in the audience know he shouldn't be treating that question so glibly...

07:46- Annnnd we're back down again. Okay, yes, I shouldn't be banging on about this anymore, but... still. The way this episode is constructed is something of a master class in putting riveting televison together.

08:11- Couldn't get a Tom Brokaw cameo? Whaaaat?

08:21- Another fantastic element of this episode: Sorkin knows when not to have people talk.

08:37- Every time Peggy-- I mean, Elisabeth Moss-- shows up in TWW, I flip out a bit. Complete tangential side-note: here, she's playing Catholic Zoey Bartlet. In Mad Men, she plays Catholic Peggy Olson. Stop type-casting Elisabeth Moss! Let her play a Protestant for once!

08:43- Slipped a pretty good joke in on us, didn't you, Sorkin? You sly devil.

08:47- Another great reaction shot, and another example of Sorkin airing it out for his actors. Second tangential side-note: I was channel surfing one afternoon, and caught a bit of John Spencer** playing a role on one of those shitty syndicated sci-fi shows (you know, like one of the Stargates***?) as like, a spaceship captain or something. IT WAS THE WEIRDEST THING EVER. That's Leo, not Captain What's-his-face! But I digress.

09:17- You've almost forgotten about Josh at this point, haven't you? By the way, the way this is structured is a subtle call-back to the pilot episode of the show, where we meet the cast in a series of rapid-fire bits where they learn that POTUS was in a bike accident while on vacation. Here, we're getting the same thing, only the stakes are a billion times higher, and there are no trees involved. Or bikes.

09:37- Those last four lines give us a lot, even though they don't really seem to. Again, this is where a lesser show would flunk the "subtle writing" test. And by "lesser show," I mean, "a show that shows you establishing shots of Paris, and then has to give you a caption to say, 'hey, we're in Paris, y'all!'" Cough.


10:01- And here, Mrs. Bartlet and Zoey get their own punchlines. Love it.

10:13- Subtext: "Fuck this up, and I will END YOU."

10:55- This raises a whole lot of questions. Obviously, Dr. Lee needs to know this because it will affect how he treats the President... but... wouldn't everyone else in the room wonder why he's doing what he's doing? I honestly don't remember if they ever bring this scene up again in season three, but... hmmm...

10:55- Also, the way this scene is blocked means we miss out on what is probably another fantastic reaction shot. Rare slip-up on Thomas Schlamme's part, eh?

11:19- In case you were wondering how they catch the guy at the beginning of the next episode, this is the only clue you get. Of course, this mini-scene is really only serving to get us to lower our guards, because...

11:26- Here comes the cavalry!

11:34- We hear CJ Cregg, but... where is she? Seriously, is she in this shot at all?

12:19- Annnnd, we're out. It's been a helluva ride, hasn't it? I could go on with this for quite a while, but... well, this episode has already been recapped by people better at it than I, so... yeah. Also, I don't want to be up until three in the morning writing this post.

Anyway, I maintain that the twelve minutes we just barreled through were incredible television. Dense, emotionally churning, with a few good jokes. It was The West Wing at its absolute finest, and I don't know if you can find its equal on network TV. Hell, I'd put it up against some of the best cable TV, though with the caveat that I have not yet succumbed to The Wire. But this twelve minutes of television puts me through the ringer every time I watch it. That's no small feat, and it's why The West Wing was the best. Hats off to everyone involved.

Also, if anyone knows who is responsible for keeping this show off Netflix streaming... tell me their address; I have fifty-thousand angry letters to write.

Okay, that all I got! The matchup between Bartlet and President Obama rages on! We'll be back Friday to survey the remains.

*- well, actually not... spoiler!
**-also, R.I.P. John Spencer. :(
***-IMDB suggests it was The Outer Limits, which... doesn't seem right. Did I dream this whole thing? Possibly.

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