It's a curious fact of mass culture that ambitious television scripts are often better written than ambitious movie scripts. A TV series needs more than 20 episodes every season, and mass production, in theory, should produce mediocrity. Often it does, but in programs such as Homicide and NYPD Blue, writers speak to us with wit and originality. The dazzling example this season is The West Wing, about President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his staff.
Week after week, its scripts play better than those of most movies made on similar themes in recent years. What's especially remarkable is that Aaron Sorkin, the creator and main writer of The West Wing, produces better dialogue here than he wrote for The American President, the 1995 Michael Douglas movie.
The West Wing's most startling quality is its respectful and loving tone. At a time of widespread cynicism about politics, it implies that decent people are running the U.S. government, a radical notion. The characters never stab each other in the back, and when underlings disobey their boss, it's for the boss' own good. The only individual they persecute is the vice-president (Tim Matheson), who keeps asking why they're so mean to him (he's forgotten he fought the president in the primaries). They treat him with disdain, the way John Kennedy treated Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt treated Harry S. Truman.
In the main, though, these are good people, which (in the context of the 1990s scandals) makes The West Wing look about as realistic as The Wizard of Oz. But an article in the March issue of Brill's Content praises the realism of Sorkin's approach and quotes Matthew Cooper, The New Republic's former White House correspondent, who finds this fiction more truthful than current political reporting. That sounds right to me.
The program draws much of its charm from intricate ensemble acting; the first episode in September fixed in our minds eight unique characters, maybe a record. For a while it was hard to guess the jobs most of these people are doing, but eventually it became clear: They're press agents. The West Wing is a version of ER, except that the physicians are spin doctors. This could be due to the presence on Sorkin's writing team of Dee Dee Myers, Bill Clinton's first press secretary, and Patrick Caddell, Jimmy Carter's pollster and image buffer.
The staff members all furiously defend the president's policies, though no one says where the policies originate. I guessed for a while that the doleful Roosevelt-quoting Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) must be the policy guy -- which would explain why he's so glum -- but last week he told his rabbi his job was communications. That covers half the cast: Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a raging heterosexual who serves as deputy communications director when not in trouble with a prostitute (a nice girl, really, working her way through law school); C.J. Gregg (Allison Janney), the deliciously funny press secretary; and Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), a free-ranging, loud-talking image manipulator. Toby, being the least communicative of all of them, naturally directs communications. Perhaps policy comes from the deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman (beautifully played by Brad Whitford), now famous for explaining why the government won't give the people back any of their money in a tax cut ("Because we're Democrats").
Sorkin and his colleagues have developed a special system of staging, the first performance style ever based on walking. Everyone constantly stalks the corridors of power, conducting crucial conversations on the move. There's also a verbal style. You don't see coffee on the desks of these characters, but you hear gallons of it in their brittle conversation and the way they almost jump on each other's lines. In these scripts, the direction "[Pause]" never appears.
There's melodrama everywhere. The president has a mild form of multiple sclerosis, which he keeps secret (fortunately, the first lady, played by Stockard Channing, is a doctor). The chief of staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), is a recovering alcoholic-and-valium addict. C.J., the press secretary, yearns for love and flirts dangerously with a reporter. Still, the content is often exceptionally serious. Sorkin recently built a highly watchable episode around the political issues raised by the U.S. census.
That episode, like all of The West Wing, was blatantly partisan. This is a Democratic White House, where all assumptions are smugly liberal and "honourable conservative" is an oxymoron. President Bartlet is a brooder, a serious reader of serious books, a passionate naturalist and an economist with a Nobel Prize. He's also a devout Catholic. In a recent crisis he called for his parish priest (Karl Malden). The president knelt to make his confession, and at that moment, according to my privately commissioned poll, 3.7 million viewers paused to make jokes about previous instances of kneeling in the Oval Office.
Bartlet is like a smarter John Kennedy, but he more closely resembles Woodrow Wilson, also a PhD, who was a much-admired professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton long before entering politics. Today everyone claims that both politics and TV are growing steadily dumber, so it's a surprise that The West Wing succeeds with a hero who is unashamed of his learning. At one point Bartlet spouts a line in Latin, "Post hoc, ergo propter hoc," and asks who knows what it means. Bright young assistants stumble over the translation until the right answer comes from the tough, worldly John Spencer character, who looks -- in Dalton Camp's immortal phrase about our own dear prime minister -- like the driver of the getaway car. Without a pause, he gives the English, "After this, therefore because of this."
The president explains that the phrase describes a common fallacy, the idea that one event obviously causes another, the sort of thinking that makes people believe a rain dance brings rain. This may have been Latin's most prominent appearance on TV since the 1950s, when Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster played private eyes investigating the murder of Julius Caesar on The Ed Sullivan Show. Wayne asked an ancient Roman bartender for a "martinus."
Bartender: "You mean a martini."
"If I want two, I'll ask for them."
Last week, when discussing capital punishment the president and his staff quoted St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and the Hebrew Bible. Hell, forget about elevating the tone of politics. These people are running a national great books program. They've decided to revive Western civilization.