Mar 22, 2000

The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin's story-telling is not about character or plot. It's about running themes through dialogue. He crafts his stories on a three- or four-part crosscut, which allows him to touch on often arcane subjects of governance without boring the audience stiff. But the stories are really an excuse to lay down long tracks of dialogue which inevitably build to an inspiring monologue on the larger thematic issue.

This kind of story-telling requires a talent in dialogue and theme, which is an unusual combination for a writer. And it is not a combination that the popular entertainment industry normally values. Which makes the presence and success of West Wing in mainstream American tv especially pleasurable.

This combination of dialogue and theme also highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of this show. The dialogue is often poetic and dense. So the language of this president and his court is language fit for a modern king. Poetic dialogue largely disappeared after Huck Finn. Dialogue became vernacular, because that was the talk of the common man. Placing his story in the office of the President allows Sorkin to push the dialogue back up the poetic scale.

But there is a price, even in this rarified atmosphere. This language often doesn't sound like real talk. Everyone seems to be an expert in every area of modern knowledge. Everyone speaks the same glib banter. And we know we will have to sit through a monologue which reminds us, yet again, how magnificent American democracy is. The President, who usually delivers these inspiring monologues, is the perfect father, strong but caring, intelligent but full of love. Which makes the President the most difficult to stomach of any character in the show.

Sorkin also has the annoying habit of spoiling the moment. He'll write a nice piece of dialogue and then push it into the fake or the sappy.

For example, in one episode the President is addressing some radio talk show hosts when he spots a Laura Schlessinger-like woman sitting amongst the crowd. Sorkin gives the President a brilliant monologue in which he shows how foolish it is to take some of the commandments in the Bible literally. Then Sorkin has the President, while still staring at the chastised woman, tell one of his aides,"That's how I beat him," referring to a conservative he defeated in a past election. In a second the President goes from enlightened teacher to smug bully.