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Another impressive TV Drama
Hail to the (fictional) chief
By Martin Winckler, Translated by Luke Sandford

23 août 2003

YOU couldn’t imagine a television series about the president of the Republic and his advisers, showing both daily life at the Elysée palace and political mysteries. There are fictionalised accounts of the French presidency in a few detective stories (including Valérie Duchâteau’s Meurtre à l’Élysée) and tongue-in-cheek political novels, which tend to be superficial even when their pseudonymous authors had been in politics. A handful of plays and films (Georges Folgoas’s Reviens dormir à l’Élysée, and Francis Girod and Françoise Giroud’s Le Bon Plaisir) touch the surface of the way that presidential image-making works.

But in the United States there are no cows too sacred to be shown or critiqued. Countless films and novels have dealt with US presidents ; since the 1960s political dramas, such as Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe have shared the bill with romantic comedies, such as Rob Reiner’s The American President, and satires, including Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog.

American films have long featured US presidents as characters in their own right, unlike television. This is not because of television censorship, since US networks have always been privately owned and eager to take on the powers that be. But the presidency has chiefly inspired documentary-style television biographies (depicting the lives of every president from Abraham Lincoln to John Kennedy and George Bush Senior) and mini-series about cathartic events.

And for the past three years a television president and his inner circle have been a recurring part of Americans’ lives thanks to the weekly series The West Wing. Its success is attributable to a talented pair. The show’s creator and head screenwriter is Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the well-regarded Sports Night, a backstage view of sports news, which ran for two years and showed the professional sports world’s problems with money, drugs, power struggles, politics and image. Sports Night confirmed Sorkin’s virtuoso status, and his sharp dialogue would have been at home in films by Howard Hawks, John Huston, Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder.

Besides Sorkin, John Wells, the programme’s executive producer, has established himself as a creative force. Following the praised series China Beach (1988-1991), about the Vietnam war, he took over the production for ER in 1994.

These two talents would be wasted if the final product were only a comedy of manners, but it isn’t. The several hundred thousand French viewers lucky enough to be able to view The West Wing have seen to their surprise a phenomenon beyond stereotyping. If any series can overcome the French belief that TV fiction is irrelevant, The West Wing can, in all its unpredictability and complexity. Viewers feel at home as the camera guides them through extended takes following the "president’s" advisers against sets that duplicate the west wing of the real White House.

The show centres on Josiah "Jed" Bartlet, a recently elected Democratic president, and his closest advisers : Leo McGarry, chief of staff and Bartlet’s old friend ; Toby Ziegler, communications director, Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff, and Sam Seaborn, deputy communications director, all responsible for media and Congressional relations and everything else ; and Claudia Jean "CJ" Cregg, the official spokeswoman. There is also Dolores Landingham, Bartlet’s efficient, engaging personal secretary, who lost two sons in the Vietnam war in the 1970s.

Just as ER always made room for the nurses and assistants, The West Wing devotes a lot of time to interns and other toilers in obscurity. Demonstrating the importance that Sorkin attaches to characters often neglected by French screenwriters, the presidential aide is an African-American, Charles Young. (The second most difficult job in the White House is that of presidential aide, following the chief around all day, keeping him on track and, if necessary, dragging him out of bed in the middle of the night.) McGarry considered hiring Young but was concerned about what the public might think of a young black man opening doors for the most powerful man in the world. McGarry sounded out the African-American army chief of staff and was told no African-American would be upset as long as Young was well paid and treated with respect.

Only proportional response

Ever since its debut, the programme has excelled in blending personal relationships, political ethics, domestic conflicts and international crises, showing the president as a human being. When a military helicopter carrying his personal physician was shot down by a missile in Syrian airspace, an enraged Bartlet referred to the time when citizens of the Roman empire could travel safely anywhere in their world, and pondered launching a revenge attack. His advisers dissuaded him, saying that only proportional response, avoiding civilian fatalities, would be acceptable.

In another episode, members of the president’s team, all firmly opposed to capital punishment, unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the president to pardon a prisoner on death row. Several episodes dealt in detail with the threat of armed conflict between India and Pakistan, very close to recent events in the subcontinent, and negotiations to avert a regional war. At the beginning of the third season in the autumn of 2001, Sorkin very quickly wrote a special 11 September inspired episode that actually avoided the confusions and over-simplifications of the real Bush administration.

Every week the show deals with controversial issues worthy of the serious press : leaders’ physical health (Bartlet suffers from multiple sclerosis) ; the US military’s desire to ban homosexuals from its ranks ; conflicts of interest, and power struggles involving the vice president and Congress ; and the appointment of Supreme Court justices. Other themes have included alcoholism in the government’s highest levels ; press freedoms ; lobbying and pressure groups (from the religious right to the gay community) ; handgun availability ; marketing Aids treatments in Africa ; and missile defence systems. No character is considered minor : Dr Abigail "Abby" Bartlet, the First Lady, is no figurehead - she’s an M.D. and has duties similar to those of a Unesco ambassador.

The West Wing is passionate, full of surprises, and yet coherent. Sorkin and his team script 40 minutes of uninterrupted dialogue to catch the day-to-day workings of a vast administrative structure, and its impact on millions. The show provides a wonderful education. Conscious that Americans are often unaware of how their institutions work, the scriptwriters rely on technical consultants, including real former presidential advisers. Viewers are given insight into the bizarre political processes.

The writers’ methods are simple and clear : advisers, aides, the spokeswoman and president all voice the concerns of viewers, and therefore of citizens, by acknowledging that they do not always understand what is going on. The explanations they get illuminate the issues for their - and our - benefit.

Thanks to first-rate direction (in the tradition of ER) and Sorkin’s writing, The West Wing is one of the most impressive of the current US television series. But though the show is broadcast in France on Série Club, it reaches only a very small audience. To make matters worse, last year the France 2 channel decided to broadcast the first season late on Friday nights during the summer months, when it really deserved a prime-time slot to showcase its quality. And now that debates on social questions tend to be shallow, it would have been a good idea to follow each episode with some discussion or analysis. But French public television seems totally unconcerned with enlightenment.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1997-2003 Le Monde diplomatique

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