Monday, November 07, 2005

Fake Debates Suck Like Real Ones

Bucking a four-decade trend, viewership for the first of the three televised presidental debates in 2004 jumped 34 percent over the Gore/Bush "agreements" four years earlier. More than 60 million people tuned in to watch The Stiff thump The Moron last year, though I guess most of that audience forgot to vote for the candidate that actually spoke adult English and expressed cogent thought when November rolled around.

Despite the surge in Nielsen ratings for last year's debates, it's galactically stupid and partially insane to think a live televised debate between fictional candidates would be entertaining under any circumstances, no matter how well scripted. As one of this show's biggest fans, that's my message to executive producers Lawrence O'Donnell and John Wells and the rest of the West Wing crew: Take off those Bad Idea Jeans. And yeah, for the record, I just told two dudes to take their jeans off. I meant figuratively, people.

Let the record show I thought last night's faux-debate was probably the best exchange of ideas on the state or national stage I've ever seen. The candidates eschewed the rules of predictability and comfort in favor of an open forum, there was little to no mud-slinging, and most importantly, they seriously debated with no holds barred the issues that most affect the lives of everyday Americans.

All that being said, this might have been the worst episode in the show's incredible history. Mainly because it just wasn't good television. The debate may have been well-crafted and the answers given were much better than the real candidates', but it bored me to tears. Even though the show is often educational, that doesn't give producers the right to lecture from the pulpit without providing any entertainment whatsoever. This is television about politics, fuckers, not politics itself. Don't lose sight of the whatever from the whatever.

That was the beauty of Aaron Sorkin's West Wing. It was surely heady stuff in its own right and the show challenged you to think, but above all else, it was compelling drama. And the drama was the best of its ilk, too. There are about seven or eight episodes of the series that qualify in my top ten all-time favorite hours of television, shows that in 44 minutes made you think, laugh, cry, sympathize, get angry and laugh some more.

In fact, three straight episodes -- the season one finale and the two-part season two premiere -- might be the greatest 132 minutes in the history of the tube. If you've never seen "What Kind of a Day Has It Been" and "In The Shadow of Two Gunmen (Parts I & II)", I strongly recommend you TiVo the Bravo channel all day every day until they come up. You wanna talk about drama? They just don't make 'em like Sorkin any more. The guy's a poet visionary.

Last night served as the latest proof that while the show's still pretty good, it'll never hold a candle to the Sorkin Era. Instead of merely trying out different sweeps-related gimmicks, Sorkin knew exactly how to hold a riveting debate in the midst of a campaign. Watch season four's "Game On" -- in that episode, you see pieces of Martin Sheen's President Bartlet wiping the floor with James Brolin's Rob Ritchie character and you see the reaction of the WW staff backstage in the spin room, all in the last 20 minutes of the show.

The live show last night was simply a mock debate, like any high school group in the country could perform. You didn't need Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, you needed some gifted teenagers with a penchant for acting and an aversion to coolness. Plus, I personally don't think the writers have done a very good job creating tension between the two characters. There's been no "Oh, It's On Moment" like when Bartlet patronizes Ritchie at a chance encounter weeks before the debate: "'Crime, boy, I don't know'...that's when I decided to kick your ass." That gave you the chills, that made you interested to see whose ideas would rule the day.

So while many people will spend the day debating the winner of last night's waste of an hour, I'm sitting here pining for the early days of the greatest drama in television history. Well, at least we have a new show to look forward to: Sorkin's at it again, combining The West Wing with Saturday Night Live. I can't wait for Studio 7.

Slack Link of the Day: I don't think this comedic snippet is all that funny, but for some reason it made me laugh. Something about old Brooklynites yelling profanities and ranting about shit they couldn't possibly comprehend always gets me right here (points to jowels). And it gets me right here (points to neck).

Slack Song of the Day:
Tea Leaf Red or Trey Leaf Green? I'm not entirely sure which combination moniker I like better. Worlds inevitably collided last week in Madison, as the wandering leader of my all-time favorite band called out the guitarist and bassist of one of my new favorite bands to play on one of the songs.

Josh and Ben from Tea Leaf Green came out and played with the Trey Anastasio Affirmative Action Funtime Band on the Beatles' I've Got a Feeling, and the result is an excellent collaboration of two talented motherfuckin' axemen. It starts off a little slow, but they eventually figure it out. Boy, do they ever. I love this shot of the two of them going at it, but you can see more pictures here.

Slack Band Name of the Day: Energized By Bollinger.


At 1:39 PM, Blogger MDS said...

"three straight episodes -- the season one finale and the two-part season two premiere -- might be the greatest 132 minutes in the history of the tube."

Agreed. Which is why I'm surprised you can still watch the piece of crap that The West Wing has become. You forgot to mention how idiotic the episode that led up to that Bartlett I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass moment was. Did anyone fail to see Mark Harmon's death coming? Give me a break. Just a plot contrivance, and after season 2 The West Wing became nothing but a series of plot contrivances. I haven't watched it in a few years, so I have no idea if it's any good or not now, but last time I did watch it, it was awful.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger John Howard said...

I still like The West Wing, and I think this season has been better than the last couple, mostly because I really like both Alda and Smits, but it still isn't as good as it was early on. But then, shows never are.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Ding ding ding...MDS, you've just won the 2005 Slack Award for Statement I Disagree With Most.

Idiotic and predictable? Did you predict Harmon would die AFTER they caught the stalker with such ease? In a Chinese bodega? In a tux walking in on an armed robbery? With some chilling music (Jeff Buckley doing "Hallelujah") ringing out in the background as you see CJ break down outside the theatre? Sure, maybe you knew Simon Donovan would die in that episode, but it was so well-shot that it didn't matter.

I thought that was one of the better scenes in the show's history. Simon Donovan falling to the floor as the music begins, culminating in CJ crying on the bench and Bartlet about to run into Rob Ritchie.

And that's certainly one of the best episodes in the show's history -- Posse Comitatus (with Mr. Jeffrey Lewbowski making a cameo). Bartlet gives up his moral absolutes and kills Shareef, Donovan dies, Toby and Sam finally outsmart the dumb Ritchie campaign, the scene at the end with "Crime, boy, I don't know" and "They're playing my song" as the Prez goes back to hear his favorite tune -- "Victorious in war shall be glorious in peace." Still gives me chills.

The show got awful there for a year or so, but it's definitely "good" again. It's not anything what it once was, but it's still better than 99% of the shlock on TV. I'll watch it.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Gypsy Rose said...

My favorite West Wing scene is the one with Bartlett, in church, screaming at God in Latin after his secretary dies in a car accident driving home her new car.

But that was like for years ago, so I don’t think it’s relevant to this conversation. Or maybe I’m helping MDS make his point. Not sure. But, anyway. That was Oscar worthy stuff ON TV. Most of the movies I see don’t have acting and writing like that. The show definitely doesn’t grip me like it used to. I tried a few times this year, but no.

Alda's character was portrayed as mildly retarded in last night's show. I think the show used to be better at painting shades of grey with a less obvious leftward slant. And I like leftward slants!

At 3:02 PM, Blogger MDS said...

We can agree to disagree, Ace (and agree to agree on seasons 1-2), but I have a question for you:

I read that the "debate" carried the NBC News logo and they even got an NBC News talking head to appear on the show. Aren't you a journalist? Does this mix of a network's broadcast journalism and its entertainment bother you at all?

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Wait a minute...let me be clear: I think the show is a shell of its former self. It sucks compared to the Sorkin Era. But, it's still decent.

Gypsy, I love that episode, that's one of the seven or eight I absolutely love that mentioned in the post itself -- Two Cathedrals, the season two finale.

Here's his Latin translation:

gratias tibi ago, domine.
Thank you, Lord.

haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito?

Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?

cruciatus in crucem
To hell with your punishments! (literally "(put/send) punishments onto a cross")

tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci.

I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.

cruciatus in crucem -- (with a dismissive wave of the hand) eas in crucem

To hell with your punishments!
And to hell with you! (literally, "may you go to a cross")"

That scene is sickeningly good, topped off by the President putting a cigarette out on the floor of the church (a reference to the other cathedral, back at private school). Man, I miss the old days. I miss Dolores Landingham.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Nah, MDS, it didn't really bother me...that was just for dramatic effect, that's all. It's not like they were claiming it was real news, they were trying to make it look as authentic as possible. It's really no different than when SNL does a spoof of Brokaw and throw the NBC news thing on the bottom.

There are SO MANY things about the current state of journalism that bother me, and this transgression is way down on the bottom of the list. Eh, the news division sold their logo out to the entertainment division -- better just the logo this time.

At 4:40 PM, Blogger Mitchell VergerDartz III said...

one thing i do know after last night's debacle of a debate ... i'm voting for alda. arnie. whatever his name is.

plus, i've never seen anyone get
off on anything the way forrest sawyer did on shushing the crowd every 6 seconds. ok, we get it, you're a newsman and you're
better than us. or at least much better at using your inside voice.

At 6:35 PM, Blogger Gypsy Rose said...

The mildly retarded guy? I guess a president who can withstand having the ball spiked on his head repeatedly must have something good to offer.

Or are you the guy who secretly wished the Washington Generals could have won just once?

At 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've seen every West Wing episode ever, most 3 or 4 times - nothing better than a good Monday West Wing Maraton on Bravo - and I couldn't agree with Ace more.

The debate last night was by far the worst West Wing of all time. It's the West Wing version of the Soprano's where Tony gets sick and has the hallucinations. I wanted it to be good so badly, but when you spend 10 minutes talking about tax rates in Africa and another 10 discussing the definition of the word liberal I just couldn't take it any more. In addition, where the hell was Alan Alda standing for half the debate? he was right next to Forrest "Do you want to hear yourself applaud or do you want to listen to the candidates" Sawyer for half the episode.

I watched it with 2 other people and both of them fell asleep. Vinick definetly won the debate and I hope that barring a huge gaffe, they have him win. WIth a 9 pt. lead a solid victory in the debate no way Santos can come back.

In terms of West Wing over the long haul, there is no doubt that the first 3-4 years were the best dramatic television in history. From Toby/Josh/Donna getting lost during 20 hours in America, to the "Noel" episode with Josh recounting the shooting to Alan Arkin is just amazing. I had never cried from television before the "Two Cathedrals" episode that has been discussed. And I will always cry with the CJ breakdown in Times Square after Simon Donovan's death.

It went into a decline after Sorkin, no doubt, contrived story lines, but as we are seeing now with douchebag in the White House second terms seem to stumble.

The campaign over the last two years has been great and clearly revived the show. The debate was terrible, but although it will never recreate its early greatness still a very solid show.

Although I like ellen usually, the whole amex thing was fairly annoying.

Finally, after watching the first 8 mins of the monday night game, it looks like it's going to be a doozy.

At 9:25 AM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Good stuff, Anonymous poster...I see you share the Passion of the Wing.

And great call on "Noel," that's easily the best non-premiere and non-finale in the show's run. A little Yo Yo Ma playing Bach's G Major, Josh freaking out, Adam Arkin being the man...doesn't get much better than that episode.

It's a shame the Ambiguously Gay Uno is on vacation right now, he'd have enjoyed this post. When we lived together, there was a 75 percent chance you'd walk in and one of us would be watching the Wing.


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