Aaron Sorkin, TV

Scattered Thoughts on The West Wing

I’ve been rewatching selected episodes of the third and fourth seasons of The West Wing recently. The show’s two strongest creative voices — Aaron Sorkin, creator and head writer, and Thomas Schlamme, executive producer and regular director — started discussing an exit strategy at the beginning of the third season, so you can almost see the air running out of the tires as the fourth season draws to a close. Sorkin, perhaps as an act of sheer will or spite, also set in motion a number of plots at the close of the fourth season that did as much as possible to knock the series off its track: the vice president resigned because of a sex scandal, the president’s youngest daughter was kidnapped, and the president temporarily renounced his office to focus on the manhunt and allowed the Republican Speaker of the House to assume the presidency. It was a giant mess of story, and it did as much as anything to set a new tone for the show: instead of creating drama by having smart people be outsmarted, the show had smart people make dumb decisions. They were in jams, but less interesting or engaging ones.

But one of the biggest changes to take root in the fourth season was the show’s new visual vocabulary. The series had started life with a warm look: buttery lights and rich reds ran throughout the West Wing, and camera placement and movement had emphasized action and relationships. The infamous walk-and-talks stood out the most, but the show’s look in its early years was smartly guided, and cinematography was always at the service of story. A random example: in one episode, Sam Seaborn is tasked with meeting with an unbalanced man who believes the government is hiding evidence of alien life at Fort Knox. Sam walks into the conference room, and we cut to a shot down the table, but no one’s there. Except someone actually is: the man is sitting at the end of the table, his face obscured by a lamp. He has to lean over for Sam to see him. It’s a visual joke that relies on space and image, but it also underscores the dynamic in the room: this guy is so timid that he’s invisible even when you’re looking at him.

In the show’s fourth year, though, as director Christopher Misiano helmed more episodes and Sorkin and Schlamme were getting closer to exit, the look and feel began to change. (Schlamme, who directed five episodes in the first season and four each in the second and third, only directed a single episode in the fourth season.) Lighting was often harsh and overhead, with bright pools in the middle of inky backgrounds. Performances that had been delivered at a normal speaking volume began instead, for some reason, to be fervently whispered. The show began to give off a bruised, unwelcoming vibe. Camera work suffered, too. The big trend of the year was to simply point the camera at a corner of the action — say, the edge of a door frame — and let the actors walk around it. Instead of following Donna into Josh’s office by cutting from the bullpen to the office interior, the camera pans to watch her walk into Josh’s office and stays pointed at Josh. He’s seated at his desk as Donna stands in front of him, sometimes walking in front of the camera. It feels like it’s meant to mimic voyeurism — as if you were actually standing there and had watched her walk into the office before deciding to hide outside and try to listen — but there’s no rhyme or reason here. It’s a new and grating attempt at “style” that doesn’t feel at home in a show that’s been building a visual language for three-plus years by this point. So many moments in the fourth season are staged like this: camera composing an ugly frame as the principles are mostly heard off screen.

Most pieces that talk about the show’s break between its first four seasons (the ones with Sorkin and Schlamme) and its last three (the ones without them) focus on the narrative and writing, and those are important. Sorkin’s wit and rhythms are hard to replicate without sounding robotic or mocking. But just as important was the way the show started to look grim and locked-down, the opposite of the look it had spent so long cultivating. It’s almost hard not to feel like the new look was a reflection of the show’s uncertainty about itself as its key storytellers made for the exit. It started to look forced and ordinary, when the show’s true essence was anything but.

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TV

What We Talk About When We Talk About TV

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I’ve written tens of thousands of words of episodic TV reviews and recaps, and I think they’ve almost all been a waste.

It took me a while to arrive at this conclusion. Years ago, probably 2005-2006, I would occasionally check out Television Without Pity, and their multi-page, highly detailed episode recaps cast such a shadow that I aped the format (as others did elsewhere) when I started writing about Lost for Pajiba. I would talk about story and mysteries and theories, but I also recapped every bit of each episode. They took hours to write, but when it came time to write up the series finale, I pulled back and talked on a broader level about storytelling, production, what we want and expect from televised narratives, and more. It was a kind of awakening: I’d wasted what had to be a total of days of my life transcribing plot details for people who’d already seen that particular episode, when I should’ve been thinking more critically about what was happening and why.

As I moved onto other shows and outlets, I worked to write reviews, not recaps: to try and find a hook within each 22- or 44-minute episode of whatever was in front of me and write critically about it. Sometimes this was possible, like when I wrote about Community or Breaking Bad. Other times, it was fruitless, like when I wrote about American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. (For reality show write-ups, I was actually tasked with being extra snarky and sarcastic and “jokey,” which quickly grew exhausting. The tone of the final products veered between self-loathing and fatigue; they’re not even usable in my mind as clips, and I don’t send them out.) But I still felt like I was wasting everyone’s time. It’s impossible to break down the meaning or importance of a fragment of a story, and writing about a highly serialized drama like Breaking Bad only got harder to do as the seasons went on. Every episodic review’s through-line must, by necessity, be one of two things:

1. “That was neat, and I have no idea where things are going”; or
2. “That was confusing, and I have no idea where things are going.”

I tried to find a way out of the problem as I wrote about “Breaking Bad,” but I couldn’t do it. Most of my reviews circled back to “Well, that was good, and it underscored the same themes that have been developing for five years now, which I’ve discussed ad nauseam, so … yeah, see you next week.” Criticism can only function when you’re able to look at a work in toto, or at the very least on a more comprehensive level than an individual episode, which is why no one writes reviews of the middle 20 minutes of a movie or the first 12 chapters of a book. Writing about a particular episode of a TV series can be a great way to illuminate the show’s themes and execution, but those discussions are only possible when you can put the episode in the context of the show itself: when you can talk about how the show got to that episode and where it went after, or why that episode was such an anomaly, etc. I think I made some good points in some of those pieces, but usually only in the ones about the season premieres and finales.

This usually holds for comedies, too, even though they’re usually less serialized. It’s incredibly easy and tempting to dig into the meatier comedies — Girls, Louie, etc. — and pull each episode apart, but you also run the risk of missing the bigger stylistic picture. Girls follows a pretty regular season-long plot structure, with each year building on the one before it, while Louie, though more fragmented, also gains power from being viewed in the aggregate. What’s more, any attempt to review a series, whether drama or comedy, based on just the pilot or first few episodes will inevitably come up short. It takes more time to get a handle on a series because they grow and change in the telling. It’s not until a season’s over that you can really look back and see what’s happened, what mattered, and the skill with which it was done.

Additionally, many series, comedy or drama, often find themselves breaking down into season-long stories within longer ones that span a series. Some shows have been incredibly direct about this: Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced a new major villain and themes every season, while The Wire similarly moved to broader stories every year. In this way, it’s possible to perform valid criticism and analysis on the season level, even in the midst of a show’s run, because seasons are often intended to hang together as a package.

Part of the reason critics fall into the trap of blindered, weekly TV reviews has to do with the way TV disrupts the usual division between viewer and critic. A film is a single thing, and critics and regular viewers approach a film the same way: by watching it from start to finish and forming opinions about it. TV, though, spools out its story a little bit at a time, relying on weekly teases and shocks to keep viewers coming back for more. As critics, we often find ourselves defaulting to the viewer experience (ride the wave one episode at a time) when, to actually write engagingly or to properly address the show on a larger scale, we need to lean toward a more truly critical experience: examining the work as a whole, or as discrete seasonal chapters within that whole.

It makes sense, then, that it was the series finale of Lost that started pushing me in this direction. Finally, after six seasons and an almost innumerable amount of plot lines, the story proper had been brought to a close. It was possible to talk not just about that episode but about what the show was trying to do all along, and about how successfully it managed to do it. I’d spent years recapping while spinning my wheels, because there was nothing else to do. Here, though, I could actually think about the meaning of televised story and what it looked like in the specific context of this sci-fi/mystery show. It was the beginning of a more challenging but more rewarding way of doing things. When I watched True Detective earlier this year, I found myself excited at the end of each episode to see where the next one would lead. But I also didn’t want to write anything about the show before the season ended. It would’ve been too easy to jump down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and miss what turned out to be a somber, compelling story about two self-destructive obsessives coupled by fate. Similarly, when I found myself exploring The Newsroom a few years ago, specifically within the context of creator Aaron Sorkin’s broader body of work, I knew I wouldn’t be able to begin making any kind of argument without at least seeing the entire first season.

In their own way, though, those old recaps weren’t a total waste: I had to write them to realize I didn’t want to write any more of them. One of the great things about being a critic is pushing yourself to constantly check and shape your worldview, and I never would have arrived at this particular belief without walking the long road to get here. But I’ve had to turn my back on them, and assignments like them, because I don’t think they’re good for the viewer or the critic. They teach us to pay attention to everything except what matters. And I want to hold the work in my hands and try to understand it; I don’t want to tear it apart and find nothing but bloody pieces.

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Comedy, TV

Leslie Knope and the Limits of Resistance

I’ve been rewatching bits and pieces of the fifth season of Parks and Recreation recently, mostly to pass the time while I eat breakfast, but also to try and figure out exactly when and where the show changed. Broadly, the show’s defining and greatest years — the second, third, and fourth seasons, which saw Leslie Knope rise from middle management to city council, all while finding the love of her life — are about resilience. The government of Pawnee is almost never able to do all it wants to do, and many of the show’s plots revolve around Knope and her team working to find a kind of compromise that pleases as many people as possible. Indeed, the arc at the beginning of the third season, where the gang oversees the Harvest Festival as a way to boost the town’s economy, is one of the most gratifying because the characters get to do the things they’re clearly born to do.

The fifth season, though, is when the show stops being about resilience and starts being about futility. After joining the city council, Leslie is almost immediately slammed by the greed and gridlock from the other council members, and by the increasingly difficult challenges presented by obstinate members of the town. The show had previously commented on real-world political circuses (Leslie finds out she was born in Eagleton, not Pawnee, leading to comments about birth certificates and places of origin), but by this point the show starts to feel infected by a sense of weariness at the prospect of one character, even a fictional one, fighting battles that can feel all too real to viewers. Leslie’s efforts to combat STDs at a retirement home by distributing condoms is rebuffed by a hyper-Christian husband and wife who are partly afraid of sexual intimacy because the husband is closeted and abstinent. A story about a failing video store becomes a prickly satire of “bailouts” in general. Personal stories get rougher, too: Leslie’s run-ins with Eagletonians, previously played for exasperated laughs, feel crueler as Leslie is openly mocked for being from Pawnee. (Additionally, her earlier fight with an Eagleton leader, played by Parker Posey, was contextualized as being the fallout of a former friendship that had gone south; here, things are just mean for the sake of it.) Leslie and Ben travel to Ben’s hometown, where he was briefly mayor at age 18, only for the entire town to make him the centerpiece of a celebration of his incompetency. One of Leslie’s council rivals, Jamm, actually crashes her impromptu wedding and instigates a fistfight. And the season ends with Leslie inexorably losing traction with the citizens of the town she’s spent years serving, her popularity tanking while other council members remain comfortably entrenched. Half a dozen episodes into the following season, she’ll be recalled from office and returned to her old job. Years of her life, and several seasons of the show’s plot, undone in a few hard twists.

Part of this can probably be chalked up to the show’s age: it’s now aired six seasons and more than 100 episodes, with its seventh and final season (consisting of 13 episodes) arriving midway through the 2014-2015 year. That’s a lot of story to tell, and more than most shows ever even dream of telling. And part of it can be attributed to the fact that this is a highly story-driven show, with multiple interlocking arcs over multiple seasons (the Harvest Festival, Leslie’s courtship of Ben, Leslie’s run for office), each joined by smaller, overlapping arcs (friendships and relationships in the supporting cast). Installing Leslie in office is effectively the moment the show said “It is finished.” But I also think that part of it has to do with the creative staff and showrunner Michael Schur trying to make a softly political comedy in an era of seemingly limitless bitterness and division and squabbling. You want to see Leslie Knope win office? OK, they say: then you will watch her suffer for her dreams. You want to see Ben become the prodigal son? You will watch him be laughed right back out of town. There’s a sadness, a sourness, to much of the fifth and sixth seasons. Leslie’s defeat and return feel like Schur’s own admission of his flagging spirit. In the sixth season finale, Leslie is given a dream job at the federal level and the show itself jumps forward by three years. It almost feels like it was meant to be a series finale in the event the show wasn’t renewed: Leslie riding off into the sunset, energized and recharged once more, crusading the way she’s always done. It’s the kind of Hail Mary that usually signifies an admission that everybody was out of ideas or just tired of the world they’d built, but it wasn’t jarring for the way it skipped through time: rather, it was for the way it attempted to inject a sense of optimism and wonder into a narrative world that had almost forgotten what that looked like. After years in the trenches, it was a surprise to see the sun.

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Film, Veronica Mars

Scattered Thoughts on Veronica Mars

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I watched the Veronica Mars movie last night. It’s cute and fun and has some good jokes, though it’s best viewed as the most expensive piece of fanfic ever made. I was a big fan of the series when it aired, but I haven’t seen any of the TV episodes since the show was cancelled in 2007, so I was lost when it came to certain references or characters or in-jokes. There wasn’t really an attempt to make a movie that could even halfway stand on its own, and I have to chalk that up to the fact that the project was partially bankrolled by Kickstarter backers. Director and co-writer Rob Thomas wasn’t out to do anything other than create a kind of greatest-hits montage for the super fans that gave the series’ characters one last curtain call.

I found myself thinking of Joss Whedon’s Serenity while watching Veronica Mars. Whedon’s movie was also a continuation of a cancelled TV series (Firefly), and it was also heavily dependent on viewers having seen the original show beforehand. But Serenity also attempted to function as a cohesive film and, if not stand apart from the series, at least establish its own identity. Whedon’s movie opens with a nested series of adventures and flashbacks that provide context for the story, and the central narrative (one big chase) works on its own. You occasionally get the sense that things mentioned in the movie are fleshed out in the series, but it mostly hangs together. Thomas’s Veronica Mars, though, is on the other end of the spectrum. It would be impossible to enjoy it without watching every episode of the show, preferably right before watching the movie. It’s like a glossy and truncated version of the fourth season that Veronica Mars the TV show never got.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

That feeling of fan service and instability also made for some weird character moments. Veronica hasn’t been back to her home town in almost a decade, having moved on to a new life and relationship with a guy she met in college. But once she gets back home, she realizes she still kind of has feelings for her old high school flame, and she sticks around to help him out, eventually breaking up with her boyfriend, sleeping with her old one, and solving the case of the day. This feels like something Thomas felt he had to do — reunite two characters who used to date — rather than anything that made sense in the story. Veronica’s new relationship seems to be going fine: she and her boyfriend have chemistry and energy, and his parents are flying in to meet her. She experiences no remorse or conflict about breaking up with him, and she beds the old flame pretty quickly. She doesn’t even look back. This is the behavior of a liar or sociopath, and in any other movie people would say “Wait, what?” But because this whole project is pitched as fan service, it’s like we’re not supposed to wonder how point A leads to point B. We’re just supposed to cheer that these people are walking and talking again. I get the enthusiasm — like I said, I was a fan of the show, and its first two seasons are very good — but the film often feels like a cheap trick. The series itself ended on a cliffhanger, as Thomas and company fought and ultimately failed to keep the show alive. But seeing how they’ve updated things, I almost wish the film hadn’t been made. The unanswered mystery was so much more promising.

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