Smart People

17people.jpgOne of the easiest bombs to lob as a professional critic is to demean a film or TV series as "manipulative." This is also one of the most misleading and unthinking ways to attack a work of art. One of the goals of a good story is to evoke emotion, to stir up in the viewer feelings of joy or sorrow or empathy or any one of ten thousand; the fictional narrative is constructed specifically to manipulate you into that state. What we really mean when we call something manipulative is that it is falsely manipulative, i.e., the situations that unfolded to arrive at the given conflict or resolution felt forced, or cheap, or predictable, or dumb, or in any way unbelievable. Good storytelling makes the scripted feel surprising, and it makes the inevitable feel crafted by fate. This came home as I rewatched the latter half of the second season of "The West Wing" recently. It's revealed in the first season that President Bartlet suffers from a relapsing-remitting course of multiple sclerosis, but the disease is kept secret from the staff and the world at large. The second season of the show becomes increasingly about Bartlet's decision to run for re-election, which would break a promise he made to his wife out of deference to his illness to limit himself to one term, but creator and writer Aaron Sorkin isn't about to make Bartlet's m.s. some clunky weight around the neck of a great story. In other words, though the disclosure of the disease to the public is unavoidable and destined to become an important part of the re-election arc and the rest of the series, Sorkin isn't going to employ some sitcom-level hijinks in which Bartlet's yakking about his m.s. treatments on the phone when some aide accidentally picks up the extension and hears all about it. To have the revelation come out that way would feel arbitrary and stupid and unoriginal, and it would feel that way because (a) it would be all those things, and worse, but also (b) that would rob the viewer of seeing a realistic, natural story play out among a stable of smart characters. No, Sorkin does the best and only available thing: He has someone figure out the secret. It's impossible to understate just how vital this is to the integrity of the series, the characters, and the viewing experience. Sorkin's political drama moved fast and quick, running on adrenaline and wit and pure unfiltered hope. (For more of my gushing over the show's second season, click here.) It was a smart show about smart people, and to have such a major plot development left to less graceful devices would've been out of place. What's more, these characters had spent two seasons proving their worth, devotion, and intellect, and there could be no better way to honor that than to have one of them — communications director Toby Ziegler — discover the president's secret by just sitting in his office and thinking about the various clues (the president's reluctance to discuss re-election, the vice president's posturing) scattered around him. Toby blasts the president for his behavior, but coming as it does on the heels of his discovery, it doesn't play out so much like self-righteous thundering as it does legitimate anger. The show is honest to its emotions, and that's what makes it such worthwhile viewing. Any series can be a soap, but it takes real skill to make something this intelligent and nimble and captivating. And smart.