4thofeleven: (Default)
And we’re back to mediocre. At this point, I think I’m more watching these so I have something to put on my livejournal on a regular basis. But, damnit, I've got all the DVDs sitting here, it feels stupid to quit this early on!

Problems: This is the kind of episode, the sort of quiet character piece, that you can get away with once in a while, a few seasons into the show, when you’ve established your characters well enough that you can get away with just showing them going about their normal routine for an hour instead of dealing with the crisis of the week. Five episodes in, when I’m still struggling to work out which white guy in a suit is which… no, it doesn’t work for me. It all feels kind of smarmy, and at this point I don’t like the characters enough to really tolerate an episode that seems largely devoted to each of them reassuring each other how awesome they all are. I haven’t seen enough of either Josh or Toby to care about their feelings of insecurity, and the episode doesn’t have any other real content.

And the bit at the end about “These women” – I don’t know, it felt… not exactly patronising, but at the very least a bad case of ‘tell, don’t show’ to have the main characters muse on how important the female characters are to their work while at the same time the show itself so far has been so totally dominated by white men. Mandy seems to be the only woman so far who’s had a chance to be anything other than a bystander in male character’s stories, and she’s neither driving the narrative nor at all likeable, and I understand she vanishes fairly soon…
Minor notes:

- It felt a little dishonest to me to raise the issue of smallpox outbreaks without mentioning that the US is one of only two countries that still maintains samples of the virus – and was, at the time of this episode, acting against WHO recommendations that the samples be destroyed.

- Can we kill the “Hero reels off a list of figures, impresses everyone with his in-depth knowledge, later admits he was just making them up” joke? Granted, it was possibly a little fresher in ’99 – but at this point, I assume that’s where a scene’s going whenever someone in a movie reels of specific details.

- Funny, I was just thinking during the pan-over of Washington DC how weird it looks to see it intact, then we go into a scene discussing nuclear evacuation procedure. Yeah, I play too much Fallout…
4thofeleven: (Default)
A very wide swing in quality here – episode three I thought was the weakest episode I’ve seen, while four was the best. Taking them one at a time:

Proportional Response dragged for most of its runtime, dealing with an absurd dilemma – how many foreign lives is an American worth? Fortunately the episode ends up ruling that, no, the President would not be justified in killing everyone else on Earth. On the other hand, the position it actually takes feels like just as much of a straw man – surely Syria launching an unprovoked attack on an American plane should justify slightly stronger reactions than we see here? Bartlett manages to come across as both obsessively vengeful and ineffectual, something I would not have thought possible.

Meanwhile, the Sam and the callgirl plot continues to drag on, with no actual progress being made whatsoever, other than increasing my dislike of Sam. On the plus side, I am starting to like CJ a lot.

The introduction of Charlie – eh. The main issue I had was that the dialogue about ‘what it looks like’ felt to me less like something the characters would think of so much as something the show’s writers would think of. I mean, ‘aide to the President’ isn’t a particularly public role, and presumably the Bartlett administration has at least one high-ranking African-American? It only makes sense in terms of “This is the only Black character in the regular cast” – and, if anything, calling attention to the problem just makes it even more noticeable that the only black fact in the first two episodes was the doomed Morris. And then, having raised the issue, the show dismisses any concerns with a black General saying he “doesn’t have much time for cosmetic issues”. So yeah.

And if you must have your only black character be in the most junior role, at the very least does he need to be so needlessly humble? Can’t he be an ambitious energetic go-getter like everyone else, not the guy who didn’t want the job in the first place and applied for a lower position?

So, I wasn’t in a very positive mood going into ‘Five Votes Down’. Fortunately, this one proved the first episode I unreservedly enjoyed, and if the show continues like this, maybe I’ll make it to the end of season one after all. On the down side, since I’m not tearing it apart, there’s not much to say about it.

What I liked is that for once there was a clear dilemma to resolve, and the stakes and issues were made clear. This was what I was expecting from a show about the White House, not drawn out personal problems of characters I don’t like or vaguely described military actions. The strategy of politics gets a chance to dominate, and it’s not a clear victory in the end – even ignoring the vice-president’s manoeuvrings, it’s made clear that the bill was a compromise measure in the first place.

And while some of the dissenting congressmen are little more than caricatures – the ‘dude’ that won’t support the bill unless he gets a presidential photo-op, for example – the black congressman is portrayed as having honest objections to the bill, and gets the last word in his conversation with Leo. It’s interesting in light of recent political debates in the US over health care, and the strategic debate over whether to compromise and risk diluting one’s goals to uselessness or stick to one’s principles and risk getting nothing. Personally, I’m in the stick to your guns camp, but that’s why I’m not in politics.

I’m finding the vice-president a consistently entertaining character; it’s nice to see someone who can actually play the political game, and play it well. Everyone else seems a little naïve at times. And his scene with Leo shows he’s not a pure villain, either, just… ambitious.

So, looks like I’m going to be tackling another disk after all.
4thofeleven: (Default)
Certainly an improvement over the pilot. I’ve got more of a sense of the characters, and a lot more seemed to be going on.

On the downside, while I’m more interested in the characters, right now I don’t actually like any of them very much. There seems to be far too much focusing on establishing authority over each other – everyone seems to deal with everyone else with a rather stiff formality. Now part of that’s just a cultural difference between Australia and the United States, but it is turning me off the characters a little.

Sam’s quickly going into my ‘actively dislike’ column – I’m interested to see where his story with the callgirl is going. So far, Sam seems to be coming across as pretty damn passive-aggressive in his dealings with the woman, and his combination of veiled threats and effective demanding that she be friends with him pretty much destroy what sympathy his goofy incompetence and bad luck in the pilot might have earned him. As I said, I’m interested to see where this is going – as it is, it seems to me like he’s less interested in ‘reform’ and more in demonstrating his power over the woman, and I’m hoping the show will acknowledge that soon.

Mandy’s also pretty unlikable, and seems to have been saddled with some of the least-natural dialogue in the episode to boot – long angry or upset rants that are thinly disguised excuses for her to reel off her background.

The President, I’m still not sure about. On the one hand, he’s the most personable character so far – though that may just be because he’s one of the few I can keep track of. Everyone else’s job’s I’m kinda vague about, but ‘President of the US’ is pretty easy to keep straight. On the other hand, this is the second episode out of two where his power is equated with God, and yet I think the show is meant to take this as sincere, not as a symptom of overwhelming hubris. Cultural differences again, I’m sure. More to the point, in the scene where he explains the episode’s title, he comes across as insufferably pretentious – Frasier Crane without the charm. It doesn’t help that by the time he’s dropped the phrase, challenged everyone to explain it, then translated it himself, I’d quite lost track of what his point was in the first place (That it’s a fallacy to assume he did poorly in Texas because of his jokes, rather than because, say, he’s a Democratic candidate hailing from New Hampshire…)

Minor notes:

- I assume the vice-president’s going to be something of a recurring adversary? I think it’s interesting just how weak President Bartlett’s position apparently is here – his veep sees him as a rival (and apparently isn’t talking to him directly), his general popularity’s low, and there’s a rift between him and the military. And the Republicans still haven’t made an appearance…

- Come on. The only black character to appear so far spends the whole episode showing everyone the photo of his newborn daughter and wife, and then gets killed? What, him being two days from retirement too subtle a cliché?

- Huh. West Wing apparently displays its episode titles on screen. I’ve only seen that before in Star Trek (and spin-offs) and Babylon 5. Personally, I like it, but you don’t see it too often…
4thofeleven: (Default)
There’s something kind of intimidating about TV shows on DVD, isn’t there? I’ve got a lot of seasons of things lying around that I haven’t watched yet – it feels like starting them would be more of a commitment than watching a movie or finding an episode of something being broadcast.

Anyway I’ve been lent the complete run of The West Wing, and with temperatures too hot to even consider leaving the house, I thought I’d start watching them. Initial thoughts: Ehh. I’m going to give the show a chance – plenty of decent shows have shaky pilots, but there’s not a lot here that’s really drawing me in. To a degree, it feels like some sort of hybrid of Boston Legal and The Hollowmen*, but played deathly straight.

And the characters strike me as a bit… cold. What do they stand for? Admittedly, I get the impression that the pilot is meant to be a bit directionless, with the ending of the President announcing “Break’s over” – but then, that’s sort of an odd direction for the pilot of a new show, yes? It’s an odd episode in general – not much happens, but I didn’t feel I got much of a grip on the characters either.

As I said, I will watch at least the first disc of episodes to see if anything starts to stand out, but first impressions haven’t been great.

Minor notes:

- The president so far feels to me like an AU-Jimmy Carter, with the links to conservative Christianity and the crashing a bike thing calls to mind to me the ‘killer rabbit’ incident. Was there a Carter in the series’ reality? I’m assuming there wasn’t a Clinton, but how far back is the point of divergence?

 - Kind of amusing in a meta-way to have a right-wing Christian leader complain about how they're portrayed with contempt in the context of a scene that seems to go out of its way to portray right-wing Christan groups with... well, contempt. Come on - even I know what the First Commandment is - you think a religious leader is going to make a mistake that stupid?

* Australian comedy series about the Prime Minister’s policy advisers. Well worth watching, and very funny, if possibly a little inaccessible for non-Australians.

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David Newgreen

June 2017

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