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20 Years Later: ‘The West Wing’ is a Whole World Away

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us and what’s offered in real life, is as far away as one can possibly imagine.

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The West Wing made its debut on NBC in September of 1999, and it arrived as something of a dream come true for a certain type of TV watcher — someone highly educated, politically liberal, deeply engaged with politics, and likely a habitual consumer of Time, Newsweek, and all of the Sunday morning news shows. 

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us and what’s offered in real life is as far away as one can possibly imagine.

To that type of audience, the series had a lot to offer beyond the service of a respected and talented company of actors — led by Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, and Allison Janney — as well as a slick visual and musical style that seemed to just scream “prestige.”

The West Wing was a vision of a Democratic White House run by smart and competent people who truly loved public service, and they were serving a president with both an Ivy League professorship and a Nobel Prize in Economics. The show was set in a world where the smartest person in America somehow got to be president.  

The series was created by Aaron Sorkin — riffing off of his 1995 script for the movie The American President, also about an uncommonly decent and competent commander-in-chief (in which Sheen had played the White House chief of staff to Michael Douglas’ POTUS) — and even though The West Wing nominally had a writer’s room, Sorkin is generally understood to have written every episode himself in its early years. 

The West Wing landed as well with its target audience as any show in memory, for a few good reasons: for one thing, it was really, really great right out of the gate. Sorkin assembled an amazing cast, gave them strong situations to play, and got audiences hooked. The West Wing ran on all cylinders for its first two seasons or so, finding a way to make the everyday minutae of running the White House exciting, dramatic, and even funny.  The first season’s greatest moment? Definitely the “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” scene:

There’s another reason why the show succeeded. It might be odd these days to say that 1999 was a time of great cynicism about American politics, but 20 years ago the nation was coming off of the Clinton impeachment — a time of massive partisan warfare, and when many liberals and Democrats were feeling somewhat let down by Bill Clinton. So here came a portrayal of a Democratic president — Bartlet — who not only was a lot smarter than Clinton, but didn’t have affairs with interns, and didn’t otherwise act recklessly. Sure, the show tried to create a parallel plot about Bartlet facing consequences for concealing his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, but it never quite made us doubt Bartlet’s decency. 

Great as it was in its early years, the bloom came off The West Wing rose rather quickly. 

First, George W. Bush was elected president, and then the 9/11 attacks took place, and both of those things made the world of The West Wing resemble modern American politics less and less, while making the stakes of its plots matter less as well. The show tried to catch up, first with an ill-advised post-9/11 episode that was literally a sanctimonious lecture, and then with halfhearted terrorism plotlines, and later with the character of Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), Bartlet’s Republican opponent and a lazily conceived Bush stand-in.  

Later, Sorkin was arrested for drug possession, and began publicly feuding with his studio bosses, leading to his departure from the series after the fourth season. The show sputtered for a while under new showrunner John Wells, before finding greatness again in its final stretch, as proto-Obama Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) sought to succeed Bartlet as president. 

Later, Sorkin was arrested for drug possession, and began publicly feuding with his studio bosses, leading to his departure from the series after the fourth season. The show sputtered for a while under new showrunner John Wells, before finding greatness again in its final stretch, as proto-Obama Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) sought to succeed Bartlet as president. 

The show wrapped up in 2006, after 7 seasons and 156 episodes. And two years later, Barack Obama — himself a former professor, later a Nobel laureate, and probably the political figure on the planet most in line with the ethos of The West Wing — was elected president of the United States. 

The West Wing has something of a complicated legacy, one not helped by the viscerally hostile reactions to Sorkin’s post-West Wing series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom. Neither show was as strong as The West Wing at its height, and part of the problem was that while the gravitas and importance Sorkin applied to his writing fit with the White House, it was wildly out of place when depicting a TV comedy show or a cable news network. 

Also not helping was “Sorkinisms,” a viral video from 2012 that showed the writer’s tendency to re-use the same words and phrases in his work, often three or more times. There was also an over-arching sense that Sorkin, who created the great character of C.J. Gregg, had somehow lost the ability to write convincing female characters. In later-period Sorkin, every woman is the same person, and sounds like every other. 

Sorkin’s non-TV projects have been better received; he’s been nominated for screenplay Oscars three times, winning for 2010’s The Social Network, and though his complete illiteracy about the Internet has been a theme in his later work, give credit where it’s due; he saw that something foul was going on at Facebook many years before the rest of us did. 

The West Wing‘s entire run is available to stream on Netflix, and new fans over time have discovered and loved it. The show resembles an idealized view of politics for a certain generation of viewers who grew up with it, and it’s not a rare sight for West Wing cast members to endorse or campaign for real-life political candidates, as most of the cast did for Hillary Clinton in the home stretch in 2016. 

But that’s just the thing: We all know what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016. There are many on the left side of the political spectrum — the Chapo Trap House podcast especially — who frequently decry the lessons The West Wing taught a generation of people about American politics and how it works. It represents a version of politics that’s Hollywood, celebrity, and wealth-centric — one centered on the mostly false notion that a brilliant speech can solve just about any political problem, and that’s nearly always center-left and not left-left. This doubles as a critique, by many of the same people, of the real-life Obama presidency.  

Like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, The West Wing was an aughts show that was by liberals and for liberals. It was never about convincing undecideds or fence-sitters, which was part of why it made so little sense for its cast to stump for Hillary Clinton. 

In one of her only truly inspired columns, The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd — said to be a sometime paramour of Sorkin’s — in 2008 collaborated with her old beau in order to envision an election-year conversation between the real Obama and the fictitious Bartlet — and it got to something key about the series.

“I didn’t have to be president of America,” Bartlet told his real life counterpart. “I just had to be president of the people who watched ‘The West Wing.'”

“I love that it has, almost in a weird way, more resonance now, than it ever did even then,” Rob Lowe said of The West Wing when I interviewed him earlier this year. “It’s just a part of people’s lives still, it’s really an amazing thing to be a part of. It was always a wish fulfillment show, when it was made, it was sort of a what-if, if only we could have a situation…now, 20 years later, I think it would not be wish fulfillment, but it would literally be science fiction.” 

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us — of a competent and professorial president, supported by a staff of brilliant, dedicated public servants — is as far away as one can possibly imagine from what’s on offer in real life. Your mileage may vary on whether re-watching The West Wing makes you feel good about that gap, or makes you feel even worse about it. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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Watchmen Season 1 Episode Four Review: “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own”

A thick metatextual layer coats an episode of enigmatic introductions and underwhelming mystery building.

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Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Near the end of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own,” trillionaire Lady Trieu accuses Will Reeves of employing “passive-aggressive exposition” and tells him he’s being “too cute by a half-measure” teasing out his identity to his granddaughter. It is one of many meta moments in a Watchmen episode where Damon Lindelof’s anxieties and fears constantly bleed through the text of dystopian superheroes; and while that certainly makes for fascinating television to dissect and theorize about, it doesn’t exactly make for a neat, satisfying hour of television. In fact, much of it feels like its explicitly doubling down on its most esoteric qualities, drowning out much of its interesting character work and world building, with an ungodly amount of narrative winking and hand gesturing in the place of a coherent, driven plot.

Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments.

It’s not necessarily bad television; but many of the bread crumbs it drops throughout the hour make “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” feel both bloated and empty through most of the episode. Even Lady Trieu, whose introduction is unsurprisingly strange and intriguing, falls victim to this by the end of the hour, becoming the author’s overt mouthpiece in perhaps the most strained exchange of the young series. After a fascinating introduction, where she convinces a couple to sell their house and land by bringing them a test tube baby (one she had made from their DNA), Trieu’s later scenes are a bit more grating, the farther they move away from defining her character, and closer to becoming a sounding board for self-critique.

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

Lady Trieu’s arc through “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is emblematic of the entire hour: rich subtext obfuscated by an unwieldy amount of foreshadowing and stalling. This is obviously by design – Will establishes we’re three days away from whatever event is coming, and Veidt’s timeline reveals his scenes are three years from the present – but instead of leaning on character and theme to pass the time, the fourth episode of Watchmen doubles down on objects nodding towards what’s to come. An object falling from the sky, a mention of a horseshow Veidt “doesn’t need yet,” the direct mention of nothing being able to take down the Milennium Clock, “save for a direct hit from a nuclear blast”; every object and line in “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is a nod towards what’s to come – which, in retrospect, may make this the most important episode of the series.

But in the present, it just makes the whole affair feel a bit clumsy in its deliberate, straightforward delivery; to borrow from the episode’s symbolism, we never see any of the acorns grow into trees in this hour. We learn facts like Looking Glass is a conspiracy theorist, and Trieu’s daughter is probably some kind of lab creation who has her mother’s memories of Vietnam, and Veidt pull babies out of the water to make his clone servants in a steampunk machine; all enthralling imagery, all stepped in some of the show’s deeper thematic material about identity and purpose – but it feels laborious, and hollow, in the isolated context of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.”

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

At some point, all of this will mean something; even the vigilante who lubes himself up to slide through sewer grates will hold some significance in this world, even if it’s only a cheeky side note across this hour. I just wish I felt more emotional purpose to this episode: in those terms, most of “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” is just inert, a middle-chapter episode that makes no qualms about its position as the episode positioned between the series’ beginning, and the start of its climb to the season’s dramatic apex; but that honesty comes at the cost of everything feeling just a bit trite.

The most interesting parts of “If You Don’t Like My Story” end up being in the margins; details like Angela and Lady’s shared Vietnamese heritage (and language), Will’s fears about what’s to come, and Looking Glass’s questionable living quarters stand out among the episode’s always-lush aesthetics. Even more interesting are the metatextual connotations; Lindelof as “master and not the maker,” the cheeky episode titles and closing conversations, and the synchronicity between timelines, as the episode ends three days from whatever is about to happen on Earth, while Ozymandias’ escape is clearly nearing its own apex (and with each episode suggesting another year interned, suggests he’s three years away from his own release).

Watchmen If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own

It all amounts to a collection of interesting moments, stranded in a forgettable episode unable to mark any important narrative shifts; it’s all intrigue and ominous language, muting the impact of Lady Trieu’s showy introduction. Piles of bloody clone bodies and Will’s pointed disappointment in “betraying” Angela makes for fascinating images and moments, but as a part of Watchmen‘s whole, feels a lot more weightless than what came before it, and what appears to be coming on the horizon.

It’s a small misstep, but an important one: Watchmen‘s density appears to be coming into conflict with its narrative momentum more often than it should, which could prove troublesome in its climactic moments. Tick tock, tick tock, I suppose – hopefully next week’s episode offers a bit more clarity and cohesion than what “If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own” has to offer.

Other thoughts/observations:

Who would’ve thought Watchmen would challenge Mom for the title of “most engaging, mature female lead characters on the same show”?

Lot to pull from the meaning of the episode’s title: it could hint to characters taking control of their own narratives (Ozymandias reframing his imprisonment as a challenge, Angela learning about her family’s history and grandfather’s mission, Laurie’s legacy running around “yahoos”in her past), or it is a middle finger to Lindelof’s critics. Or it is what Lindelof probably told himself every day that Alan Moore would tell him if they ever got to speak to each other.

Few scenes on TV are more disturbing than watching Veidt casually discarding infants around in the open water. Or making them into very nude adults in his steampunk magic machine.

“So you’re building the eighth wonder of the world?” “No, we’re building the first wonder of the new world.” THAT’S NOT OMINOUS OR ANYTHING.

Senator Keane clearly knows he shouldn’t be naming Angela while she’s in her Sister Night uniform… and yet he keeps doing it. Almost like he’s making a point about it… it is most certainly too clever, by at least a half-measure.

So if Ances-Tree was able to trace the “unknown” Will to his parents, why would the program think the whole family died in the fire? If Will died, he wouldn’t be a grandfather – and since her family tree shows no siblings for him, it would seem natural that he, in fact, did not die in the fire. Not a big thing, but it’s a point of logic that stuck out in the moment.

So either Lady Trieu is trying to kill Dr. Manhattan or create time travel? Those are my best two guesses, as if I have any clue what the fuck is actually going on here.

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‘Sesame Street’ at 50: A one-of-a-Kind Tradition

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Sesame Street, as of this weekend, has been on the air for 50 years. Like no other work of popular culture, with the possible exception of Pixar Animation Studios, the show has cracked the very difficult task of appealing to the sensibilities of both adults and children, with the same bit of entertainment. 

Between the Sesame Street 50th anniversary – occasioned this weekend with a somewhat underwhelming TV special– and the arrival of the new biopic of Mr. Rogers, this is a big month for nostalgia about beloved, long-running children’s entertainment of the past. 

An educational show that’s also entertaining, having created indelible characters human and Muppet alike, Sesame Street occupies a place unlike anything else America has ever produced. 

Many people experience Sesame Street exactly twice: When they first watch it as children, and then again, decades later when they watch it with their own children. This is due largely to the show’s style, underlying values and general sensibility being so timeless, but also because the show re-uses old material so often. It doesn’t hurt that, in the modern era, many of the best Sesame Street moments live on YouTube. 

At its best, the series’ scenes have the timing of the very best comedy sketches, such as “mystery box” bit with Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster: 

And of course, there’s also stuff to make you cry. Most notably, of course, the Mr. Hooper scene: 

And the famous Snuffy reveal from 1985: 

The 50th anniversary, of course, means that Sesame Street began in 1969, and yes, this show that nearly universally found its way into the homes all over the world was very much a creation of the counterculture- one of its most enduring, in fact.

Street Gang, Michael Davis’ 2008 book, is the definitive history of the show, depicting how Jim Henson, Joan Ganz Cooney and the rest of the original crew developed and sustained the show. There was also the 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird, in which Spinney told the stories of his years in the Big Bird suit, his sometimes contentious relationship with Henson, and the episode in which he was considered for a spot on the doomed Challenger space shuttle. 

And while Sesame Street has been much parodied, no one has ever done it better than the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which debuted in 2003. Featuring Muppet-like puppets and a Sesame Street-like setting, the show may have been uncommonly raunchy, but its underlying values of acceptance and friendship ultimately weren’t that different from those of its inspiration. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

While Sesame Street has endured for a half-century, its future is somewhat in flux. In 2016, the show’s first-run episodes moved from their longtime home of PBS to the premium channel HBO, although PBS still shows the second run, arriving there nine months after the first. 

This led to some hand-wringing back when it was first announced, although it’s pretty clear the show’s main target audience of preschoolers doesn’t know from first-run and second-run episodes,  the series always includes lots of vintage material even in its “new” episodes. Also, the new Sesame Street material that goes viral – most notably, its frequent kid-friendly TV parodies- always go up on YouTube immediately, along with so much of the classic stuff. And the HBO deal gave Children’s Television Workshop a cash infusion that allowed them to produce more episodes per season. 

Next year, another change is planned, per an announcement last month: The first-run Sesame Street episodes will debut not on HBO proper but rather on HBO Max, AT&T and Warner Media’s new streaming service that will launch next May. For those who care about seeing first-run episodes, this puts the new shows not only on a streaming service, but the most expensive one. 

'Sesame Street' at 50

On the bright side, the HBO Max deal includes streaming access to the entire 50 years of Sesame Street’s back catalog. Plus, the service is planning spin-offs of Sesame Street including, per The Verge, “a live-action late-night parody hosted by Elmo.”

However it’s consumed in the future, Sesame Street occupies a place that’s all by itself in the history of children’s entertainment, one enjoyed now by three generations of children, along with their parents.

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Sesame Street Celebrates 50 Years with an Underwhelming Special

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Sesame Street 50 Year Anniversary

Sesame Street turns 50 years old this week, and for the occasion the show’s current home, HBO, showed a special Saturday night, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the show’s human and puppet casts of the past and present. 

The anniversary show, while it contains some decent nostalgia moments, feels somewhat underwhelming. It was barely promoted, feels thrown together and doesn’t really have the ambitious scale that’s worthy of the magnitude of the show’s half-century anniversary. 

The gimmick of the anniversary special, which runs just under 50 minutes, is that Gordon-Levitt, a longtime fan, is visiting Sesame Street, and really wants to get his picture taken with the characters, under the Sesame Street sign. The sign, however, has gone missing, and Elmo and friends must distract him to keep him from discovering that it’s gone. They all reach the honorable but not-so-earth-shattering conclusion that Sesame Street is less a physical place than a state of mind. 

sesame-street-50th-anniversary-special

Throughout, we get some surprise appearances by Sesame Street‘s human characters of old such as Luis (Emilio Delgado), Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Maria (Sonia Manzano), and also long-absent muppets like Guy Smiley and even Kermit the Frog, who was a mainstay of Sesame Street‘s early days but has mostly been absent from the show since the 1980s. 

Kermit duets his signature Sesame Street tune “Bein’ Green'” with Elvis Costello, one of several musical numbers in the special. Norah Jones shows up to sing a song, and is visited by the talking letter “Y,” a callback to the time she remixed her song “Don’t Know Why” as “Don’t Know Y,” and there’s also a montage of famous Sesame Street songs. Patti LaBelle also shows up, as do Nile Rodgers and Meghan Trainor, and the show’s longtime mainstay Itzhak Perlman plays his violin on the show again as well. 

Non-musical cameos include Sterling K. Brown (from This is Us) eating cookies with Cookie Monster, as well as an appearance by Whoopi Goldberg. 

One of the more underwhelming aspects of the special is the relative lack of classic footage. The 50th anniversary could have occasioned an hour-long clip show, featuring some of the show’s most significant moments, celebrity cameos, and other Sesame Street touchstones, in a way that tells the story of the history of the show. 

Instead, we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt spliced into footage of classic Sesame Street moments, such as the Mr. Snuffleupagus reveal from 1985 and Grover’s “This is near/this is far” routine. 

The show chooses not to address the incongruity of young-seeming characters like Elmo and Big Bird not actually being 50 years old. And while it’s understood that the characters’ voices aren’t going to say consistent as different performers cycled through the roles, whoever is currently voicing Big Bird sounds nothing whatsoever like the recently retired Carroll Spinney. 

SesameStreet-50-Years

Those who are longtime Sesame Street devotees, whatever their age, will likely find some elements to enjoy in the new anniversary spell. But the special doesn’t feel anything close to definitive. 

The special will head to PBS on the 17th, the same day the show debuts its 50th season. 

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