an extended argument for dropping a single word from the title of an old episode of west wing

As I’ve previously noted, I don’t have a lot to say about TV shows for the most part, but today I want to write about an episode in the last season of The West Wing that I heard recently.

I say “heard” because I wasn’t really watching so much as listening to it while I played Zuma in another window on my laptop. This seems like a bad confession to make, but I say it because a) I have a preference for embarrassing transparency in blogging and b) I’m not sure actually seeing the images would matter. Often when “watching” West Wing I’ll think of Stephen Dubner’s observation on his Freaknomics blog that Aaron Sorkin creations are worth just listening to, even without the visuals. (Admittedly, Sorkin wasn’t still writing West Wing in season seven, but even so.)

Anyway, the episode I want to talk about, titled “The Debate,” is unusual first off because it’s staged as a presidential debate and not as a regular episode. And I mean that literally: Except for the first few minutes, the show looks like a televised debate, with a studio audience, a (real news anchor) moderator, and lighting that’s a lot closer to an actual debate than an hour-long drama. As it turns out, the episode was shot live, but I didn’t know this while watching it, and frankly, I think the effect of this knowledge is negligible. Whether you agree with that philosophy, it’s what I’m sticking with for the moment.

In the process of watc…err, absorbing the episode, I could tell that “The Debate” somehow didn’t fit — not with The West Wing, and not even with dramatic television more generally. I liked listening to it, but not for the same reasons I usually like listening to West Wing. I wasn’t detecting anything that would normally motivate getting involved in a TV story: Neither the characters nor the arc of the plot were present, much less compelling. My point isn’t that it was a lousy episode by normal standards, it’s that this hour of TV can barely be judged by normal standards at all.

For one, “The Debate” isn’t really about characters, even though it consists pretty much entirely of the verbal confrontation between two men, Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). You could argue that this episode isn’t very compelling from a character perspective only because it doesn’t feature the best-loved characters on the show; this is the last season of West Wing, so we’ve got six years of close contact with Josh Lyman, arguably the central character of season seven. Most of what we’ve seen of Santos is through Josh’s eyes and gauged by Santos’ effect on Josh. By himself, as a character, Santos is too straightforward and hardcore earnest in a way that’s not very relatable. This is the long way of saying that the debate episode isn’t really about this character just as the show isn’t really about this character.

It’s true that West Wing as a series makes more out of Santos’ interlocutor, the Republican Senator played by Alan Alda, whose ethical dilemmas are more difficult than the ones Santos faces. Vinick is torn between his ideals and the practicalities of running for office in a way that seems more plausible than Santos’ abbreviated flirtation with that struggle. Anyhow, while Vinick is compelling, I think as an audience, we’re not emotionally attached to him, and in any event not any more than we are to Santos.

That said, even if these guys were the psychologically engaging anchors of the series, this isn’t the episode that would prove that, since the entire thing really is like a debate. Unless you find yourself thinking about the human beingness of Barack Obama when you’re watching him behind a podium, you’re unlikely to enjoy this episode for what it means to the characters.

The other big thing in dramatic TV (not to mention in flickering-screen entertainment generally) that grabs people is plot. I.e., What will happen to these characters that we’ve been hoodwinked into caring about? In theory, this episode develops the plot by showing the two main candidates squaring off. At 45 minutes, however, the squaring off is extended far beyond any melodramatic necessity, and the field of engagement is public policy in its nuances. It might be one thing if the episode played up the drama of Santos or Vinick prevailing, but they seem to come to a stalemate and the net effect on either campaign is essentially nil. And, to go back to the lack of importance to these characters, I find it easy to think of another pair of politicians with roughly the same views debating the issues with the very same words and having more or less the same effect on the arc of the series overall.

So the episode isn’t about plot, either. If you want proof, compare the in-depth treatment of political issues in this presidential debate with The West Wing‘s handling of the vice presidential debate later in the season. Before that second debate, much to-do is made over whether our Democrat, who’s notoriously bad at that sort of thing, will pull it off. Very little of the actual event is shown, though, and it doesn’t need to be, since a quick clip and some exposition establish that he succeeded. That debate is just a plot point, and that’s why it gets such short shrift.

All of this leads me to this unusual truth: At base, “The Debate” is about the rhetoric and dialectic of political debate, and everything else is incidental. The point of the episode, finally, is that you feel the tension, not between two characters, but between two ideas.

It occurs to me that this is a push and pull of a different sort than we are used to. Cable television has made an industry from TV about characters you can only occasionally approve of, and who are often unlikable or even despicable. This tug-of-war between accepting and rejecting a Tony Soprano or a Dexter Morgan is a kind of debate, but it’s a tug-of-war within the audience, not in front of the audience. That conflict is evoked by the drama, but that conflict isn’t the subject of the art itself.

“The Debate,” on the other hand, is about manifesting that clash and honoring that dialectical approach to politics. To take the Sopranos example further, it’s as though an episode of that show had Carmela and Dr. Melfi arguing at length over the quality of Tony’s character, each making good points in turn — with this very confrontation of ideas being the raison d’etre of the hour.

This goes beyond the degree to which West Wing normally uses its characters to voice opinions. Every drama sometimes deploys dialogue just to give the writers a way to express their own or common sentiments, in moments that don’t have to do with the character specifically so much as shared thoughts and feelings. Yet this episode takes that same concept to its limit, so that characters are such mouthpieces that we are barely in a drama anymore.

And so, finally, I will argue that while the title of the episode is “The Debate,” it should probably just be “Debate,” since in actuality its heart and purpose is to present and presumably celebrate the beauty of that clash of ideas as a broad principle. I don’t know if I like that, but I can’t think of anything else that does that, which made me want to think about it…if not exactly watch it.

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