Life has started imitating television

Thanks to Netflix … a word which future archeologists will assume is some kind of time-wasting disease … I have just re-watched all seven seasons of “The West Wing” in under two months.

I don’t recommend this to anyone.

Like any man coming off a bender, I have a few odd thoughts about the experience that might be interesting in the cold light of day … but none of which are worth having gone though it to get.

1)  You can really tell when Aaron Sorkin left the show.  After it finds its legs in Season 1, it’s consistently excellent … though unevenly great … right up to the end of season four.  After that it quickly devolves into two seasons of a fairly hackneyed show about good people trying to do good things, and is carried by the fact that we have four seasons of well written back-story on these characters, who are in turn played by very, very good actors.  Which means it’s still watchable, even good, but not exciting.  You can go a long way in the shadow of Sorkin.

Things turn again right at the end of the sixth season, with the introduction of Alan Alda.  His character is the Republican we all wish were running for something, and the combination of good writing and great acting re-energizes what was a lame duck show.

2)  As I have always maintained, West Wing really isn’t as good as Sports Night – which (after its first four episodes) remains Aaron Sorkin’s TV tour de force.  Of course, Sports Night only got two seasons (one of the great crimes against television), so watching it never has the chance to degenerate into an exercise in masochism.

People like my friend Eric Walter argue with me on this point, but I think what they’re missing is that The West Wing borrows too much of its drama from the artificially high stakes of having its characters work in the White House.  Everything the characters do is thus very, very, important by definition, and the show often uses that as a crutch to carry the action along.  Sports Night, by contrast, earns every moment of tension and drama, raising the emotional stakes much higher for the viewer even though the situations are – by definition – less important.

This is perhaps possible because Sorkin (like many greats) is often at his best when he has artificial limits imposed on him.  The half-hour format of Sports Night, like the two hour limit of The Social Network, squeezes the best writing out of him.  A lazy Sorkin is still better than almost anyone else writing TV, but he’s still got more room for laziness in an hour format.  With a tighter limit, only the true diamonds get through.

3)  It is extraordinary the extent to which the West Wing’s season 7 presidential contest (aired in 2006) prefigured the actual presidential election of 2008.

Check it out:  on TV the Republican nominee is Arnold Vinick, a maverick Republican of conscience who is a straight shooter that Democrats love.  In the real presidential election the Republican nominee was John McCain, back when he was a maverick Republican of conscience who was a straight shooter that Democrats loved.

On TV, the Democratic nominee (after a brutal slugfest) was Matthew Santos, a young and inexperienced congressman (just three terms!) who made history as the first Hispanic to win the nomination of a major party.

In the real presidential election … Obama.

The television race had a major turning point when a nuclear power plant in California went haywire – and Vinick had come out strongly for nuclear power.

In the real presidential election, the dynamic turned suddenly when the housing market collapsed and the global economy was teetering – and John McCain had been championing deregulation all this time.

And so it goes.  Proof, once again, that life imitates art and not the other way around?

I think Oscar Wilde would be proud.