Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Khe

Fortunately, though it was a sad shock to be leaving Florida and moving to Southern California in early August of 2003, I didn't miss the start of the 5th season of "The West Wing." This was a major season, at least when it aired, because Aaron Sorkin had been fired and chief director Thomas Schlamme had left with him. How would the show fare now without its main big brain in charge? Would any other writer be able to write dialogue that would at least sound as smart and informative as Sorkin's?

The first episode of the 5th season, "7A WF 83429" was dramatic enough that there wasn't much time to think about that, save for the immediate changes, such as whipsaw camerawork that was merely "ER" producer John Wells' way of establishing his full command of the show, which was not to the benefit of devoted fans of "The West Wing," like me. In the second episode, which saw President Bartlet (not president at the time) and his wife Abigail on what looked like a set out of Star Wars, even though it was in the White House residence. The lighting made it seem like it was.

This was all terribly wrong. The characters didn't speak at all like they did, but mouthed whatever the writers had to bitch about when it came to world affairs. Sorkin never fashioned it that way. He had things to say about the world, but always made sure that it sounded right coming from whatever character he was writing, seeing that it hewed to their individual personalities. I couldn't believe I was hearing Chief of Staff Leo McGarry so roughly cynical, or Toby so angry at....nothing. Nothing that could possibly matter to the fabric of his personality.

But I hung on. I watched every episode straight through, no matter how bad it was, hoping that even without Sorkin, "The West Wing" might have a chance of reclaiming at least 10-20% of the Sorkin spark. That happened later, with "The Supremes," which saw Glenn Close and William Fichtner as eventual Supreme Court nominees and genial sparring partners. It was because of Debora Cahn, who understood what Sorkin was after. She knew that these characters were important people in the context of this fictional White House. It was also important to show the effects of their decisions, both personally and in policy. The other writers on the show just seemed to be jazzed about writing for a show set in the White House, forgetting all that had come before.

I've been watching season 5 reruns on "Bravo," to see if my original instincts were correct. Before this, I Netflixed season 5 discs containing "The Stormy Present" (because it guest-starred James Cromwell as a former president and had John Goodman again as Glenallen Walken, former acting president and former Speaker of the House) and "The Supremes," but that's as far as my toleration went for season 5 episodes. Now, having seen over half of the fifth season again, there still are shockingly bad scenes that make one wonder how writers and producers could abuse characters like this, but in later episodes, there does seem to be a drive for improvement. I can understand the writers in season 5 trying to get used to being the ones in charge of shepherding the show, but there was no excuse when seven episodes in, there was still no sign of improvement. I suspect the gradual improvement came from Debora Cahn even before "The Supremes" because at the start of the end credits for the episode "The Warfare of Genghis Khan," I noticed she was the story editor, which most likely means "head writer" in different words. I hope that's what it meant.

Now I'm at "An Khe," and I remember parts of this episode well, but I remember the experience of it even more. The night it aired, February 18, 2004, was when I finally got used to living in Southern California. I didn't have that "Holy crap! I live in Southern California, near enough to Los Angeles and Hollywood!" moment, and still haven't. I don't think I ever will because as mentioned over and over again in previous blog entries, California has never felt like home.

Before this, I had been impressed with how unattached the Santa Clarita Valley seemed to be to anything (before I found out about the various groups that make up this valley, such as the "glamorous" soccer moms of Stevenson Ranch and the valley boosters that are a small number of those who are involved with any activities the City of Santa Clarita puts on). In our apartment complex in Valencia, which took up a year, there was a neighbor on the second floor of our building who kept a fishtank on the ledge of his tiny patio. One night at College of the Canyons, I typed a paper for a man who looked like he wouldn't be at the school much longer. His constant companion seemed to be his backpack and though he promised to pay me for my work, and never did, I got my payment from the conversation we had while walking to the bus transfer station because there were no more buses from College of the Canyons to the transfer station.

He talked about recently being in Las Vegas, and hanging out at the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus, mentioning one professor who allowed him to sit in on some classes. He didn't look like he'd stay in the Santa Clarita Valley much longer. A traveling man he was. I don't think he would ever be comfortable in one place, though having visited Vegas a few times, I don't understand why he left. I think he's probably either in San Francisco or somewhere in Arizona. There's no way he could still be here. That's the only example of impermanence I've seen here. After five years, I still admire that.

Anyway, the night that "An Khe" aired, I decided not to watch it in the apartment living room. I was attempting to understand what was so great about exercise, and with one of four keycards in one of the kitchen drawers, I went off to the apartment complex's small gym, where I found myself to be the only one there. I turned on all three TVs, changed the channels to NBC, and watched the episode on three screens. There may have been a little burn I felt, but I mostly remember sweat. I tried the weights, tried pushing black bars together in front of my face, used the stair-stepper, but preferred the stationary bike. I'm not organized in my exercise pursuits, and so had no method or order for it. I still don't. I haven't done much of it since we left the apartment and moved to Saugus and this half-house. I guess it would be considered an apartment or condominium too, except it looks like a house, though a house looks far bigger than this, and you're on your own for yardwork.

Wow, look at that. Not much about the episode, which I'm going to watch again in about two minutes on my Tivo after not having seen it since it originally aired. I don't think any of these season 5 episodes are going to make me go out and get that DVD set, as seasons 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7 are the only worthwhile seasons. Season 6 was pretty bland until Congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) agreed to seek the Democratic presidential nomination at Josh's (Bradley Whitford) behest. I consider this more of a last look, to see if I'm still right about some of the bad writing, and also to see these episodes again after five years.

Sorry if you were seeking coherency in this. Some days I rock it, other days I drop it.