The West Wing is coming to an end

The West Wing's cast during its first season

NBC has announced that the current season of The West Wing will be the last. I won’t be mourning its passing that much, since I mourned its death at the start of the fifth season. After writer/creator Aaron Sorkin was fired at the end of the fourth season, we were all waiting to see if the show could carry on with even a tenth of its former presence; it was no surprise to see that it couldn’t. Sorkin really has a gift with dialogue that demonstrates so clearly that writers have far more of an effect on the quality of US TV and film productions than they’re given credit for.

In contrast to the first four seasons (the latter two admittedly not as good as the first two), the fifth season was dismal: the plots were dire, dialogue merely functional rather than entrancing and characters behaved inconsistently.The sixth season – the one currently airing on More4 in the UK – was a definite improvement, although nowhere near the heights of the Sorkin years, while the seventh season has had to deal with obvious budget-cutting. It has had a couple of good moments, though, but it’s still lacked the elegance and style of the early years. Ironically, the best episode so far was written by Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman and who obviously can remember quite clearly what made the show great in the early years.

The only things the later seasons had that Sorkin’s work didn’t were realism – the earlier seasons being obvious Democrat wish-fulfillment fantasies – and coherence: you could tell the man never planned what he was going to do until the last minute, resulting in characters and story arcs that got picked up, dropped and forgotten willy nilly. Mallory, Ainsley and various other first-rate incidental characters would just disappear without anyone asking where they’d gone. Even Sam (Rob Lowe), who was originally planned as the central character of the show, disappeared during the Orange County elections in the fourth season, never to be mentioned again.

Still, the ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet’ theme got repeated in different guises at least twice during the first four years and got repeated two more times during the sixth and seventh season, so this attention deficit wasn’t limited just to Sorkin’s time.

It’ll be sad to see it go, but with most of the main characters relegated to guest parts of late, it won’t be the passing of old friends any more, just the disappearance of new acquaintances.

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House’s “Failure to Communicate” failed to communicate correctly about aphasia

My wife would like me to point out that unlike the depiction of aphasics in House MD‘s latest episode, A Failure to Communicate (aired a week ago in the US), they do not usually communicate in code. The words they substitute tend not to be related to the replaced words until at least six months after they first get the condition and even then, only infrequently.

More importantly, they tend to have comprehension issues as well, so they can’t understand what’s being said to them. Those two complaints combined tend to knacker the whole episode in fact.

Damn. That’s ruined my faith in Sherlock Holmes Gregory House, now.

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Third-episode verdict: Life on Mars

Life on Mars, starring John Simm and Philip Glennister

Although I review US pilots as they come out (cf ‘Screening Screeners‘, ‘More Screeners‘ and ‘US shows: what to watch and what to ignore completely‘ to see which ones now ring true), I usually reserve my final verdict on new shows until the second or third episode’s aired.

Which explains why I’m only now talking about Life on Mars, the new nostalgia cop show starring John Simm and Philip Glenister. The basic plot: a cop from 2006 gets knocked down in a car accident and wakes to find himself in 1973. Is he in a coma, mad, dead or has he genuinely travelled back in time? We don’t know and neither does he, but until he finds a way back, he has to make the best of it. The trouble is, the police in 1973 appear to think they’re in either an episode of The Sweeney or the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad.

It’s actually pretty enjoyable, despite the fact the show’s from Kudos, who do the glossy but banal Spooks and Hustle. As with all shows where the heroes visit the past, you can get a kick out of the natives’ ‘ignorance’. Most of the show revolves around the gulf between Simm’s expectations of how policing should be done and what his 1970s’ counterparts actually do. Fingerprints take two weeks to be processed, interviews take place in the canteen and aren’t recorded, witness protection is for mafia grasses and Glenister keeps a pile of “bling” and acid in his filing cabinet for when he needs to plant evidence.

The biggest shock is the illiberal attitudes on display (AA Gill said it was as though the main character had woken up in a Richard Littlejohn column). The 70s isn’t that long ago. Most of us can remember the 70s: we’ve lived through it and we have a certain rosy view of the era of our early childhood. But watching Life on Mars, you realise the 70s might as well be one hundred years ago. Watching the treatment a deaf character gets in the second episode brings home to you just what isn’t acceptable these days: anyone ruing political correctness clearly doesn’t remember what things used to be like in the ‘good old days’. Similarly, you realise just how reconstructed today’s police are in comparison with the police of 1973, amazing though that may seem to some.

Of course, Life on Mars isn’t 100% realistic – nor is intended to be. There are hints throughout the show that Simm is still in his hospital after his accident, with mysterious voices talking about his condition and the sun always shining outside, no matter what time of day it is. Any historical slips such as policewomen being called WPC instead of PWs can then be put down to his faulty recall of the era, as can the occasional overly comedic moment such as a mass chase in swimming trunks, which even Simm’s character realises is implausible. Like Lost, though, until the ending is revealed, we won’t know how much slack to cut it on such matters.

Simm and Glenister, last seen together in the outstanding State of Play, get to ham it up a little and seem to have a great time doing it (Glenister more than Simm, who has to be constantly pained by his new colleague’s predilection for punching anyone who annoys him). There’s a rip-roaring 70s soundtrack, including, naturally enough, Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’. It’s great fun to watch and while it’s not going to strain the brain too much, there are enough subtleties and unexpected twists to keep your interest piqued.

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Celebrity Big Brother hits the bottom of the barrel

Pete Burns

I have to confess that despite my previous snootiness, I have been watching bits of Celebrity Big Brother. It always work out like that. I say I won’t watch it; Sarah starts watching it; I start watching it over my shoulder.

Last night, I severely began to regret doing this. Did you catch Pete Burns’ abuse of Traci Bingham (the C4 web site totally glosses over Burns’ worst excesses)? Wow. it really makes me proud to be English to know that someone like that shares my nationality. We invite someone over from the US and rather than treat her as a guest in our country, Burns subjects her to a torrent of racist abuse, purely to wind her up.

Fan-bloody-tastic.

If you didn’t catch Dennis’ tape on the first night, he said that the English could be pains and rude. That’s the stereotype: well done Pete for living down to it. You know that if CBB gets any airtime in the US, that is the clip they’re going to be showing.

I feel so proud. If there are any Americans visiting this blog, can I apologise to you all on behalf of my country for inflicting people like Pete Burns on you? Sorry.