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A diamond in the mud

Peter Wicks | Thursday, October 2, 2003

It’s easy to get depressed about the state of Television. You only have to watch some. Year after year the programs get cruder, dumber, more unabashed in their exploitation. And while it seems impossible that the erosion of taste could continue forever, it also seems impossible that it could ever stop.

Sometimes I think that there is a conspiracy amongst the networks to pre-empt the possibility of satire by producing programming so morally grotesque as to defy caricature. Jerry Springer hosts a moral freak show, but you cannot satirize his show effectively because the satire would be indistinguishable from a regular episode. And what is the point of complaining that Jackass is stupid when the show wears its stupidity like an inane grin?

Yes, it’s easy to get depressed about the state of Television. But things aren’t as bad as they first appear. In fact, if you ignore the countless shows that aim to keep us watching by producing the ethical equivalent of a highway pile-up every week – and that’s all you can do, ignore them – you might conclude, as I have, that we are currently enjoying a golden age of Television. For while some shows seek to attract viewers by pushing the boundaries of taste and ethics, some networks have adopted a more innovative approach, commissioning programs which stand out because they are really very good.

The lesson they finally seem to have learned is that they may not be able to compete with the film studios when it comes to explosions and special effects, but if they produce shows which are sufficiently well-written to reward second or even third viewings then they can earn their advertising revenues several times over before going on to clean up with video sales.

So, while the average programs are in steady decline towards the lowest common denominator – I’ll defer to the math majors as to whether that’s a mixed metaphor – the best programs have never been better. And if you don’t have enough time to watch much television anyway, that works out just fine.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of fans of The Sopranos or Six Feet Under, I think the best show to appear in recent years is The West Wing, and I was delighted last week when President Jed Bartlett, Notre Dame’s most accomplished fictional alumnus, made his much anticipated return to America’s screens after a lengthy summer recess.

For four years the show has been written by Aaron Sorkin, who is also its creator. Sorkin is an undisguised I.Q. fetishist, and everyone who works in the Bartlett Administration is not only intellectually brilliant, but endlessly witty and politically savvy to an almost telepathic degree.

Bartlett himself holds a Nobel Prize in economics, has an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and can speak extemporaneously in Latin when the mood takes him. It must have taken considerable restraint on Sorkin’s part not to give him X-ray vision and the power of flight.

The West Wing is sometimes criticized for its liberal bias, which is unmistakable. Sorkin’s own liberal commitments are well known and doubtless influence his presentation of issues, but even if Sorkin’s politics were more centrist I suspect that the show would have been pulled to the left by the demands of dramatic narrative.

Liberalism tends towards the heroic view of politics, the belief that the government could transform the world for the better if only the people in charge were clever enough, brave enough, good enough. Liberals often complain about political corruption and ineptitude – and rightly so – but they are usually reluctant to view the failures of government as inevitable. Of course conservatives believe that leaders make a difference too, but they tend to be more pessimistic about what the state can achieve regardless of who is in charge.

The argument between liberalism and conservatism is partly a matter of history and partly a matter of faith. It would be foolish to pronounce on the political merits of the two creeds here, but there is no question which view makes for better stories. Liberalism is simply more inspiring. This explains, I believe, the longstanding paradox that the market-driven entertainment industry consistently produces drama well to the left of American popular opinion.

Even those who complain that Sorkin puts his thumb on the scales when dealing with most issues usually admit to being fans. In a climate in which a sneering and reflexive cynicism often passes for sophisticated political opinion, there is something refreshing about seeing political ideas and idealism presented in such an intelligent, informed and articulate way. The quality of the dialogue allows the show to transcend any narrow political ideology. Sorkin’s fictional president was never more clearly expressing the writer’s own hopes than when he declares his ambitions for his presidency:

“We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.”


Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy.. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Observer