What It’s Like to Binge-Watch “The West Wing” as a Millennial

There are two reasons I felt compelled to write about Aaron Sorkin’s seminal series about life in the White House. One, I recently wrote about Sorkin’s film, The American President, which was the really the precursor to The West Wing. Secondly, the ATX Television Festival honored the show a few weekends ago by reuniting the cast as well as the producers for a panel.

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AUSTIN, TX – JUNE 11: The cast of the West Wing, Joshua Malina, Janel Moloney, Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill, Melissa Fitzgerald, and Richard Schiff with Director Thomas Schlamme and Series Creator Aaron Sorkin attend the “The West Wing Administration” panel during the 2016 ATX Television Festival at the Paramount Theatre on June 11, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Picturegroup)

My introduction to The West Wing was a few years ago, something I spoke about in my post about The American President.  I became obsessed with all things Sorkin after discovering The Newsroom. For some reason though, I associated The West Wing with old people. I know that sounds dumb, but there’s really no classier way to put it. I associated the show with an older audience and didn’t think I would be able to relate.

I’m happy to say I was wrong – not necessarily about the show being associated with an older audience, but about it not being accessible. I, of course, like others my age, discovered the show long after it was on the air, on Netflix. I meant to only watch one episode, but that’s not what happened. I watched them all…not in one sitting of course, but let’s just say, it was over the course of a few weeks. I watched Bartlet and Josh get shot in the season one finale and in the same week, saw CJ get a death threat well into season 3.

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No one really talks about it, but there is a major difference between consuming a show all at once and waiting from week to week to see what’s going to happen. Being 24, I still clearly remember the hysteria I felt, rushing home to watch the Gilmore Girls finale. Now, we take in multi-season television shows in sometimes a week or less. It’s sort of like a drug. We all tell ourselves we’re only going to watch an episode or two but that never quite happens because it’s right there and WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.

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I found this pattern particularly interesting in the case of The West Wing. I quite literally couldn’t stop. It was a problem. The real world was just less interesting than the lives of Josh, Toby, CJ, Sam, Donna and President Bartlet. Aw, if only people really spoke like that. I recently decided to revisit the show and was struck by the relevance of the show today. True, they don’t have cell phones. Okay, they do, but really OUTDATED CELL PHONES. With the recent Democratic Presidential Primaries, I was struck by how much of Bernie Sanders’ platform is spewed by Bartlett and in later seasons, Matt Santos.

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In the midst of my binge, I called my dad, who of course already knew I loved the show. I told him I was re-watching it and he told me he had no interest. When I asked why, he told me that the show was too depressing. Given that most of the show was made during the Bush years, he found it unrealistic and upsetting now. I never had a problem with the optimism and idealism which the show displayed as I was a Sorkin lifer, but my dad, having a degree in political science and having seen many more presidents than I have, couldn’t handle it.

I, however, completely disagree. Through shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing, I acquired an interest in politics and news, two subjects which I had little to no interest in before. The purpose of entertainment to me is twofold: obviously, we watch for entertainment value, but beyond that, I go to the movies and watch TV to be provoked intellectually. I believe that entertainment has the power to change perspectives, to help us walk in someone else’s shoes. Aaron Sorkin’s work does that for me. During the ATX panel, Bradley Whitford who played Josh spoke to this, saying…

“No human being will ever again write 22 one-hour episodes for four years – beautifully written, complicated verbally, complicated personally, funny, about something, as 11 feature films a year. It is extraordinary. It will never, ever happen again!”

On a superficial level, The West Wing is just a joy to watch. The character dynamics are fun and the dialogue is fast. The Josh-Donna of it all doesn’t hurt either.

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#SWOON

But, with each episode I consumed, I learned something new. I was not a political science major and so, many of the problems the characters had in the White House were foreign to me. The Josh and Donna dynamic was partly a way for the audience to understand these big concepts – Donna would ask Josh a question and he would answer in simple terms.

I also started listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast hosted by Joshua Malina (who plays Will Bailey in later seasons) and Hrishikesh Hirway. I, at first, thought this might be a waste of time, but after 12 hours in a car listening to every episode, I have a different opinion. Joshua and Hrishi discuss the show with humor and don’t always sing the show’s praises. In addition, they’ve had several guests on the show, one of which was Eli Attie, who in addition to being one of the writers for The West Wing, was also one of Al Gore’s speechwriters during the 2000 election.

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Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina

The show is ambitious which is what I love most about it. Looking at today’s television, I’m struck by just how special The West Wing was. It was a network show which succeeded in having opinions, compelling character drama, and also just being plain entertaining. There are, of course, moments that feel outdated. However, quality writing and acting stand the test of time…even if Sorkin may repeat himself sometimes. Millennial problems, amiright?

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All seven seasons of The West Wing are available on Netflix….so, um, you should watch now….What’s next? 😉

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Anton Yelchin and the genius of “Like Crazy”

Yesterday, I, like many others, was shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the passing of actor Anton Yelchin. I still am. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, I guarantee you know his face. He started acting as a child and was in 45 films and 16 shows. No matter what he was in, his sincerity always shown through. At 27, he had already amassed a legendary career.

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So, in honor of Anton Yelchin, I decided to explore Drake Doremus’s 2011 relationship drama, Like Crazy. The film follows Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), two college students in Los Angeles in the beginnings of a relationship. There’s one problem though – Anna is British and only in America on a student visa. She breaks the terms of her visa and as such, is banned from traveling to the U.S. What continues is a picture of their relationship over the course of a few years – the agony of being separated from the one they love, the elation at their reunion, and the frustrations of figuring out how to make it work.

I first saw this film back when it came out in 2011. At the time, it didn’t strike much of a cord with me. I don’t think I was old enough to appreciate it. After watching the film again, I was struck by how much is conveyed without words and how much I loved that – which is strange, because I love WORDS. Nonetheless, Doremus accomplished something special with this film beyond casting two extraordinarily talented young leads. He made us feel it. We went through all the emotions along with the characters – the butterflies, the laughter, and the tears.

Doremus’s film is intimate, which is what sets it apart from other films of this kind. It may have imperfections, but the actors and the style make it worthwhile. Here are just a few reasons you should take a look if you haven’t seen it:

The Cast

Notable directors have said that a good part of directing is casting. In this case, that is 100 percent true. Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin give breakout performances in this film. They are nuanced and simple and extremely vulnerable.

Felicity Jones is instantly likable, from the moment she puts a love note under Jacob’s windshield. This was one of her first roles, but you wouldn’t know it watching her. She seemed completely comfortable baring her soul. She’s obviously gone on to some great things including the upcoming, highly anticipated Star Wars spinoff Rogue One. 

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It made me so sad to watch Anton Yelchin in this film because he was so extraordinarily talented. His performance was understated and brilliant. One look from him held a thousand words. He went on to great things, starring in J.J. Abrams Star Trek series as Chekov as well as starring in numerous indie films including Rudderless, 5 to 7 and Green Room. 

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The supporting cast is less strong, but to be honest, their roles are so limited, it doesn’t matter much. The one who does shine is a young Jennifer Lawrence in one of her first roles. You want to hate her because she’s one of the obstacles between Jacob and Anna, but you can’t. Lawrence takes her limited part and actually makes her sympathetic.

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The Music

Most movies of this kind drown their films in pop music, but what this film does is different. The music is almost like another character in the film, making the emotional moments even more poignant. The song that encapsulates the film for me is “Dead Hearts” by Stars.

The Writing and Direction

Apparently, the screenplay co-written by Drake Doremus, was apparently more of an outline than a script. Yelchin and Jones improvised a good portion of their lines, giving the film a naturalistic feel. The film is all subtlety. There are no big, ridiculous plot turns. It’s a small story about a relationship and how far people are actually willing to go to make it work. There’s also a tragicness to the fact that they spend so much of the time trying to make it work, only to get what they want and possibly realize they don’t want it.

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In addition, the lines that were written are excellent…

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Anton Yelchin was just 21 when he made this film. His performance, as well as Jones’, are staggeringly good. The film community has experienced a devastating loss. However, we can take comfort in what he left behind. The magic of movies is that actors are given a sort of immortality. His soul and sincerity were captured in this film and they live on.

The film and the performances are well worth a watch. I’ll leave you with this poignant line from Roger Ebert’s 2011 review of the film: “P.S. Both of these actors are destined to become genuine stars” (Ebert). RIP Anton. 💔

Trailer below:

 

Barry Levinson’s ‘Diner’: A Sleeper Classic

Back in 2008, a movie came out in theaters, the reviews of which cited the comeback of one Mickey Rourke. That movie was The Wrestler. I remember having a conversation with my dad about it, asking what career he was coming back to. What had this Mickey Rourke been in that was so great? He responded, “Diner.”

Diner, made in 1982, was directed and written by Barry Levinson, follows a group of friends trying to figure out their lives in 1959 Baltimore. Starring Ellen Barkin, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Tim Daly, and Paul Reiser, the film easily made their careers.

When Levinson gave the script to his agent, they apparently didn’t know what to do with it. It didn’t fit into stereotypes or a conventional story arc. Really, the movie was essentially about nothing…the first of its kind really in that way. The film was about the in-between moments. Hitchcock is famous for saying, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Well, that’s Diner – all the dull parts, except they’re not boring!

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A huge reason that the film worked was the casting. They were all young actors, fairly inexperienced. Guttenberg was 22, Barkin was 26. Reiser was 24, a young stand up comedian in New York, who wasn’t even trying to audition. Apparently, his improvisations were almost effortless. Levinson apparently would let the camera keep rolling when the scripted scene had ended, though it was sometimes by accident – he would forget to say cut!

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Recently, I wrote about Breaking Away, another sleeper classic, which starred Daniel Stern. Just as he stole scenes in that movie, Stern uses his limited plot in Diner and knocks it out of the park! One of his best scenes is between Barkin and Stern. Stern’s character is yelling at his wife for not putting his record back in the right place – it needs to be in alphabetical order and by genre. She can’t understand why he’s yelling at her. I just want to say I’ve heard the exact same conversation between my parents – except it’s about movies, not records.

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There’s also a scene where Guttenberg gives his fiance a football trivia quiz. If she doesn’t pass the test, the wedding is off. Most of the guys come to his house, keeping score outside the room. It’s pure hilarity.

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Rourke’s character, Boogie, is really the center story though. He’s a gambler and a smooth talker. He’s always trying to get the guys to take a bet – one involving getting a girl to grab his penis at the movie theater. He somehow accomplishes what he wants to and gets away with it. And yet, despite his character’s asshole-ish antics, he’s likable. When the going gets tough and Boogie’s about to do something horrible, he backs out.

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Kevin Bacon, in an early role, is probably at his best. He’s nuts and not too well drawn out, and yet, he’s real. As Fenwick, Bacon is almost manic, not yet having established his heart throb image.

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The film is obviously from a very male perspective. The only well drawn female character is Stern’s wife, played by Ellen Barkin. I have to acknowledge that. But, I would also say that, at its core, the film is about friendship and that theme is universal. It’s also about a life transition. These men may be great one day, but they’re still, in many ways, boys. Guttenberg still has his mother making him sandwiches, much to his chagrin.

Film critic Pauline Kael apparently reviewed the film before its release and gave it a rave review. According to Barkin, the studio didn’t want to release the film. They did so mostly cause they thought they would look like even bigger idiots if they didn’t release it.

A few years ago, it was announced that the film was being made into a musical – the music to be written by Sheryl Crow. I’m not sure what’s going on with it, but it did have some sort of a run…here’s a look below at what it was like.

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I go back to this film every once in a while because somehow, in its simplicity, it caught something special. Maybe it was the people or the script or the time it was made…I don’t really know. Without a doubt, it’s a special film where the stars just aligned – which is hilarious considered it was made for 5 million dollars and only made 15 million. In a documentary about the film, Levinson and one of the actors pointed out how specific these characters and this place was and how that makes it more timeless. I agree with that. There was something universal and let’s face it, just entertaining.

If you’ve never seen Diner, it’s well worth a watch. I guarantee you’ll relate to something in it.

Vintage trailer below:

Why ‘Titanic’ is more than its Blockbuster Image

My first memory of Titanic is hazy albeit memorable. I vividly remember sitting in a dark movie theater next to my mom and dad; having my mom cover my eyes during Kate Winslet’s nude scene and of course, running out of said theater when the passengers starting falling to their deaths. Seriously though, can you blame me? Needless to say, I was not a fan. All throughout my childhood, I had a bad taste in my mouth whenever Titanic was mentioned.

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Scary shit for a five year-old, amiright?

But, that all changed on my thirteenth birthday. I excitedly unwrapped one of my presents, only to have my face fall when I realized it was Titanic. At first, I thought it was a joke. My dad, who was the one who gave it to me, told me I should give the film another chance. I chided him for buying me a dvd for a movie I’d never fully seen and probably wouldn’t like. He smiled, amused, and told me, “Don’t worry. You’ll like it.”

Since he’d gone to the trouble of buying it for me, the least I could do was watch it once before selling it back to the store. However, after watching it, I felt a little different. To say I was blown away by the movie would be a gigantic understatement. I think it was really the first time I had seen what film as a medium was capable of – the scale of it. Now, I know some people reading this will think that’s trite and say, “Oh, a girl who likes Titanic. Big Whoop.” This public opinion is exactly the reason I shied away from the film initially.

That summer, I became a little obsessed…meaning I watched the film constantly, ate up the special features, and sang “My Heart Will Go On” over and over and over again. I think I became a little hard to live with quite honestly. I know my brothers won’t forgive me for how annoying I was during that time. But, even though I went a little off the deep end at thirteen, I’m tired of people discounting the film as some cheesy romance film that only girls like.

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I mean, some of the lines are excessively cheesy. Not that I don’t love them despite their cheesiness…

This film is an old school epic, on par with Gone with the Wind, which to this day, is still the top grossing film of all time. These films just don’t get made anymore. Titanic was made to appeal to a wide audience, not a specialized one. James Cameron is said to have pitched the film as Romeo & Juliet aboard the Titanic. After I became obsessed with the film, I read quite a bit about the real-life disaster which happened in April of 1912. The heart-wrenching stories I read astounded me. James Cameron could’ve used any one of them as a basis for the story, but he instead, decided to create fictional characters – which is sort of genius. He personalized the tragedy and was given full liberty to make the characters be and say whatever he wanted them to.

If you’ve never seen the film, here are just a few reasons you should look past its blockbuster reputation…

THE MUSIC. 

Let me just reiterate. The late James Horner’s sweeping score brings the film to life. I had the score on CD for a while and would routinely listen to it and relive my favorite moments in the film. The music is inextricable from the film. Just as an example…

THE CAST.

Though you’ll hear many say the opposite, I believe Titanic’s enormous success was all about the strength of their cast. Starting with its young leads, Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio (who just finally won an Oscar! Yay Leo!) and rounding itself out with character actors Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Titanic made you believe in the characters and the story. It sounds strange to call Titanic fun, but that’s exactly what it was. The chemistry they had made the cheesy lines charming.

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THE SETS.

Beyond the charming nature of the film’s cast, what makes this film believable is the detail with which this world was built. It’s of course well known that the film was very expensive and that it went WAY over budget. In most cases, I would say that big budget films spending the kind of money Titanic spent is egregious. But, in Titanic‘s case, you can see where the extra money went and it really does make a difference. Even though I knew it was fake, the beauty of the costumes and sets, made me forget, if only for a moment, that I was watching a movie.

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THE STORY.

Okay, now before you get too excited, obviously the film is clichéd. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. But, I do think that although it was calculated, the film was also charming and relatable. Rose’s predicament, while being something that could have been the premise of a romance novel, was something we all could feel. When she tries to jump off the side, we all feel her pain. But, really, I look at it as a story about a young girl who is changed by an event – obviously what she goes through is terrible, but she comes out the other side a stronger person and she lives a full life.

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I still get scared watching Rose look down at the water!

Also, I love how the film comments on the class system in the era and especially how class affected the people in this tragedy. Most 3rd class passengers never even had a chance to get off the boat.

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So slimy!

THE ROMANCE.

Okay, so it’s cheesy. That doesn’t mean it’s not good. One of my first crushes was Jack Dawson and I’m not ashamed to say so. I feel like I can let these gifs explain. Let the nostalgia wash over you…

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If you’ve never seen it, your life is about to change. I think there is something for everyone in this film and I love changing the minds of my friends who think it’s nothing more than a cheesy love story.

My love for this movie will go on and on…too cheesy?

Vintage trailer below:

 

Why I Now Appreciate “The American President”

On my birthday, while in line for a ride for at Disney’s California Adventure theme park, I stopped mid-sentence and said to my friend, “I know this song. Why do I know this song?” That song was the main theme from the 1995 Rob Reiner film, The American President.

Back in the summer of 2012, I discovered Aaron Sorkin through his HBO series The Newsroom. I loved it because its fast paced dialogue and romantic antics reminded me of the screwball comedies I grew up watching. Of course, when I mentioned the show to my brother, he was like, “Well, yeah. That’s Sorkin.”

I binged The West Wing, Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip…if it was Sorkin, I watched it! And during this Sorkin binge, I discovered that another one of my mom’s favorite movies was actually written by him too. The American President was played several times during my childhood and since my brother and dad routinely made fun of it (mostly cause my mom watched it SO many times), I never thought it was high art.

A few years ago, I re-watched it and realized just how brilliant it was. It’s very much a prototype for what Sorkin’s signature style became and I fell in love with it. It has everything I love – idealism and fun and great one liners!

If you’ve never seen The American President, the Rob Reiner film follows POTUS, Andrew Shepard (Michael Douglas) who develops a crush on the new head of the environmental lobby, Sydney Ellen-Wade (Annette Bening). The crush becomes a relationship, but of course politics complicate everything. Couple that with the fact that Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), Shepard’s nemesis, decides to run for President….craziness ensues!

Here are just a few reasons you should watch it ASAP.

The Cast

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Okay, so main cast first. Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepard. He’s at his best because he’s got Sorkin’s dialogue coming out of his mouth.

Annette Bening as Sydney Ellen Wade is also fantastic. She delivers some of the best lines – most notably one my mom still can’t quote correctly about her sister having to live with regret. Ha.

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In addition, the film’s supporting cast is filled with wonderful characters actors. Martin Sheen plays the President’s right hand man, which is ironic considering he plays the POTUS in Sorkin’s The West Wing a few years later. It’s almost as if he was auditioning.

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Scandal fans will be excited to see Joshua Malina – David Rosen in Scandal – as David, Sydney’s co-worker. We can’t tell if he has a crush on her or what…not that it matters. Sydney is obviously into the President.

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Also, people seem to forget Michael J. Fox. Little trivia: Fox had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s before the film started shooting and he was afraid that during a routine physical before the movie, they’d find it with the small shaking in his hands. He’s in one of my favorite moments of the film.

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Jon Mahoney is also wonderful as Leo Solomon, Sydney’s boss. I know him as Diane Court’s father in Say Anything. Once again, he proves that he’s a very underrated character actor.

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Last, but certainly not least, Richard Dreyfuss plays Senator Bob Rumson, Douglas’s opponent. He’s revels in his character’s evilness.

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The Dialogue…

Sorkin is a master of dialogue and witty banter. The American President is filled with great lines. Probably my favorite is POTUS telling Sydney, “Let’s take him outside and beat the shit out of him” right after she insulted him not knowing he was in the room.

When Sydney is going through security at the White House, she tells the guard that she’s savoring the Capra-esque qualities which is funny because Frank Capra III was the 1st Asst Director. The dialogue is very Capra-esque which is probably one of the reasons the film struck a cord with me.

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The Music

The score of this film composed by Marc Shaiman is sweeping and romantic. You can’t not feel patriotic and idealistic just listening to it.

 

It’s Idealistic

Yeah, does this film really show what the White House is like? Um, no. Instead, Sorkin shows us the world that could be. This film is proof that old-style idealism and romance are still alive and well…or at least, they were in 1995. What made me fall in love with The Newsroom was that it took screwball romantic comedy antics and married it to well meaning values. The same is true in The American President. The ideals the film perpetuates are real and still resonate, even twenty-one years later. But, hey, I mean, it’s also just plain romantic…

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As it turns out this film falls in the same category as Working Girl – I owe my mother another apology. Maybe her taste isn’t so bad after all. 😉

If you’re a Sorkin fan, this film is obviously a must see. But, I will say, if you’re not a Sorkin fan, this film might just make you one. What can I say? I’m an optimist.

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Vintage trailer below: