May 19, 2003
West of Eden

Last week we said goodbye to the West Wing as it went on hiatus for the summer. We also said good by to its creator, Aaron Sorkin. I worry for the show, because I think it's smart, entertaining, even funny, and I think Sorkin was the key to making it so. I also worry because, with the departure of Farscape this year, it's really the only good science fiction show on television right now.

It may not have blasters, exploding planets, or funky aliens, but to me it has everything else good science fiction has. It is set in a world so disconnected from the one you and I live in it might as well be another planet. The heroes wield enormous power, with the ability to change the lives of millions of people almost at a whim. Yet they are constrained, constrained by rules that are not always obvious and sometimes not even particularly well understood. The villains may not have green skin or bugged eyes, but they are no less evil, and many times no less alien. What's more, not all of them are villains, some just have weird motivations, unreasonable expectations, or simply don't speak the right language.

It's even written like science fiction. These characters do not solve problems with their fists, they solve them with their minds. As with all good science fiction, the show exhibits an almost clockwork quality as the players interact with the situations they find themselves in not by smashing things, but by manipulating the rules of their world. And as with all good science fiction, half the fun of watching is trying to figure out through the half-spoken lines and weird referrals just what those rules might be. Because, unlike the physics, biology, and chemistry that surrounds most other science fiction like nuns outside a catholic school dance, we have the built-in advantage of a decade or more of civics and social studies classes. We know, or perhaps rather knew, these rules. They tickle at us, like a single lyric from a song that suddenly floats into our mind even though the melody is long forgotten. The payoff is remembering, even predicting, the rules and how they will affect the outcome.

I worry because time and again Hollywood has proven incapable of producing large numbers of writers who really understand the concepts behind science fiction. I fear that they will think the show is about peril and drama and the occasional belly laugh, different only that they're played out with six syllable words. Certainly it has these things, nearly every successful show does, but it also has a complexity found in very few other places. It has high-stakes puzzles that require brains and not brawn to solve. It has inside jokes that you can only get if you reach out to understand the game. It doesn't stop to explain the rules, assuming instead you're plenty smart enough to figure them out as they go along. Because really, you are.

Most of all the show, like all good science fiction, is as much about teaching as it is about entertaining, and I am deeply worried it will lose this once Sorkin is gone. The West Wing shows us in a truly dramatic fashion just how it all works. Idealized? Yes. Slanted? Of course. Condescending? Perhaps, at times. But really, that's not what science fiction is all about, and it's not what this show is about. Like all good science fiction, The West Wing gives us hope that the future will be better. It teaches us that it really is possible for the best and brightest to succeed, succeed in spite, because of, a humanity that we share with the characters on the screen. These are not gods, these are not the elite, these are simply people who in the face of unspeakable power and consequence still manage to make the world a better place, as best they know how.

In our government. Like I said, science fiction!

Posted by scott at May 19, 2003 07:38 PM

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I am in mourning. I love that show so much and Sorkin is the show as far as I am concerned. It is always the "words" that are most important.

Posted by: Pat on May 20, 2003 12:26 PM
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