Talkin' Genre: A Conversation with Grace Lavery on The West Wing

DANNY: I’m quite pleased to have waited until now to watch The West Wing with you – I already had a healthy, finely-developed sense of what I don’t like about Aaron Sorkin, so I came into things prepared. I don’t remember who it was who first talked about Aaron Sorkin as someone who writes romantic comedies where the love interest is “the workplace,” but that was the key to getting into TWW for me, impassioned monologues and walk-and-talks and all. Romantic comedies are all about process. The pleasure comes from the range and frequency of detail – Well, how does he look at her? And when does he start looking at her differently? And when does that change again? And did he remember _____? He did remember? When does she start wearing her hair differently, as a signal about trust? 

Which makes, I think, Sam Seaborn the great-on-paper fiancé you’d rather feel a twinge of regret walking away from than stick it out with, and Josh Lyman the weird-sexy-abrasive dark horse who wins through sheer volume of information retained and repeated at the correct hour. Romantic comedy options often win based on who’s noticed the most, men in romantic-comedies are often graded according to how many unremarked-upon heroine details/tics/preferences/habits they’ve memorized and analyzed in secret, but they only get credit when it stops being secret, so it’s really a numbers game about being prepared to rattle off a confident monologue, which is something a lot of people do on The West Wing, in the first four seasons anyhow. And it also explains why I’ve never understood criticisms of the show as a liberal political fantasy, which feels sort of like criticizing 13 Going on 30 for being unrealistic about time – I can’t imagine watching the former for political insight and direction, or the latter for guidance on how to spend my 20s. 

All of which is to say, when Martin Sheen realizes he’s got to run after Lily Tomlin or risk losing her forever, he trots through the White House at sunset and stops her at the WH equivalent of airport security to demand she speak truth in front of a sinking sun, and you see Lily Tomlin in a burnished ruddy halo admitting she knows exactly the strength of the dollar against the yen because the secret’s already out that she is Pure of Heart, you know exactly what genre you’re in.

GRACE: It’s a romcom organized around a profound asymmetry, then. On the one side, individual workers (though the question is open as to whether Jed Bartlet is a worker), and on the other side, something bigger than everyone, which is known by different names: democracy, America, power. Thinking about that asymmetry, I’m reminded of a pair of scenes from the show’s early seasons. In one, the gang is sitting on someone’s stoop at the end of an episode, reflecting on their hard work, and one of them asks, kind of rhetorically, “What do you say about a government that goes out of its way to protect even citizens that try to destroy it?” And someone else answers “God bless America,” and then everyone else says “God bless America.” The joke, if that’s the right word, is that the system called “America” has preemptively disgorged the speech genre called “rhetorical question,” such that due deference must be paid to the system whenever that speech genre is uttered. Still we must be clear that, in that move, that distinguishes “rhetorical question” from no other speech genre: any and all such can be followed by “God bless America,” and over the course of the show’s seven seasons more or less every speech genre is met by “God bless America,” a phrase positioned as the antidote to irony, and therefore as itself nothing less than a special type of ironic inflection. Whenever anyone says “God bless America,” we hear a silent prefatory disavowal, an “I know, I know, but hear me out:,” a “je sais bien, mais quand même.” Yet it remains to be determined what exactly is blessed by “God bless America,” and whether the addresses of such an intercession (Bartlet is a Catholic) could hear such a prayer. 

In the other scene, which more easily adequates to the standard and not-entirely-false line that Aaron Sorkin “can’t write women,” a group of men are watching a group of women, whom they peg deictically: “these women.” “These women,” like “God bless America” then coagulates to the rhythm of incantation, each of the men naming and—well, not blessing—this “these,” these “them.” By naming the women who happen to be present as “these women,” the Bartlet administration (many-headed) names its own historicity, locates itself in an historical field that both is and is not shared with the viewer. Is, because we also watch and repeat these women; is not, because the deixis is structured  like a fiction, where the thing that is “these” is both present (it’s them) and absent (these women are those women). It sounds rather complicated, and it is, but the mental maneuver is not notably different to a phrase like “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” or the entire conceit of Hamilton: what if we use sentimental genres to create a rhetoric of historical efficacy (what the kids call “agency”) that allows us to hallucinate ourselves into a position of political authority? And the ontology of these rhetorics is necessarily uncertain: I think, for example, of a type of Bernie supporter who felt that now was the time for Bernie because he felt sentimentalizable, and the event of fascism had shattered the generic authority of political realism. I’m not saying they were wrong, I’m just saying that it’s not very different from The West Wing

I haven’t talked enough about love, “the gift that keeps on taking,” as Lauren Berlant puts it at the start of her greatest book. Except that I’ve not been talking about anything except for love. It feels like a Berlant proposition given a budget, no? A different wit, but the same problematic that emerges from the inability of serial disenchantment actually to disenchant; the failure of disenchantment to actually supplant “God bless America,” or “these women,” or “I am once again asking for your financial support.” Sigh. Falling in love again, never wanted to. What am I to do? I can’t help it.

DANNY: The profound asymmetry is baked into the genre, I think – the asymmetry between a C.J. Cregg or a Josh Lyman and democracy is at least as profound as the asymmetry between a top salesman who knows who he’s in love with and a junior salesgirl who doesn’t know who she’s in love with (Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan in The Shop Around The Corner), or the asymmetry between the CEO of a massive conglomerate who knows who he’s in love with and a bookstore hobbyist who doesn’t (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a loose remake of the same). “I put you out of business,” Hanks tells Ryan, lovingly and cruelly. “You're entitled to hate me.” Then: “How come you’ll forgive him for standing you up, and you won’t forgive me for a little tiny thing like putting you out of business?” Part of the sadistic pleasure of the romcom is establishing how much forgiveness one party can extend the other in a way that still feels satisfying, even obliteratively satisfying. The obliterative pleasure the West Wing gang derives (or produces in the viewer, I’m not always sure which) in naming things they hate, or things that don’t work, about democracy/America/power, comes from the subsequent reaffirmation that the thing that doesn't work about America is the thing that makes America work. Won’t you forgive me for a little tiny thing like putting you out of business? That’s what keeps us in business. I hate the problems; without the problems I could get work done; the problems are the reason I have work to begin with; bless the problems, back to work. Or to put it in terms familiar to, say, an advice columnist: “I know how it sounds – but he really is the greatest guy.”

The “These women” scene calls to mind Irene Adler – “To the boys of the West Wing she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard them mention her under any other name. In their eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex,” which seems broadly descriptive of women characters on TWW. I’m not sure whether this is consistent across Sorkin’s other shows, although my impression is that it is. Women appear onscreen with the ghost of Women stitched to their feet, like Peter Pan and his shadow, or Jacob Marley and his chains. Sorkinian men talk about women as “These women”; Sorkinian women talk about men as: “Men,” accompanied by an exasperated sigh and delivered in unrehearsed unison.

The first shattered political gesture that lines up with The West Wing I can think of is that group of former Warren staffers who posted a series of poorly-thought-out tattoos to social media that they’d gotten to commemorate what they saw as a noble, principled defeat. But there’s something about the online sentimentalization of Bernie Sanders that fits it too – 

“I’m very tired. I know you’re very tired too. We’re all very tired, but I’m going to need more from you,” exhaustion as token of rightness, look at how tired I'm willing to get for you people; whichever American is the most tired ought to be President, and I’m the dozy bear from Sleepytime tea. Aren’t you? I think we are both so very tired...

Lately I’ve taken more of an interest in comic books, thanks to your influence, and I think there's plenty of the detective/superhero genre present in TWW, too – an ever-growing ensemble of teammates whose rag-taggedness is always at odds with its super-poweredness, where hyper-competence is counterbalanced by unlikelinessexcellence by misfittery. Come to think of it, You’ve Got Mail has superhero elements aplenty, ending as it does with the revelation of secret identity and the exchange of code names: 

JOE: Don't cry, Shopgirl, don't cry.

KATHLEEN: I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.

Question: How will you recognize a fellow teammate? 

Answer: By the exchange of certain signs, a token, a word, and the perfect points of my entrance.

Question: Do you serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States?

Answer: Let Bartlet be Bartlet.

Take off your glasses and rub your temples – I want to see if it’s really you.

GRACE: But why stop there? You’re absolutely right that romantic comedies depend upon modulations of scale—Prime Minister Hugh Grant falling for scullery maid Martine McCutcheon? Finally someone with the eros to stand up to George Bush—but it isn’t clear that that kind of scalar disorganization isn’t endemic to, indeed definitive of, heterosexuality as such, the genre of all genres. Less because of heteropatriarchy, and more because of difference as the theological principle that in frames courtship as an exhibition the fruits of an uncertain and interminable project of learning. I liked your remark about the noticing man a great deal; everyone must learn to grow, and one must grow to love, and one must love to live. Here, thanks to a kind of neoplatonism, “learning” is the stuff of life, but what one learns must always be distinguished from the institutions of education (“forget what you learned at school”). As nineteenth century novelists knew very well, the rhythms of learning, loving, and living are unsustainable in a serialized narrative, and something else becomes necessary—the sitcom, or democracy, or whatever.

I honestly wasn’t trying to resuscitate our old Warren/Sanders conflict: for one thing, by the time the primary in my own state had rolled around, Warren had collapsed and I would have voted for the friendly codger. But the fact that her supporters got tasteless tattoos is surely no more news than that they probably admit to liking The West Wing, and say “let Liz be Liz” in cringily persistent ways. Any more than Bernie Sanders should have pushed back harder against Joe Rogan. Warren isn’t an event in the way Sanders was. Sanders was the Hamilton candidate, the let’s-do-the-show-right-here candidate, the if-you-build-it-they-will-come candidate. Nothing was less persuasive in the 2016 than those tweets about how nothing was more important than “policy,” that must be distinguished at all costs from mere personality, mere tone. I forget who first said that thing about “a dog understands tone but not content,” but the point was exactly wrong: wrong in a complete, topsy-turvy way that even Twitter usually dodges. When the “policy” in question is being deployed in the context of an election: it is indistinguishable from “tone.” “Policy” itself is a tone; capital does not act a certain way because a political candidate “has a plan for it”; those who are sensitive to “tone” are far better listeners, and far better readers, than those who believe, in the face of a serial disenchantment no less romantic than comic, that a politician, once elected, will even attempt to effect any of the so-called “policies” he has spent the last few years touting. We know this. We know it is going to let us down, but the irony of it all is that we still find hope in the tone—“what do you say about a country that elects a rapist klansman, murders Black people in the street, locks children in cages, builds and populates concentration camps on its borders, perpetuates every manner of indignity on the bodies of non-citizens and citizens alike?” You turn your head to the left with your hands in your pockets. You know the answer.

I’m not trying to trivialize political hope: Berlant and Edelman made that argument, and everyone knows what they think about it by now. I’m trying to point out that the genres we deploy in service of the cycle of disenchantment and reinvestment seem to have been switched around. But sentiment is forever. 

DANNY: Why stop anywhere! Never Stop Never Stopping; the rhythms of the way that we live (and loooooove). Sentiment never lies to me, for when love's gone, it lusters on – sentiment's forever, sparkling round my little finger (unlike men, sentiment lingers); men are mere mortals who are not worth going to your grave for. I don't need love, for what good will love do me? Sentiment won't lie to me. When love's gone, it lusters on; sentiment's forever - forever - forever. I take your point about policy-as-tone as a continuation of TWW's failure to persuade, although I can't imagine being persuaded by The West Wing about anything any more than by, say, 10 Cloverfield Lane (namely my maladaptive belief that I am capable of charming John Goodman into keeping me safe from himself, if the situation ever became necessary).

Anyhow, once I learn how to read, and find out what everybody else already knows about Berlant and Edelman, it's over for you. 

GRACE: Cliff refers to John Goodman’s thing as “graceful,” and I think he’s right.