Art/life imitates life/art?

The cast of "The West Wing." Image from

The cast of “The West Wing.” Image from

One of my new cheap favorite pastimes this winter is watching “The West Wing” on Netflix. I watched very little TV in the early 2000s, mostly because I was working nights and came home just in time to catch late-night reruns of “Family Ties” on Nick at Nite or “Unsolved Mysteries” on Lifetime. I was fairly up to date on current events, but badly lagging in pop culture, so I missed great chunks of TV and music. (I’m not sure I missed much.)

So, now I catch up. I love “The West Wing.” It’s a Capra-esque vision of politics with more than just a little bit of soap opera thrown in for good measure. Martin Sheen’s Jed Bartlet is solid, smart and a bit goofy. He volleys weekly disasters with grace. His staff members walk quickly, gripe articulately and look great even after 20-hour workdays. I love the location shots and make a game out of identifying the cross streets (K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway! Independence and 7th St. NW!) or minor landmarks (obviously, the major ones are too easy).

“The West Wing” casts a warm glow on Washington. It originated in the late 1990s, and it never fails to amaze me that the 1990s now appear to have their own distinct look and feel in TV and movies.

An imperious Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards." Image from

An imperious Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards.” Image from

Then, there’s “House of Cards,” which I’m also slowly chewing my way through. It portrays a darker, more sinister Washington. While there’s plenty of power play in “The West Wing,” “House of Cards” offers an unapologetic look at a world in which every person is in it for himself. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is angry but glib, his wife icy and conflicted. Reporter Zoey Barnes’ youth masks her manipulativeness. No redeemable characters here, just a seething mass of unhappy backstabbers.

The color palette is different from that of “The West Wing.” Capitol offices are bathed in fluorescent light, and a lot of the action takes place at night under neonish streetlamps. It’s a fascinating study of contrasts.

Anyone could argue that these changes are a direct response to what’s going on in the world. I think that answer’s too easy. Darkness is nothing new; “Natural Born Killers” is nearly 20 years old. What’s new is how we watch TV, and how a sophisticated sadder-but-wiser audience demands more of Hollywood than ever before. “House of Cards” is “The West Wing” plus cut-the-crap. It feeds the demand for great characters and stories that aren’t depicted in sepia tones.

Frankly, after more than a decade of inane reality TV, it’s a bit of a relief to know that we have not just a tolerance but a hunger for elegant expression of our culture’s ugly truths.


One response to “Art/life imitates life/art?

  1. I love the West Wing – no past tense about it. I own many seasons, though I’ve yet to watch at least the last two or three. (I was heartbroken when… oh wait, maybe you haven’t gotten that far yet; nevermind.) I haven’t spent any time on Netflix – in Canada, it’s an entirely different critter than in the US.

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