Thursday, January 24, 2013

lakota

WOMEN 71
A very special human being, a poet and social worker who had recently been honored for her work helping indonesian tsunami victims. We met online, and shared a wonderful correspondence for a month or so. Soul mate poetry-swapping kind of stuff. Her words were beautiful and bohemian and powerful, with a singular spiritual sexuality. She loved my writing too. We shared flirtatious calls. She'd been a dancer, until a parachuting accident. She had a young son with a learning disability (which she didn’t mention until we met...though it wouldn't have kept us from meeting). I visited her Brooklyn home, and she made a wonderful dinner. We watched a film, and she invited me to sleep over. I happily accepted, and we shared her small bed. Being good bohemians, we slept naked, sharing embraces that became sexual. I barely kept from penetrating her...i can remember how intoxicating it felt and looked, as my penis lay in the folds of her ebony vulva, a drop of semen indicating how close i'd come to ejaculating. It was amazing...but i knew i was rushing things, for me. The next day, i wrote to her that i'd felt a bit over my head with such quick intimacy, and requested that we take the sexual side of our relationship back to square one. I never heard from her again. I think i was also afraid i wasn’t who she needed at that moment, so i didn’t fight her silence. Did the reality of a young son in a house with no father figure get into my head? Yes. A few years later, in the anguish of loneliness, remembering how beautiful our one night was and how warm and comforting it was to share our spirits, i tried to contact her. The best i could find was a postal address that might or might not have been hers. I never heard back.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin

THEATER 67
-spring 2002
Jenn asked me to do the final show of the Pirate Player season. I never thought i'd do more than one, much less all three, but my love for these kids would be hard to overstate. In auditions, we went from famine to feast, as scores of kids showed up. My ex-squire Josh had originally been one of the DRAGON leads, and was now a nameless rat. We ended up with twenty named characters, plus seventeen rats (all 4-7 years old). Jenn originally cast me as Bongo, the comically dim-witted constable. I agreed at first, but began to think that i might better serve the show as the Piper. Bongo was the juicier part acting-wise, but i felt i could be more of an anchor to the play as the Piper, particularly with so many new faces. I didn't mention this to Jenn, but somehow didn't need to - after the first week, she asked me to be the Piper. My german-accented Bongo had been kicking ass, but i was happy to do it. And for the first time, i wasn't the only adult actor. Kacie's Dad, Lew Philips, the ex-Sanibel Chief of Police, signed on to play the Mayor. I had a brief, unspoken territorial response, but Lew proved to be great company, and funny onstage. For the piping, Jenn gave me her old recorder, and i learned to play a bit, but it was decided to use canned music. I wore tights, a puffy shirt, and a hat with the biggest feather you've ever seen. As usual, the biggest joy was the kids...lordy, where do i start. With Jared! Back as one of only three to do all the shows (along with Whitney and Kacie), he took over the part of Bongo. It was rather a bit of typecasting, and he was great. He took particular delight in booting my keister out of town. Whitney was originally slated to play yet another cute line-repeating part, but Jenn decided to give her the more adult part of assistant rodent officer. It turned out to be a great choice; she really grew into it. Kacie played a delightful Rat Queen - she probably grew more than any actor that season. Quiet newcomer J.T. was the town crier. Early on, several of us asked Jenn what she was smoking when she made that choice, but by show time, she had him shouting and waving to beat the band (or at least make the band aware of his presence). Kayla played Rattytatty, the pest control officer. She and Whitney had matching Janet Jackson RHYTHM NATION costumes, and, free of Kacie and the dragon suit, she thrived. Her little sister Kelly played a rat, and became one of my special buddies, always after me to carry and toss her around. Emily didn't return (a choice she came to regret), but her big brother Greg was cast as the Innkeeper, and did a fine job. Their dad Ken ran the Sanibel Gulf station, and helped me with my Escort, which was burning through starters at an alarming rate. Danielle (Belle from SCROOGE) rejoined us to play the flower stall lady. Duchess Dingaling was played by great newcomer Kelsey. My special buddy Matt returned to play the Rat King. He and i were chosen to represent the show in a local TV spot, for which we had to get up at some ungodly hour (i hadn't used an alarm clock in a year or more). It was with Matt that i had the funniest moment of the run, when i pipe the kids out of town. Matt was by far the tallest, only a foot shorter than me. I led them in from the lobby, always carrying one of the smallest as we entered. In one of the final rehearsals, as we gathered to go in, i quickly gestured for Matt to let me pick him up. The smaller ones had been lobbying to be carried, as usual, but they quickly got what i was doing - there was much smiling and giggling as we all entered. It's wonderful and rare to make a theater full of adult technicians drop what they're doing, and laugh. Madison was back, as Old Widow Whiskers - in her first big part, she did wonderfully well. Stevie played the Mayor's bratty daughter well, and Christina played the Mayor's wife. At fifteen, she was one of the oldest, and we made a nice connection. Anny played Pattycake, and she and her rat sister Katie were a delight. Jamie played the dance tutor - her rat dance was macabre, quirky, and wonderful. She wasn't able to be in a performance at Sanibel Elementary, and the task of training her understudy, ten year-old Amelia, fell to me. She'd been an urchin in SCROOGE. I trained her because i was coincidentally giving her weekly acting lessons at her home on Sanibel. We loved each other, and she made enormous progress, making everyone forget she was an understudy. After our weekly lessons, she would usually ask me to stay and play, on the trampoline or in the pool. Good times. Sean and Amanda played rats, and through them i was made all too aware of how large the cast was. There was only so much time, and only so much me to go around. One day, Sean's mom Grace told me that he wanted to get his hair cut like mine. I hadn't even thought we'd made much of a connection; i was reminded to be humble and do the best i could, but not feel like i had to be Superman - kids make a connection with you or not, and much of that is never in your control. Grace herself grew to mean so very much to me (sigh). Adorable four year-old Logan became a star, chiefly because in rehearsals you never knew where he would wander, or what he would say (many of the older kids became Logan-wranglers). Many tykes were given one line (or one word), and when they actually spoke on cue (relatively speaking), the cute-meter was overloaded. A mandate came down from administration that Jenn could no longer do the pre-show prayer, and i was almost sorry to see it go. Even though i agreed with the decision, i thought the world of Jenn, and knew it was important to her. Robert also asked me not to let children on my lap. Sometimes in rehearsals, when the cast was receiving notes, i would let two of the smallest ones sit on my thighs. I had almost ended the tradition myself, when competition for lap-privileges became pronounced. But i was a bit concerned with Robert's request, until he assured me that it came from the administration, and not a parent. I understood the concern, in these molester-aware times when any appearance of impropriety was treated with witch-hunting zeal, and much that was innocent had the look of impropriety. I stopped having the kids on my lap (well, pretty much), and the world was a more damaged place for it. Willie was one of the little rats, and his deep connection with me amounted to a real breakthrough in his life. Whitney's little sister Dana, whom i'd picked up from the audience during a SCROOGE curtain call, played a rat, her smile as heart-melting as ever. Jenn's favorite was a cherubic towhead, Anthony. His line reading of "Pretzels!" elicited an almost audible inhale from the audience. Indeed, he was so cute that early on i determined not to show him special preference. He didn't respond to me much, and i might have gone to the grave thinking he hadn't liked me, had his mother Dawn not hired me to trim their trees a couple weeks after the show. About half an hour after i started working, Anthony came out and sat down, and before long was talking up a storm at me. When i took my lunch break, he asked me to play indoor golf with him, which we did for the better part of an hour. Dawn said that it took Anthony a long time to open up (another example of how the cast size was an obstacle in making connections). Which brings me to the cast member i made the most connection with in this final show. Her name was Nicole, and she played Kittykat. She had a lot of meowing lines, and handled them with the grace of a nine year-old (which was impressive, as she was five). She was my most special cuddle-buddy, always in my arms, always jockeying for lap privileges (she was the only one i broke the no-more-lap manifesto for, because i refused to make her think she had done anything wrong). With her holding on to me, i just melted. I did her makeup...i've stopped writing just now, trying to find adequate words…once, when she was on my lap, she scooted back into me, and pulled my arms around her, probably staying like that for five minutes. I may have had happier moments in my life...but maybe not. The show ended, we all made our sad, happy farewells…and a few months later, for financial reasons, the J. Howard Wood Theater closed its doors. It was home to some wonderful theater, and perhaps more impressively, was a genuine home for a few vagabonds like myself. I've been remiss in not mentioning Jim Conti, the Wood costumer, more often. Ever cheerful, one of the sweeter souls i've ever had the privilege to know, he was one of the people who made the wonderful Wood all it was.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

18 degrees

I crossed the 59th St. Bridge into Manhattan tonight, returning from an audition in Astoria. The temperature was 18 degrees (-7.7 Celcius) Upon arriving home, i did something i've never done - researched how long it takes to become frostbitten. It takes a lot less time than you might imagine.
If you've ever biked across a city bridge, you know how windy it can get. It was so strong up there tonight, it almost forced me off the bike.
I've never been frostbitten, but halfway across i knew i was in real danger. I was wearing lined canvas gloves, and couldn't feel my fingers. I started shoving one hand in a pocket, and steering with the other - back and forth. There were a few other bikers on the bridge, but they were all coming the other way, the wind at their back.
When i made it to the other side, i pulled over in the car tunnel that runs under the bridge. I took off my gloves, and stuck both naked hands deep inside my pants, wrapping them around the warmest spot.
I stayed like that for ten minutes.
This being New York, nobody gave me a second look.
Heck, there was a guy sitting on the other side of the road, all bundled up, with a big sign next to him. I could only make out one word of the sign - SEX. There was a lot of fine print, so i may have missed my chance at carnal enlightenment. I probably should have wandered over, just for the sake of the image the two of us would have created, as all my fingers rested on my taint. A student finds his guru.
Someone remind me why i'm not living someplace with warmth, water, and maybe a palm tree or two?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

"The West Wing"

1999-2006
-created by aaron sorkin
Hail to the show, it's the one we all say hail to! The first season of sorkin's masterpiece tied M*A*S*H's all-time record for greatest number of four-star episodes in a season. Some complain that the dialogue was too rapid. To that i reply, there's not one single thing wrong with HEE HAW. And yes, this is also one of the most flawed "best shows ever". Especially in the first season, but further on too, there are patches of cringingly contrived writing, most of them centered around the ennobling of liberals/vilifying of conservatives. The only thing missing is some good mustache-twirling. Yes, there are a few moments when sympathetic republicans make salient points...but by and large, the show comes perilously close to being a slobbering knob-job to all things democrat (an almost unforgivable sin in a country where no party has any intention of ending poverty or making this a genuine democracy). But all that aside, the show's chemistry and dialogue are just off-the-charts...and it often does show admirable humanist heart.
I considered compiling a "Lamest Lead-ins to the Intro Music" list, but that would have made me a fetishist, not a fan.
SERIES EPISODE AVERAGE: 3.14
BY SEASON:
1) 3.5
2) 3.2
3) 3.0
4) 3.1
5) 3.1
6) 3.0
7) 3.1
FOUR-STAR EPISODES (season)
-Post Hoc, ergo Propter Hoc (1)
-A Proportional Response (1)
-Mr. Willis of Ohio (1)
-The Short List (1)
-In Excelsis Deo (1)
-Lord John Marbury (1)
-He Shall, From Time to Time (1)
-Take Out the Trash Day (1)
-Take this Sabbath Day (1)
-The White House Pro-Am (1)
-Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics (1)
-The Midterms (2)
-And It's Surely to Their Credit (2)
-The Portland Trip (2)
-Noel (2)
-Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail (2)
-Bad Moon Rising (2)
-Two Cathedrals (2)
-Night Five (3)
-Dead Irish Writers (3)
-The Black Vera Wang (3)
-We Killed Yamamoto (3)
-Posse Comitatus (3)
-20 Hours in America (4)
-Arctic Radar (4)
-Life on Mars (4)
-Commencement (4)
-Twenty Five (4)
-7A WF 83429 (5)
-The Dogs of War (5)
-Han (5)
-The Supremes (5)
-No Exit (5)
-In God We Trust (6)
-Undecideds (7)
-The Last Hurrah (7)
MOST CRINGINGLY BADLY-WRITTEN EPISODES*
Pilot (1)
In This White House (2)
Shibboleth (2)
*With special recognition given to the occasionally ham-handed portrayals of republicans in seasons 1&2.
GREATEST PERFORMANCES (# of episodes)
-ALLISON JANNEY (155)
She was half of two of the show's top three romances.
-MARTIN SHEEN (154)
Originally intended as a minor character, Sheen made Bartlet (i mean, President Bartlet) one of the iconic roles in TV history. Josiah was so likable that you forgot what a tightass he could be.
-JOHN SPENCER (153)
Leo's conversation with the fired staffer, in which he tries to explain alcoholism, had a poignance other shows only dream of.
-BRADLEY WHITFORD (153)
He handled the show's toughest acting challenge, making Josh's manic side believable.
-JANEL MOLONEY (148)
Never has serial failed romance shined more sweetly.
-RICHARD SCHIFF (146)
The show's other most-tough role was making Toby lovable.
-DULE HILL (133)
The show's greatest romance, and greatest father/son moments.
-ROB LOWE (82)
People trash Rob's acting skills, but i say thee yay, Sam Seaborn!!
-JOSHUA MALINA (77)
He's no Sam Seaborn, but nobody ever walked in on a goat better. There, i'm done dealing with the Baileys.
-STOCKARD CHANNING (63)
Not one single false note (well, okay, one...see below).
-KIM WEBSTER (57)
You might not notice Ginger the first time or two you see the series, but once you do, you can't stop. Her smoky voice made me want to lose a week nibbling her throat.
-KRIS MURPHY (52)
Oh press room Katie, my state secrets are yours. And while we're on the subject, why wasn't Sam Robards' storyline given to her, or Steve or Mark or Chris?
-JIMMY SMITS (35)
The speech Santos gives in the L.A. church is one of the moments that only come along once or twice in a lucky actor's career.
-KATHRYN JOOSTEN (30)
Even though it contributed to arguably the show's best episode, i remain irked by Mrs. Landingham's death.
-ALAN ALDA (28)
Do you grasp the enormity of the fact that "Hawkeye" never once popped into our heads? I think Alan maybe even had fun with this...Vinick sneezed once, and i'm pretty sure he was ever-so-subtly invoking Hawkeye.
-TIMOTHY BUSFIELD (28)
Was there a single Danny moment you took your eyes off him? With Amos, Arkin, Rees, and Harmon, he gets the show's highest "Excitement Per Screen Second" rating.
-ELISABETH MOSS (25)
Sigh...anyone out there NOT want to be in for the night with Bookbag?
-MOIRA KELLY (22)
Just kidding, she was terrible. Which annoys the heck out of me, because i love the show, and i like other stuff she's done. The Mandy math doesn't add up.
-JOHN AMOS (22)
Hear ye, hear ye! Cast your votes! Is Fitz a horse thief, or is he a so-and-so? Could he perhaps be both? We don't even know-and-know.
-TIM MATHESON (19)
In a cast of heavyweights, he never seemed like the lightweight his other most famous role had prepared us for.
-TERI POLO (18)
Why does she not have her own show, or pick of film roles? Why, in her most famous film, does she play second fiddle to Jerry Stiller's marginally-talented son?
-MARLEE MATLIN (17)
I'm Joey Lucas!! Now go see CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD!
-MICHAEL O'NEILL (16)
Only 16 episodes? 116 would have been nice. Have you ever seen Leo and Agent Butterfield run? You don't want to see it.
-EMILY PROCTOR (12)
Ainsley, oh Ainsley, it is you who deserve the finest muffins in the land.
-OLIVER PLATT (9)
He's never found anything charming. We find that charming.
-DANICA MCKELLAR (8)
More Snuffin! More Snuffin!! Dammit, more Snuffin!!! Okay, i guess i wasn't done dealing with the Baileys.
-MELISSA MARSALA (6)
In denying us our Rina/Toby romance, the producers ran away from greatness.
-LISA EDELSTEIN (5)
Sam slept with a call girl. Are you as surprised as i that she did only five episodes?
-ROGER REES (5)
Hear ye, hear ye! Let us now commence the Marburyathon!
-ADAM ARKIN (4)
No actor had a higher four-star percentage.
-MARK HARMON (4)
In a good career, the best thing he's ever done.
-JOHN GOODMAN (4)
Not the best thing he's ever done, but still miles above us mere mortals.
-JOHN LAROQUETTE (2)
IMDB credits our cuddly Mr. Tribby with only one episode. Somebody get on that.
-EDWARD JAMES OLMOS (2)
How does one loom this large in just two episodes?
-JOHN DE LANCIE (2)
Along with appearances by Robert Picardo, John Billingsley, James Cromwell, Armin Shimerman, Randy Oglesby, Vaughn Armstrong, Rosalind Chao, and Steven Culp, we proudly announce the non-fetish-a-thon!
-PAXTON WHITEHEAD (2)
You're a freakishly funny actor.
GREATEST ONE-OFFS
1) Tony Lee, "Han"
2) Zakes Mokae, "In This White House"
3) Karl Malden, "Take This Sabbath Day"
4) Penn & Teller, "In The Room"
5) Donald Moffat, "The Long Goodbye"
6) Bob Balaban, "20 Hours in L.A."
7) Hector Elizondo, "Dead Irish Writers"
8) Matthew Modine, "The Long Goodbye"
Finally, our love goes to Melissa Fitzgerald, Nicole Robinson, Mary-Louise Parker, Ron Silver, Gary Cole, Mary McCormack, Kathleen York, Lily Tomlin, Matthew Perry, Kristin Chenoweth, Allison Smith, Mark Feuerstein, Christian Slater, Jorja Fox, Taye Diggs, Hal Holbrook, and James Brolin.
Here's to the show's Mt. Rushmore, Aaron and little Tommy Schlamme. And of course Mr. Snuffy Walden! And John Wells and Christopher Misiano. Plus Deborah Cahn, the only one who deserves a spot on Rushmore with the founders. Thanks to her, the notion that the final seasons were unworthy is largely bunkum.
AND THE QUIZ!
1) Which state was referenced more than any, to such an extent that it had to be an in-joke?
2) Abbey mispronounces the name of what belgian king?
3) Which character self-zinged the show, with a line about "the voyeuristic gluttony of an American public hooked on a soap opera that's passing itself off as important"?
4) Which supposedly intelligent character repeatedly gave the linguistically incorrect version of the phrase "i could/couldn't care less"...Toby, Josh, or Jed?*
5) What faintly scatologically-titled episode shows Josh in the act of dumping?
6) Which musical guest star had music featured in two episodes?
7) How was "20 Hours in L.A." inconsistent with C.J.'s backstory?
8) Which character had an offstage line dubbed in by another actor, in a Christmas episode?
9) What Oscar-winner's final onscreen credit was WEST WING?
*I'll answer this one here - it's toby. Yet josh gets it right...leaving one to wonder whether that wasn't an acting "fix" of a poorly-written line.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

M.H.K.P.F.E. 2

MOST HILARIOUSLY KICKASS PARTY FLICKS EVER
"Fantasy Island", pilot episode
It takes a singular piece of celluloid to be a MHKPFE. A party flick is a tricky beast, not to be confused with a party movie. A party movie is the centerpiece of an occasion - a group of friends getting together to watch said movie (see MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, PRINCESS BRIDE, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY). A party flick is something you put on at a non-movie-centered get-together. It functions partly as background ambiance, something you need not pay full or even partial attention to in the midst of unrelated laughter and socializing. The plot must be obvious enough that someone arriving three minutes before the climax, needs little (or no) story exposition. At the same time, the flick must be good enough (or bad enough, or some weird combination of the two) that watching the entire thing could be fantastically entertaining.
Welcome to FANTASY ISLAND! The double-length pilot from 1977, produced by Aaron Spelling, Leonard Goldberg, and Shelley Hull, is eye-poppingly over-the-top on several levels. If you have memories of watching it, be prepared to be flabbergasted at how cheesy it is...surely, such fromage ripens in the memory with age? But no, it's just that bad (er, good...no, bad). A suave mysterioso offers strangers a $50,000 opportunity to have any fantasy fulfilled, on an island paradise. The performances are rendered with gusto and not a sliver of self-mockery (if you ever wonder why people born in the 70s have an acute sense of irony, the absence of it in formative shows like this is partly or entirely to blame). Some of the regressive morality will make you cringe, particularly the attitudes toward women. When one character goes into a homicidal rage at a woman who hid the fact that she was married, his actions are treated by the camera with sympathetic understanding. Well sure, who wouldn't kill a woman under those circumstances?? Another character walks a fine line...is she a well-paid, well-informed employee, or is Mr. Roarke peddling prostitutes? A question that will make for scintillating party debate!
But most of the time, you're too busy having fun to worry about such things. Rip-roaring action, sex, and fine character work from top to bottom, starting with the iconic performances of Ricardo Montalban and Herve Villechaize. Ricardo (THE NAKED GUN, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN) is a shade more dangerous and machiavellian than you remember. Herve (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, FORBIDDEN ZONE) gives it all the warmth and sincerity he's got, an impressive accomplishment given that the writers nearly made him a stereotype of "dwarf as idiot". Bill Bixby (THE INCREDIBLE HULK, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN) capably handles the most challenging role of the episode, as an aged man going back in time to find "the one who got away" (Sandra Dee - GIDGET). The most ridiculously wonderful thread has Hugh O'Brian (WYATT EARP) as a big-game hunter who wishes to become the hunted...an easier pill to swallow if Victoria Principal (DALLAS, EARTHQUAKE) is your, um...chaperone? Throw in some Peter Lawford (OCEAN'S ELEVEN), Carol Lynley (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE), Ian Abercrombie (SEINFELD), and Dick Sargent (BEWITCHED), and you've got a cheese potpourri that walks the campiest of high wires.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The West Wing, season 7

FOUR-STAR EPISODES: 2
AVERAGE EPISODE RATING: 3.1
-The Ticket ***
Santos/McGarry hits the campaign trail. Talk of Leo's health diverts attention from the issues, and his inexperience as a candidate shows. Ms. Chenoweth shines. Plus some Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin). The teaser is a flashforward to the Bartlet Presidential Library dedication. The whole gang is there (well, no Seaborn), plus Danny. It's very nice, and as a whole feels more classically WEST WING than the previous season. Plus the return of...Oliver Babish (Oliver Platt - BULWORTH)! Classified information about a military shuttle has been leaked, and he has to grill C.J. Donna applies to the Santos campaign for a job, and has an awkward, excellent scene with Josh.
-The Mommy Problem ***
A great use of Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" takes us on the Santos campaign trail, where the effort to keep on message is sidetracked by gossip about a broken hotel bed. Josh is swamped, and reluctantly hires Lou Thornton (Janeane Garofolo - DOGMA, MYSTERY MEN) to shape their message. Santos is called up for a weekend of military reserve duty...but the staff ponders having him resign his commission when his history of postponements comes up. He preempts the no-win debate by taking his duty immediately.
-Message of the Week ***
The Vinick campaign cagily pushes Santos off-message by raising border patrol issues, and sponsoring an immigration bill. Some prime Gianelli. Vinick is troubled by religious groups who insist he promise to appoint anti-abortion judges. He lies to appease them, and it recoils on him. Sullivan saves the day. One of Vinick's top aides (Julian Acosta), a latino troubled by the attacks on Santos' heritage, resigns. Chris Matthews does a beautiful background appearance as his HARDBALL self.
-Mr. Frost ***
Santos fields a question on intelligent design, and turns a "god gaffe" into a harder question for Vinick. As Leo is subpoenaed, Toby admits to leaking the existence of the military shuttle...a move that effectively ends his character's arc. Richard Schiff acknowledges being disenchanted with how the writers handled this last season....and i can't blame him. I understand how they thought it might work, but there were so many more compelling options to be had for our prickly Mr. Ziegler. Come back, Rina?
-Here Today ***
There were some moments of Toby's demise that worked...the promotion of Will to communications director after a near-complete absence the first four episodes, is welcome (there's so much change going on that even the absence of a replacement character felt disjointing). The final scene between Jed and Toby is handled just right. It's left to Babish, of all people, to say a kind word to Toby as he's ushered out of the building.
-The Al Smith Dinner ***
An ad placed by an ultra-conservative group attacking Santos' support of abortion puts both candidates in an uncomfortable position, and threatens to reduce the race to negative attacks. A woman's coalition flirts with supporting Vinick - their meeting with Santos provides one of the most clear-thinking positions on abortion i've ever heard (play it for any anti-abortionist you know). Smits and Alda have an unplanned meeting, where they nip the negativity and set up a no-holds-barred debate.
-The Debate ***
Occasionally brilliant, and always audacious. The Santos/Vinick debate is recorded live. No really, for real, they recorded it live. Moderated by Forrest Sawyer. Alda and Smits rise to the moment (talk about channeling the exact flavor of fear needed for a performance). One of the series' greatest achievements. The only episode in which none of the original regulars appear.
-Undecideds ****
The only WW episode that guarantees my tears. Santos gives a towering speech in an african-american church, two days after a neighborhood boy is killed by an hispanic cop. Smits' most powerful moment of the series. As he walks out of the church, to the standing applause of a crowd who hadn't much wanted him there, he takes the hand of his pink-skinned wife. Beautiful imagery...and further evidence that writer Deborah Cahn is the only reason that post-Sorkin naysayers are emphatically wrong. A decidedly icy Toby gets a visit from Josh, the first contact he's had with anyone since being fired. Mary McCormack gets a beautiful, hysterical moment watching Will Bailey's ass.
-The Wedding ***
Some more goofy, strange magic as Kate asks Will whether he owns a tux. Thank you to the producers for not going the obvious route, and giving the White House wedding to Charlie and Zoey. Jed is delayed as China and Russia mobilize over an oil conflict in Kazakhstan.
-Running Mates ***
An episode of high water marks. Will and Kate flirt their way into a charming first date. The greatest episode for Matt & Helen fans, as he returns home for the last time before the election (and her red thong undies get snapped by paparazzi). The greatest Chenoweth episode, as she preps Leo for the vice presidential debate. Her flirtations are darling. She gives sexy a whole new slant; it's disturbing to be served apple pie with this much cherry in it. It's neither her fault nor Spencer's that they don't have better chemistry. It's also a shame they were never able to get more screen time for Santos staffer Ronna (Karis Campbell). She's a constant delight.
-Internal Displacement ***
The teaser, with Danny revealing to C.J. that presidential son-in-law and congressional candidate Doug has been having sex with the family's nanny, is pure brilliance. I laughed hysterically at the dialogue and acting...humor-wise, Sorkin never did better himself. I looked up the writer, expecting "Cahn"...but it was our very own Bradley Whitford! The rest of the episode doesn't disappoint, as Will has to investigate the reports, and C.J. has to tell Doug the President can't appear with him. She also receives an unexpected visit from Liz Bartlet (the wonderful Annabeth Gish). The Busfield/Janney scenes are by far the best thing going here, as he tells her he wants to be a part of her life. It's been too long since WW was this fulfilling.
-Duck and Cover ***
A nuclear accident in California deals a major blow to pro-nuke candidate Vinick. This episode nobly tries to frighten us out of our paralytic hope that none of these ticking bombs in our midst will have an "oops". As new polls announce the candidates are dead even, a celebratory Josh and Donna fall into each other's arms...and lips. Seven years of waiting is over.
-The Cold ***
In the wake of the nuclear accident, the Vinick campaign must court republican core voters. To aid this, campaign manager Sheila (Patricia Richardson) resigns - a touching moment, and her finest. Bartlet calls both candidates to the White House, to tell them the U.S. must send 150,000 troops between the armies of Russia and China, to prevent nuclear war. The final shot of Vinick in silhouette, sick and alone, walking into a brightly-lit event, is one of the most cinematographically enduring of the series.
-Two Weeks Out ***
The candidates race to CA. Vinick holds a marathon press conference at the power plant where the accident occurred. Gianelli discovers Santos' briefcase in a common holding room; it contains evidence of hush payments to a single mother. Vinick struggles with what to do with this information.
-Welcome to Wherever You Are ***
Chenoweth sings! On the eve of the election, a prosecutor threatens another indictment of Toby, which would result in an election-sabotaging subpoena of Leo. It's Halloween, as Santos' son pukes on a neighbors' porch during a photo op, and Toby can't take his kids around at the same time as Andy. John Bon Jovi babysits (for Santos, not Toby).
-Election Day ***
The early results are tight and unpredictable. Josh goes manic. Foo Fighters rehearse. The night before, the staffers paired off for sex. Josh and Donna spend the day in and out of bed...an amazing thing after seven years (she looks fantastic, i'll add). In Houston, Helen humps the restless candidate to sleep. Politics, sex...and death, as Annabeth finds a collapsed Leo.
-Election Day, part 2 ***
Leo dies. As the polls are closing, the race is too close to call. The candidates struggle with what to announce, and whether to contest the results. At Vinick headquarters, Gianelli and Mayer (Stephen Root) have a beautiful scene (as one would expect). Stephen is another one to add to the list of the criminally underused...but it's beautiful having him there. Santos wins.
-Requiem ***
Leo's funeral. How many stars of enormously successful shows died during the run, requiring their death be written into the storyline? John Spencer joins Michael Conrad of HILL STREET BLUES, Phil Hartman of NEWSRADIO, and CHEERS' Nicholas Colasanto. His death is handled as movingly and seamlessly as any of them. The list of recurring characters who appear at the funeral is so huge, it's easier to mention the handful who are missing. No Seaborn, no Marbury, no Butterfield, no Tribby or Babish...and no Mandy (don't scoff, it would have been a beautiful touch). But that's about it. The actor turnout is also a beautiful tribute to the show itself, as the final season winds down. Back at the White House, a more intimate gathering is held. The spillover between fiction and reality lends great poignance. C.J. and Danny again flounder romantically, as Josh and Donna do the same (we're just one step removed from bedroom farce, really). Any time Busfield and Janney share a scene, the four-star meter starts pinging.
-Transition ***
Hold on to your housefrock. He's back. He's back. He's really, really back. Mr. S. Norman Seaborn (Sam, to the uninitiated, also sometimes known as Rob Lowe). He's actually back. Wheeeeeeee! Josh travels to L.A., to walk in on lawyer Sam in a deja vu scene. He offers him deputy chief of staff. But Josh is unraveling in manic anxiety (and self-destructing his romance with Donna). Helen asks Donna to be her chief of staff. Sam shows up in D.C. and agrees to take the job, on the condition that Josh immediately take a week off on a beach somewhere. Josh finally agrees...and asks Donna to go with him. She agrees. Beautiful.
-The Last Hurrah ****
When Alan Alda signed on to be a regular cast member of the greatest television show since M*A*S*H, this is the episode of which he dreamed. A towering portrayal of a man who goes from a hair's breath away from the presidency, to nobody. Arnie shuffles around his office, trying to convince his remaining staff (Richardson and Root) that he can win the next presidential election. At a coffee shop, the barista calls him Ernie. And then...thinking he's been called in for a belittling photo op, he is stunned to find the president-elect offering him secretary of state. He struggles with his place in history, and refusing to be a political pawn. Wonderful stuff. Plus a little Butterfield, trying to cope with the incoming first family's wish to have Helen and the kids remain in Texas. As if that's not enough, how about the WW directorial debut of Tim Matheson?
-Institutional Memory ***
The tempest of C.J.'s life is winding down...or is it, as Santos offers her a job in the new administration? Does she want to slow down? Does she have any idea how? She keeps on saying and doing the wrong thing with Danny. He's patient and understanding, and their story arc becomes the most compelling part of the series' end. The producers could have done more with Charlie & Zoey, or Donna & Josh, or Will & Kate, or Santos & Josh & Sam, or Toby's trial(s), or Annabeth & Charlie (sorry, my mind wandered there...). Any of those might have been fascinating, but i daresay none would have topped C & C - Janney and Busfield can do no wrong. C.J. also has a scene with Toby that almost redeems his crappy season. A charismatic tycoon (Xander Berkeley - POISON IVY II, 24) offers her ten billion dollars and fix the world. Brilliant dialogue, in the final episode written by Deborah Cahn.
-Tomorrow ***
You might shed a tear or two. Perhaps it will be when Donna, Sam, and Josh enter the White House for the first time as staffers of a new administration. Perhaps it will be when C.J. stands at her old podium one last time. Perhaps it will be when Keb' Mo' plays "America the Beautiful", the most touching WW musical appearance in a long line of touching appearances? Perhaps it will be when Aaron Sorkin himself appears in a crowd scene. The series' final episode plucks almost all the right heartstrings, as the Bartlet administration vacates the White House while Santos is inaugurated. A little Butterfield, a little Mallory...but inexplicably, no Toby. He's pardoned in absentia, as Jed's last act of office. What's next?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The West Wing, season 6

FOUR-STAR EPISODES: 1
AVERAGE EPISODE RATING: 3.0
-N.S.F. Thurmont ***
While Josh maintains a vigil at Donna's hospital bedside...the summit at Camp David is on! Leo thinks it's a fool's errand. As the parties gather, Jed asks him to stay at the White House. In the middle of a three-episode run as the israeli ambassador, is Natalia Nogulich (Admiral Nechayev, STAR TREK).
-The Birnam Wood ***
The summit goes haltingly. Makram Khoury (FREE ZONE) lends a nuanced, understated touch as palestinian Chairman Farad (he has a particularly beautiful scene with McCormack). Armin-Mueller Stahl (AVALON), as israeli Prime Minister Zahavy, is thoughtful gravitas embodied. Leo continues to strongly urge a different path, and in a moment of high tension, Jed fires him. He then walks into the woods and has a massive heart attack. It's starkly-rendered, and made more chilling with the knowledge that John would die of the same cause himself little more than a year later...and was also, like Leo, an alcoholic. His work in this episode will stay with you long after the credits roll.
-Third Day Story ***
This moment always comes upon you sooner than you expect. Leo alive but incapacitated, Jed recruits a new chief of staff. It feels correct to divide the show into three chapters: the classic era, the post-Seaborn era, and the Chief of Staff C.J. era. None of that is a commentary on product; many things will work in this last era, and fine episodes will arise. We'll forget how much has changed...yet not always. In this one, with Leo absent and Jed maintaining a hospital vigil, the staff bumbles around directionless. C.J. admonishes Josh to stop eating like a two-year old. You might watch this episode four or five times and not realize Mallory's in it.
-Liftoff ***
After three humorless episodes, Deborah Cahn again demonstrates she's the only one who knows how to write sorkin-funny. It's C.J.'s first day as Chief of Staff...watch her get creamed! And misrepresented. And bullied by the male establishment. But there's also a brilliant practical joke wherein Toby and Josh (then Jed) pretend to resign. Plus, Georgia (not the state) asks her to accept a gift of weapons-grade uranium. Two of the final three undebuted major characters roll in, as Annabeth Schott (the irrepressible Kristin Chenoweth - KRISTIN, GCB) non-interviews for press secretary. Josh tries to talk congressperson Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits - SWITCH, NYPD BLUE) out of early retirement. Say hello to the tallest and shortest WW regulars ever, one of whom (the perky one) would be criminally underused.
-The Hubbert Peak ***
At a car lot, Josh looks at a hybrid, then test drives an oversized SUV...accidentally driving into the hybrid. Ah, symbolism! During the rush of bad press, a hasty alternative energy summit is convened at the White House. Hopelessness abounds. Wallace Langham (THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW) represents solar power, and Rachael Harris (BEST IN SHOW, A MIGHTY WIND) represents wind. Charlie graduates, and doesn't want to leave his post. Against his wishes, C.J. hires him as her assistant. Zoey comes to a party for him, and agrees to a date.
-The Dover Test ***
The first casualty of the Gaza peace-keeping mission comes home in a body bag. Congressman Santos deftly manipulates dems and republicans, to get a health care bill passed. Smits is a wonderful presence. And, in a little WW tidal eddy, Leo evades the ministrations of his home health care worker (Suleka Mathew). There is a curious energy between them. It's not a romance, yet faintly almost is. It exists in a little bubble (in two episodes, she would never meet any other cast member). When she educates him about her culture, and comes to understand his views a little better...there's just something inexplicably sweet and touching about it all.
-A Change is Gonna Come ***
On the eve of a summit with China, Jed accidentally accepts an independent taiwanese flag, while M.S. has him half-blinded. Charlie must get the flag back from the gifts unit...now tended by Bernard Thatch (Paxton Whitehead - BACK TO SCHOOL)! He's as droll as ever, though the writing isn't as snappy as his first go-round. Hoynes' pre-campaign book tour is in full swing, and he asks Josh to be his Leo. The underestimated Ed O'Neill (MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, DUTCH) debuts as candidate Governor Eric Baker. In one of the most magical musical moments in the show's history, James Taylor plays Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" at a White House banquet.
-In the Room ***
One of the greatest "as themselves" appearances in show history, as Penn & Teller entertain at a White House birthday party for Zoey, and create an uproar when they appear to burn a flag. Josh's confrontation with them is hysterical (and politically razor-sharp). The debut of the final major player in the WW saga: Senator Arnold Vinick, republican populist candidate for president (Alan Alda - M*A*S*H, SAME TIME NEXT YEAR, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS). You immediately buy the reality of his character, in no uncertain terms. Bartlet is off on Air Force One to the China summit, hiding the fact that M.S. paralysis is spreading through him. The surgeon general (Mary Kay Place) is along for the ride.
-Impact Winter ***
Jed struggles with M.S. semi-paralysis, trying to achieve the goals of the summit from a wheelchair. Plus an asteroid may hit Earth. Leo keeps things under control at the White House, the first time he's played an active role there since the heart attack. In a great scene with Josh, he gives his blessing to drop out and run a dark horse for president. Charlie's replacement, Curtis (Ben Murray, STUDIO 60) has his only memorable moment, when Jed stages a prison break. Curtis carries him off the plane and onto the chinese tarmac. Donna quits, and Josh flies off to Texas, for a great scene with Santos.
-Faith-based Initiative ***
The first of two episodes written by...Bradley Whitford! Not bad at all, particularly a scene between Jed and a senator over whether government should legislate matters of personal choice. Internet rumors surface that C.J. is an amazon lesbian. The debut of Teri Polo (SPORTS NIGHT, MEET THE PARENTS), who would do 18 episodes as Helen Santos. Her chemistry with Smits is instant, undeniable, and enduring. Cleo King (DEADWOOD) has her finest episode as Donna's replacement (which is a mildly left-handed compliment).
-Opposition Research ***
And sooner than you expect...the final story thrust of the series kicks into full gear, as the democratic candidates head to New Hampshire for the primary. Matt wants to talk about issues, but Josh knows that's not how you win in NH. A rocky start. Doug and Liz share an appearance with them, but Doug trashes Matt for personal gain in his own congressional race. A nice scene with Josh and Liz...and the quixotic Santos campaign is already tugging the heartstrings a little. This election will run for the final season and a half, a far cry from the three or four episodes devoted to Bartlet's re-election. It was a very good choice...finishing a wonderful series with a closer look at the election process than anything heretofore given.
-365 Days ***
This one deserves to be held up in a little shake'em globe...a perfectly charming late-era, self-contained White House episode. Leo takes an office, and gives everyone some big picture perspective after they all spend a day putting out fires. Annabeth prepares the first lady to attend a Nascar event (er, race). Kristen Chenoweth's finest episode, and one of Mary McCormack's too...which only underscores how underused they both ultimately were...but cherish the scene where Mary reveals a bit of her romantic past.
-King Corn ***
A superlatively-crafted teleplay, by executive producer John Wells. Telling the parallel story of three campaigns (Russell, Santos, Vinick) courting Iowa voters and grappling with the issue of pandering. Josh and Donna accidentally get hotel rooms across from each other, and the sad discomfort is palpable. Jimmy and Teri and Bradley are razor sharp. With his largest screen time yet, Vinick is the only candidate who takes a principled stand...and gets shellacked for it. His staff debuts, with campaign manager Sheila Brooks (Patricia Richardson - HOME IMPROVEMENT, ULEE'S GOLD) and consultant Bob Mayer (Stephen Root - OFFICE SPACE, NEWSRADIO) turning in impeccable performances. WEST WING has never gone this deep into a season without a four-star episode, but Alan's presence gives you the same sense of assurance that Goodman gave the post-Sorkin transition. Ryan Adam's cover of "Desire" is quite poignant.
-The Wake Up Call ***
It's incumbent upon me to mention the work of two actors who have been around for a long time, but have never before received a word. In one case (Nicole Robinson, as Margaret), that's because her charming work has never been prominent enough to catch my eye. Here, she is happily perhaps outed as the first gay staffer in show history. In the other case (Steve Ryan, as Defense Secretary Miles Hutchinson), my neglect is perhaps because he inhabited his disagreeable character so well that my dislike extended to the actor. The difference between this episode and four stars is but a hair's breath. Tension arises over when to awaken the President, as an international crisis breaks. Abbey bullies the staff. Christopher Lloyd (TAXI, STAR TREK III) is every bit as wonderful as you'd hope Christopher Lloyd would be, as constitutional scholar Lawrence Lessig. Elya Baskin (MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON, THE NAME OF THE ROSE) is charming as a belarussian diplomat. Plus Marbury's back in town! Roger Rees' final WW appearance, and he's beguiling as always, particularly (or not) to Kate, who is forced to babysit him.
-Freedonia ***
Another four-star miss by the teeniest margin. Santos and Josh butt heads over Matt's discomfort with "playing the game", as they face a last-chance shot with the one commercial they can afford. Matt brings in Amy to coach him, which causes more grief. Will all but Hoynes and Russell be locked out of the debate? Donna yells at a chicken. Matt rejects a gimmicky ad, and goes on-air live. You might get a little choked up.
-Drought Conditions ***
The campaigns make a stop in Washington. Toby's sick brother has committed suicide. Josh has a hard time getting into the White House, and his conflicts with Toby come to blows, over a dark horse candidate (Mel Harris - THIRTYSOMETHING) stealing Santos' thunder. Many people who never got into WEST WING claim the dialogue was too fast, and this is the only time i ever agreed with them; it took more than one viewing to figure out exactly who Harris is. But a verrrry funny episode - that Cahn magic is back. Shoring up the evaporating staff at the White House, C.J. hires Cliff Calley (Mark Feuerstein - ROYAL PAINS). He's condescending, and funnier than ever. Charlie tries to set up Kate with a guy from his gym. Her flip-flopping is hysterical, until she realizes the fellow is her ex, and that Charlie misunderstood his inquiry.
-A Good Day ***
A lovely, tight episode about a stem cell bill. When Haffley realizes he doesn't have the votes, he sends everyone home. The dems, led by Santos and orchestrated by Cliff, stage a huge fakeout, pretending to leave town while holing up in the Vice President's congressional office. The second of two episodes ably directed by Richard Schiff. Nathan Burgess plays an idealistic freshperson congressperson so poor he has to live out of his office. The irrepressible Mako(!) (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, CONAN THE BARBARIAN) plays a surly, Bartlet-baiting economist who split the Nobel with Jed years ago. A group of children (led by Seth Adkins) lobby Toby for the right to vote - and they sold me. A hunting incident on the canadian border almost triggers an invasion - Kate barely (and humorously) keeps control. William O'Leary (HOT SHOTS, BULL DURHAM) plays a Fish and Wildlife Deputy.
-La Palabra ***
The campaigns jockey for California. Santos is pressured by the latino community to come out against an illegal alien bill, a move that would cost him nationally. Ray Wise (TWIN PEAKS, ROBOCOP) plays a governor willing to give his endorsement to any candidate who stands against the bill. Matt and Helen prepare to mortgage their house to stay in the race - which prompts Josh to tell them to end the campaign. At the last second, a new Hoynes sex scandal breaks, and Santos wins the state by a hair. The debut of the eminently watchable Matthew Del Negro (THE SOPRANOS) as Santos staffer Bram Howard.
-Ninety Miles Away ***
An enjoyable and admirable effort that doesn't quite gel. Amid reports of Castro's failing health, Leo makes a covert trip to Cuba, to try to end forty years of failed policy. Knowledge of the trip leaks out, which could be a landmine for all involved, plus the dem presidential candidates. Flashbacks take you to '95, when battered operative Kate Harper helped a Leo who was too drunk to know it. Guest star Brian Dennehy (FIRST BLOOD, SILVERADO) adds some sheen as a garrulous, ornery, sauced FL senator...but this is one of the few moments when the presence of a big guest star could almost be seen as what it is, a famous actor wanting to appear on one of TV's greatest shows. One of the few moments when the show didn't create some alternate reality leader of a foreign nation, but used the real one.
-In God We Trust ****
There are a couple almost-lulls, but the great stuff is undeniable. Left-leaning Vinick wins the republican nomination, while the dems are undecided going into the convention. Wanting to pick a veep candidate quickly, he offers it to Rev. Don Butler (Don S. Davis - BEST IN SHOW, STARGATE: SG1), whose pull with the far right would sew up the election. Don is great, but Don passes. The irrepressible Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver!) shows up, telling Vinick he can lead him to a fifty-state win. Vinick picks Gov. Ray Sullivan (Brett Cullen - SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT, FALCON CREST), who would be spot-on in five episodes. All of those are just the hor d'oeuvres to a scene between Alda and Sheen, working out a bill compromise, eating ice cream, and talking about the separation of church and state. A non-believing republican debating a devout democrat. It's scintillating, and brilliant.
-Things Fall Apart ***
The convention arrives, with no clear candidate. Some prime Santos camp doings, as Matt mulls over Russell's offer of the vice presidency. Leo leans on Josh to take it. Jed finds Charlie leaving Zoey's room in the early morning, his shirt undone.
-2162 Votes ***
The convention is thrown into deeper turmoil when Baker gets back into the race! Matt accepts that his bid is lost...but refuses to accede, giving a floor speech that stirs the party. A Santos nomination in hand, Leo is tapped for veep. We never buy this 100%, not just because of the Cheyney-like heart condition - drug addiction too? But it makes for a fun last-season ride for Mr. Spencer. The last substantive appearance for Hoynes - thank you, Mr. Matheson, you were perfect.