Saturday, December 27, 2008
**Warning- may contain spoilers**
I could barely contain my excitement when I opened this box set Christmas morning. I almost wanted to immediately rush into my room, family gathering be damned and plop down to continue watching after the first season so thoroughly enraptured me. Of course I didn't, but the second the family packed it in I put a Do Not Disturb sign on my door and went back to the Capitol. The first season, though flawed in minor spots, set the bar incredibly high, but this season blows it out of the water.
At the end of the last season, President Bartlet and the staffers who surrounded him were fired upon by a group of gunmen. It ended up a bit of a cheap cliffhanger (although it's a hell of an episode), ending before we knew who was shot and why it happened, and forced viewers to wait months to find out. But the two part season premiere, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," answers the questions in a way that not only makes the wait worth it but surprises us with a deep insight into what brought the characters to work for Bartlet. As it turns out, White House aide Charlie Young's interracial relationship with the President's daughter Zoey was the basis for the attack; the President wasn't even the target at all. To be honest, I question the intelligence of someone who tried to shoot anyone in the vicinity of the President of the United States, but then one less racist in the world (even a fictional one) is fine by me.
The flashbacks of the episode set up much of the emotional arc of the season. Indeed, even though the Bartlet administration begins to come into its own this season, the real focus is on the characters. The character who gets the most setup here is Josh; wounded severely by the gunmen, Josh spends much of the first part of the season coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet he is never pushed to the sidelines, never dismissed, and never exploited for cheap sympathy.
Ultimately the focus of the second season rests on the Bartlet administration really setting down policies after the first season's excellent "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" pointed out the administration's wheel-spinning. Jed and his staffers cover a wide range of topics, from a proposed crackdown on racist groups in the wake of the premiere to a nuclear test ban. Then, we learn of the President's MS, which launches a whole new plot concerning if he lied to the public and whether or not he will run for a second term.
This final arc shows just how thought out the season was from the start. In the premiere, we see how the staffers, ideologues all, threw away their careers to work for Josiah simply because they finally found something to believe in. Thus, when Bartlet finally confesses to them his multiple sclerosis, it devastates them. Sorkin knew he was going to tear them down, so he gave us their zenith at the start.
The loss of his staffers' trust, a slew of his biggest political decisions yet, the inevitability that he must tell the people his secret, and the death of a close friend bring Bartlet to the brink in the jaw-dropping season finale "Two Cathedrals," in which the President finally breaks down in private and curses God for his woes. His tirade is made all the more impressive by Thomas Schlamme's impeccable direction, some of the best you'll ever see on a television program. When he stands in front of a press conference and they reporters ask him if he'll run again, Sorkin and Schlamme end the episode thinking they've once again hung us on a cliff. But you can see the answer plainly on Martin Sheen's face. Everything about this episode is perfect.
The best part of this season is its flow; apart from the premiere and finale, it's hard to pick out individual episodes. I mean that in the best possible way. Instead of standout episodes, the whole thing moves along with such narrative force that you'd almost suspect it was some sort of detective program; the notion that it is instead simply a look into political issues is almost baffling.
The only flaw I can find in this season is the occasional disappearance of minor characters. Mandy, the ill-fitting, useless character from the first season, simply vanishes without a trace. I admit I was too happy she was gone to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this issue arose again when White House Counsel Lionel Tribbey up and left to be replaced by Oliver Platt's Oliver Babish. I know it must be hard to keep track of things in this massive ensemble drama, but you can't just switch people for no reason; even tired TV cliché reasons are better than nothing.
Still, that is the only issue in an otherwise perfect season of television. Even though no one character gets more than a moment in the spotlight (how could they with the show's structure?), we get astonishing amounts of insight and personal evolution. From as objective a standpoint as I can judge, "Two Cathedrals" might just be the best hour of TV I've seen. It's not quite my favorite ("Angel's" "Not Fade Away" still reigns triumphant in my heart), but rarely will see a character so thoroughly devastated in the course of 42 minutes. What few flaws existed in the first season have given way to an idealistic yet grounded exercise in narrative of a cinematic scope, one that I can't wait to watch again.