It is difficult to reduce an ensemble drama to a single character or even relationship, as if such a deliberately small piece can be said to represent the whole puzzle. Yet, I think, there is sometimes a dynamic or individual character which seems to stand in for the heart of a work; to reside closer to the creator's outlook and intentions (to the extent we can imagine reconstructing them) than any other.
In The West Wing, I believe that character is Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) and the relationship is between Josh and his long-time assistant Donna Moss (Janel Maloney).
Josh is a flamboyant, wilful, immature character. He is the Deputy Chief of Staff and the thug charged with bullying Congress to vote with the President. He is also what i imagine creator Aaron Sorkin to be like. Donna is Josh's assistant. She caters to his every impulse and whim, recognizing his needs long before he bellows her name (instead of using the intercom at his disposal for that purpose). There is a romantic tension that lingers between them throughout the show, undermining the attempts each makes at relationships with other people and culminating in consummation in the seventh season.
On the surface, there is no question that this is a conventional story arc designed to provide a bit of heart in a show preoccupied with cold, hard politics. There is only one problem with this reading: creator Aaron Sorkin left the show after its fourth season. It is only my speculation, but I don't think this is how Sorkin meant for this storyline to play out. And that's a problem.
It's a problem because I think that Sorkin's writing has, at the very least, distinct traces of misogyny. Sorkin's recent films--The Social Network, and, especially, Moneyball--have little room for women. They are homo-social dramas about male ambition and relationships. This is the realm in which Sorkin seems at ease. Women drift in and out, but they are accessories, little more.
For instance, in Moneyball, Billy Beane's relationship to his ex-wife is left undeveloped, although it seems clear that it is an important part of his personality, whether he understands it to be or not. This is the issue with Sorkin's writing: he has a masterful ear for the nuances of the professional arena, be it a tech company, a baseball team, or the White House, but is largely tone deaf to the complex personal relationship. It is little wonder that the one non-baseball relationship glimpse of Beane's is to his daughter; when Sorkin does write relationships, his grasp of their subtleties is childlike at best.
The last three seasons of The West Wing have a bad rep. There's no other way to put it. I remember watching the show when it first aired. It's popularity was immense, particularly in my social circle. Yet, by the time the fifth season was under way, post-Sorkin, no one I knew was still watching, myself included. This had a great deal to do with an inane story line about facilitating reconciliation in Israel, but it was just as much about Sorkin. Without him, it was thought, the show would become average network fare, or worse.
Fortunately, I was recently exhorted to give the series a second chance. Although the fifth season is indeed a bit of a dud, the nomination and presidential campaign of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and the waning days of the Bartlett presidency make for compelling viewing.
This is why the end of the show is entertaining, but not why it is important. For that, we need to return to Josh and Donna. Why do these two central characters finally give in to the latent desire they have (apparently) felt all along?
It is not merely vicarious fulfilment for loyal viewers who have stuck with the show through it all. No, rather, it is the logical consequence of a fundamental change in their dynamic.
In the sixth season of the show, Donna comes to realize that she will not find career advancement working for Josh, who sees her only as his assistant, not as a potential peer. She leaves to work for the Vice-President and his campaign for the Democratic nomination, in direct competition with Josh and his candidate: Santos. In the intervening year, as the leadership campaign runs into Presidential campaign, Donna ascends through the ranks, ultimately being promoted to spokesperson for the Santos campaign. Only then do she and Josh begin a relationship.
The salient point here is that Donna can only connect romantically with Josh once she has overturned the power dynamic in their relationship. This functions as a neat metaphor for the changes in the show. As long as Sorkin was at the helm, female characters generally remained either subordinate to men, or stereotypically feminine in a way that was clearly disempowering.
Like Josh in his relation to Donna, Sorkin's The West Wing sees women as incidental to the important business of governing. The most significant female character on the show is C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney). As Press Secretary, C.J. is clearly important. Yet, she is also the only member of the inner circle to shed tears in the White House. This is not to say that emotion is in itself a sign of inadequacy. The issue is that C.J.'s tears represent a failure to understand larger implications. She cries for the individual, and in the process, loses sight of the collective interest. Worse, her tears fulfill a stereotype of femininity that says that women aren't cut out for rational political work.
Perhaps the best exemplification of Sorkin's attitude towards women comes in a sequence of scenes in which Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe) interacts with Associate White House Counsel Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor). Sam tells Ainsley that her outfit is "enough to make a good dog break his leash." He is then informed by another woman in the office that this was an offensive and demeaning comment. Sam obsesses over whether she was right, even asking Ainsley herself, who tells him she thought it was a compliment. Ultimately, the sequence culminates with Hayes confronting Sam's accuser (a woman named Celia who otherwise does not appear in the show) and telling her: "The point is that sexual revolution tends to get in the way of actual revolution. Nonsense issues distract attention away from real ones like pay equity, childcare, honest to God sexual harassment..." (See below for the extended sequence to appreciate the full context of these remarks.)
Ainsley's (Sorkin's) "lipstick feminism" is basic apologism for a society that objectifies women. Whether or not Ainsley wants to wear lipstick or stilettos is beside the point; the question is whether the expectation that she should exists in the first place. Sam's comments make this implicit, gendered, social standard explicit. Ainsley may like it, but Celia doesn't, and with good reason. She and others in the office are being told they must look a certain way in order to receive respect. Ainsley may see the objectification of women as a "nonsense" issue, but I suspect that those legions of young women stricken with body and image anxiety would disagree.
Through Sam, Sorkin is espousing a particular brand of feminism that works for men like him: he thinks women deserve equal pay, but he also wants to ogle them to his heart's content. This scene is disturbingly close to one that might occur in Mad Men, yet Sorkin tries to pass it off as progressive.
The remarkable thing about attitudes to gender in The West Wing is how much they change after Sorkin leaves the show. C.J. ascends from her position as Press Secretary to Chief of Staff and handles the job adroitly. Moreover, whereas, in the early seasons it is the male leads who struggle to balance relationships with their all-consuming work (leaving us to feel that their partners are being unreasonable to ask for more from them--another troubling gender dynamic), in the last season it is C.J. who has little time for her long-time love interest Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield).
In the latter seasons, a new female character is added to the cast: Deputy National Security Advisor Kate Harper (Mary McCormack). She is thoughtful, dignified, and tenacious--perhaps the first significant role for a woman on the show that does not feel gimmicky in some way. Santos' campaign advisor is Louise Thornton (Janeane Garofalo), a more serious version of the grating Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) character penned by Sorkin in the first season.
And then, of course, there is Donna, who blossoms after Sorkin's departure into Josh's equal (at least professionally, she still outstrips him by a considerable margin emotionally).
The relationship is satisfying, not because she has earned his affection, but because he has learned how to appreciate a woman who challenges his authority (this is a problem in his relationship to Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker), the strongest female role written by Sorkin in the history of the show).
This would doubtless be more satisfying if Sorkin had still been pulling the strings on Josh--one wonders how he will write women in his upcoming HBO series The Newsroom (a show that steals its title from an earlier CBC series).
People often talk about the "progressive" end of the series, referring to the character of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), his race, and the fact that he seems an even more liberal successor to the Bartlett (Martin Sheen) regime, but it's really in the representations of women that the show grows over its lifespan. Without Sorkin at the helm, The West Wing comes, contrary to all expectations, to outgrow its creator. I'm not sure she would admit it, but I'm pretty sure even Ainsley Hayes would appreciate that.
There is a not-so-secret secret about me: I love to eat.
In fact, I have a reputation as something of a glutton. One of the principal joys of my day-to-day life is the anticipation of my next meal. On occasion, I actually find myself counting down the minutes until I can justify my next feed (three hours isn’t quite long enough, but four? Off to the fridge...). (My feats at the dinner table are often viewed with some combination of awe and disgust), and the truth is that my primary reason for working out at the gym is a desire to be able to eat to my heart’s content.
I am not proud of this.
There are myriad reasons to condemn this behaviour, foremost among them the fact that it is entirely unsustainable and inequitable. It is also unhealthy, although that is the least of my concerns. The other major problem with the way that I eat is the fact that I am a completely unreformed carnivore. I live to eat flesh. When I fantasize about my next meal, it is the meat I am thinking about first and foremost. I can't imagine giving it up, though I believe that the only moral choice is to do so. Between the environmental and ethical repercussions of the meat industry (for humans and animals alike) there is no justification for the consumption of meat. And yet, as I write this, my mind skips ahead to the fried chicken I plan to eat tonight (prepared by The Stockyards in Toronto—it's to die for).
Despite my love affair with all things edible and the fact that I enjoy television, I am not a huge fan of cooking shows in generally. This is probably because I am not much of a cook (another thing I'm not particular proud of, and am working slowly to change). In general, my appreciation of food is unrefined. I don't have a sophisticated palate or vocabulary for food ... just a passion for its consumption.
And then, by chance, my partner and I stumbled upon a television chef who captured my imagination: Chuck Hughes. Chuck was born and raised in Montreal and currently runs two restaurants there. His show is called “Chuck’s Day Off” and the premise is that Chuck loves cooking so much that he even likes to cook for those who help make his restaurant hum (staff, suppliers, etc.) on his days off.
Of course, one should be wary of anything seen on television, particularly that which claims to be ‘reality.’ Nevertheless, despite myself, I must admit that I was charmed by Chuck. He is unpretentious and exuberant. When he tastes the food he has just prepared, his knees seem to buckle with pleasure and he declares much of it to be “amazing.” In other words, he behaves just as I imagine I would if I had a similar gift for culinary alchemy. Aside from his charisma, what I like about Chuck is the way he approaches creative cookery. He seems less interested in mastering the art of French cuisine and more into preparing comforting (and unhealthy) dishes inspired by his Montreal roots but injected with twists his own imagination that cater to base desires rather than intellect.
It's not, I’m sure, for everyone (or maybe it is, but I can’t speak to Chuck's reception amongst gastronomical sophisticates). Chuck is, however, the perfect chef for someone like me, who imagines that the best way to improve a dish is by adding prosciutto and/or sending on a journey through the deep fryer.
It should be no surprise, then, that I had long been thinking about making a stop at one of Chuck's restaurants the next time we were in Montreal. That opportunity finally arrived this weekend. I phoned ahead to Chuck’s more established restaurant, located in Old Montreal: Garde-Manger, smugly thinking I could ensure a reservation. Instead, I learned that reservations typically require thirty days notice, especially for a Saturday night.
Chagrined, I accepted a spot on the waiting list and booked us a seat at the bar of Chuck’s newer restaurant Le Bremner (a quieter and less rowdy version of Garde-Manger also situated in Old Montreal). Fortuitously, late Saturday afternoon, I received a call to say that a spot at Garde-Manger had opened up; we would have the classic Chuck experience after all.
The reviews of Garde-Manger, as food reviews tend to be, range towards the snooty. It was once a brilliant restaurant, they say. Then Chuck became famous and tourists began to arrive. Prices rose and what was once cool now only pretended. This is the hipster way.
I was not to be put off. Cool or not, Chuck was my culinary soul mate and I was determined to consummate our relationship.
Now, I come to the part of the post in which I will rave about the food. There is no surprising twist or ironic turn to this narrative. There will, I hope, also be none of the overwrought pseudo-poetical prose of the typical restaurant review. I couldn’t do justice to the food that way even if I wanted to.
What I want to do is describe perhaps the most gratifying meal of my life.
We started with drinks. Jen had a classic gin martini (dirty, because she loves olives) and I had a giant Caesar (see above video), replete with a giant stalk of celery and crab claw I proceeded to mash and mangle as I greedily slurped out the flesh within.
We ordered two starters. The first was a seafood platter that is a specialty of the house. We asked for the smallest size and were taken aback by the magnitude of the multi-tiered dish that arrived at our table. The shrimp (served with homemade cocktail sauce covered in grated horseradish) was the only moment in the meal when I felt blasé about what I was eating. The rest of the platter—oysters and more crab legs—was delicious. Certainly, our enjoyment was aided by the wine that our server paired for us with the course, as she would for each that followed (including both starters). Yes, we had fun.
The second appetizer was another house speciality: lobster poutine. I am actually not a hug poutine guy—I’m often put off by the gravy which, if not at its best, can turn my stomach. Not a problem in this case. The dish was expensive--$19 for a very small portion—but (and I am cheap) I really felt like I would have paid more. It was incredible. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must concede that Jen did not think it was so great/worth the cost. But what does she know?)
Next I ordered a flank steak served with a fried egg on top, resting on a bed of deep fried mashed potato balls with a side of homemade sour cream. If this sounds excessive to you, we do not have the same tastes. I have never had a better steak. It was actually more delicious than it sounds, if that is possible. A masterpiece. Even Jen, who is not a potato person, declared the deep fried mashed to be incredible.
And yet, my steak, believe it or not, was the lesser of the two orders. Jen boldly made the choice I can never quite commit to: the risotto. Risottos always sound tempting to me, but I fear not being satisfied (there are also issues related to preparation, but I leave that for the professionals to discuss). In this case, the risotto was prepared in a lobster bisque with rock shrimp. After a single bite, my steak (my incredible, perfectly prepared, delicious steak) started to seem like a McDonald’ s hamburger. (Luckily, Jen couldn't finish her dish and I got to eat much of it as well as my own.)
I should add that we are not even lobster lovers. Both Jen and I tend to find it overpriced and understimulating. Not so when it comes from the kitchen of Chuck, who must be some sort of lobster whisperer. (Last year, in Halifax, I had a lobster bisque at McKelvie’s that might as well have been prepared by Campbell’s in comparison.)
At this point, Jen pleaded for me to stop. There was no doubt we had been more than sufficiently sated. But I found I could not resist the call of Chuck's famed deep fried Mars bar for dessert. Jen relented and the Mars bar arrived with ice cream on the side.
It would, it turns out, have been a tragedy not to try it. Jen had previously eaten a DFM in Scotland and declared that she was too old to try another, but even she admits that her previous experience with a fish and chips-style attempt bore no resemblance to the bread crumb coated festival of delight we were treated to at Garde-Manger.
(My prose is purpling, but I can’t help it. How to do justice in print to something that can only be appreciated on the palate?!)
All I can say is this: thank you, Chuck. I have never had a more satisfying (or expensive, I must acknowledge) meal. If you are a carnivorous glutton like me and you happen to have an evening out in Montreal, plan ahead and treat yourself to Garde-Manger.
May Chuck never take more than a day off.