Nothing gets media studies students salivating like The West Wing. Except The Wire. They’re a bit polarising – it’s like the Canon v Nikon, or Mac v PC debate. Two products of similar qualities targetting similar demographics with slightly differently nuanced tastes.
It’s about user experience. Do you want to watch TV to feel smart? Then watch the West Wing, do you want to watch TV to feel superior to the dirty criminals running the streets and the beat-cops paid to curb the uncurbable? Then watch the Wire. Do you want wit or grit? Macroeconomics or microeconomics? Barksdale or Bartlett? McNulty or Ziegler?
A couple of people dialoguing a review of the new Facebook movie The Social Network described the difference nicely, I’ve edited out the swearing for those for whom that sort of thing is an issue:
“SFJ: Let’s compare “The West Wing” and “The Wire.”
NVC: I’d love to!
SFJ: Sorkin talk makes everybody feel smart and makes the s***y world look OK because making money and being an a*****e is fine as long as a deserving nerd wins. This appeals to nerds and anybody who fancies themselves as SMARTS. Further, he goes in hard on lexis—the act of delivering words—and lets the characters walk you through everything that would either be the job of a) acting or b) the audience using their heads. It is a way to load middlebrow content into totally fun speed talk that saves many people some hard work while feeling highbrow, because only smart people can talk that quickly. It’s like associating athletic skill with height, de jure.
SFJ: Think of how many Sorkin characters are sort of Flat Erics who talk, rapidly describing every idea that could have been acted out. The advantage is you can cram a lot of action into one episode. The downside is a weird, Aspergersy sameness to every project. Actors become court stenographers in reverse, spitting out Sorkinese and then stepping aside to let the next block of text barrel through.
SFJ: “The Wire,” on the other hand, doesn’t mind alienating you. It eliminates spoken exposition (lexis) in favor of mimesis. This is an entire world, it is full, and you had better take notes if you want to keep up. You have to WORK. People who don’t look like you may be in charge for a minute, maybe for a long time, and nobody has the moral high ground.
NVC: THERE IS NO PRESIDENT BARTLET IN BALTIMORE.
SFJ: Sorkin loves the abasement that is a by-product of believing in the high ground. It’s in everything Sorkin does.”