Momentum: THE BLACK AND WHITE OF COLOR TELEVISION
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There's a yin and a yang to everything,=
even watching television.
The two programs that fascinate me right now are the ultra-liberal "The = West Wing" and the ultra-conservative "JAG."
In every way, these two shows appear to be diametrically opposed to ea= ch other, and yet I love them both. How, I am wondering, can this be?
"The West Wing," as almost everyone knows, is about a humanisticpresiden= t of the United States named Josiah Bartlet, his devoted cadre of aides and= assistants, and how they run the country.
"JAG" (Judge Advocate General) is less well-known. It's about an elit= e group of military officers, led by former Navy SEAL Admiral A.J. Chegwidd= en, who are trained as lawyers and who have adventures while investigating,= prosecuting and defending people accused of military crimes.
"The West Wing" wins Emmys by the score, while "JAG" is almost invisible= in our entertainment-saturated media. We see interviews with Martin Sheen= , Rob Lowe, Allison Janney and Bradley Whitford all the time, but how many = people even know who David James Elliot is? (He's the too-handsome leading= man with three first names who plays Commander Harmon Rabb on "JAG.")
"W= est Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin frequently makes news -- such asthe time he = was arrested for carrying magic mushrooms, and later sentenced to rehab. D= onald P. Bellisario, who created "Magnum PI" and "Quantum Leap" before he c= reated "JAG," is a shadowy sci-fi cult figure who sometimes makes appearanc= es on the show.
When you watch the two programs long enough, however, the similarities b= ecome striking. First of all, both do what hour-long dramas are supposed to= do -- they entertain. If they didn't, they wouldn't be on network televis= ion for long.
"JAG" debuted on NBC in 1995 and moved toCBS in 1996, where it is stil= l going strong.
Both shows develop casts of characters who are believable, attractive, i= ntelligent and competent. They both have powerful female characters, altho= ugh on "JAG," Major Sarah MacKenzie (Catherine Bell), who can fight and spe= ak Russian as well as prosecute and defend, never seems to win a courtroom = battle against Rabb.
Both shows try to humanize people in high places and have storylines tha= t highlight the stresses, challenges and responsibilities that come from wo= rking in government and the military.
Both shows indulge us in the fantasy of the benign yet patriarchal boss = -- both Bartlett and Chegwidden are caring and nurturing as well as command= ing. (For the reality, try the cartoon Dilbert.)
Both shows try to correct history, although one does it from the left an= d one from the right. In Bartlet, Sorkin created a liberal leader with a br= ain, a conscience and a spine, one intended to mitigate the damage and frus= tration caused by eight years of Bill Clinton.
(Sorkin's first try was the film "American President," where Michael D= ouglas was the president and Martin Sheen was his top aide. The film's thes= is, "We have to fight the fights we can win," also underlies "The West Wing= .")
Bellisario's frustration with America is of a different order. In "JAG,"= the Elian Gonzalez-figure makes it to American soil and stays there, and t= he pilot who flies too low in an Italian valley and kills innocent people i= s exonerated because of extenuating circumstances.
Following the eternal = rules of drama, both shows place their characters in specific moral univers= es.
Both shows emphasize friendship and camaraderie, but in "The West Wing,"= the main values are compromise, manipulation, persuasion, making deals, an= d "the art of the possible." It's about politics.
On "JAG," the values ar= e opposed to politics. They are more absolute ones -- loyalty, duty and cou= rage. "Are you telling me politics is more important than the truth?" yells= Chegwidden in the face of the Secretary of the Navy before he disobeys a d= irect order.
The two shows would seem to represent the split that exists right now do= wn the middle of America. It's like a summer camp color war out there -- th= e reds and blues, the Eastern states who voted for Gore and the Western sta= tes who voted for Bush.
The question becomes, then: Can people comfortably hold two conflicting= ideas in their mind at the same time? F. Scott Fitzgerald said yes. He w= rote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opp= osed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to fun= ction."
Lately, I've come to believe that almost every situation holds at least = two -- if not more -- opposing ideas or principles at its core. And if tha= t's true, then these ideas or principles can't be mutually exclusive. Life = is far more complex than our culture leads us to believe.
It's not always a matter of opposites, the right wingnuts vs. the left= wingnuts. We can get something from "The West Wing" as well as from "JAG."=
Fitzgerald was on to something, but he didn't know the half of it.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics= , economics and travel.