Looking back at a moment from The West Wing

What began as a comment on a post at Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog ran a little long, so here is my response to the post in its entirety.

Quick summation–Overstreet linked to an article (Part 1 here, part 2 here) written by Laura Braman Good at Image magazine concerning her reactions to Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

I read both parts of Good’s series, and I was reminded almost immediately of a story arc that ran through the first season of THE WEST WING. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne has a liaison with a woman he later learns is a prostitute (or, as he prefers, “call girl”).  Throughout that arc, lovable Sam does his best to steer the woman, named Laurie, away from her night life.  She’s studying to be a lawyer, after all, and she has bills to pay.  Near season’s end, Sam is caught handing Laurie a gift — an innocent thing, really, but he is a White House staffer and she is a call girl.  The usual hand-wringing ensues, and Sam receives a slap on the wrist.  The president, in his benevolence, has this to say about the call girl:

“You should tell her,” Bartlett tells Sam, “that if she passes the bar exam, the US Attorney General will personally see that she’s admitted to the bar.  Tell her the President of the United States says congratulations on getting her degree.”

In the school of art and story interpretation, I am still a learner, and when I feel affected by something, I want to try and articulate it.  That moment in the show, while I appreciate its sentiment, never sat well with me, and thanks to Good’s article, I think I figured out why.

I’m sure there’s probably more “Lauries” out there than I want to think about.  I think I am safe assuming that not all of them have the shameless determination Laurie in the show seemed to possess.  And almost all likely do not have a dashing hero who will enter their lives, nor will they ever get a pat on the back from the president for “earning her degree.”

Just as Good anticipates that “any field [in her database] beginning with the word PROSTITUTION would end with the terms PORNOGRAPHY, STRIPPING, DANCING, CRAIGSLIST,” I doubt “trying to pass the bar exam” would ever make the list.

People that know me know I admire Aaron Sorkin.  I like his use of rhythm in dialog, and I like the symmetry with which he crafts his scenes, and I like how he has at times tried to explore both sides of a sensitive issue.  For all his worthy talent, however, this singular moment turns tragedy into fairy tale.  The realization of this tarnishes some of that admiration, because I find it indicative of much of Sorkin’s work, particularly on television, the more I think on this.  More on that, perhaps, another time.

For art to reach hearts, it has to at least reflect truth, even in the myths that seem to remove themselves just a touch from our world and its set of rules.  The audience never gets the chance to see Laurie again, know if she passed the bar, or if the emotional scars of giving herself to man after man ever affected her.  We’re left with a moment designed to evoke sympathy built on a paradigm that should have led to very different ends.  Like we learn in kindergarten, you cannot fit square pegs into round holes.

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