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In the Shadow of Two Finales

“I’m going to Port St. Lucie, which may not mean anything to you, but happens to be the spring training home of the…”

“New York Jets. Yes, you’ve told me. Josh, you can watch basketball on TV.”

“Yes, except the New York Knicks are a basketball team, the New York Jets are a football team and Port St. Lucie is the spring training home of the New York…”

“Mets! Yes. Dammit, I’m inadequate.”

Some seasons may present evidence to the contrary, but Major League baseball teams generally don’t get cancelled. Their ratings may tank, their pitching goes on hiatus, their catchers get recast, their settings — Montreal out, Washington in — are reimagined and they may even move to a new network (like the Brewers shifting from the American to National Baseball Conference in 1998), but at no time since 1900 have baseball teams had final episodes…or have you seen the Louisville Colonels in syndication lately?

That, among other things, makes them different from television series. But not much different.

Take Saturday night [1], another ready-for-prime time installment of 2006 Mets baseball. The TV Guide description barely did it justice.

7:00 – 60: A veteran hurler makes his debut, but it’s a struggling bit player who surprises everybody with a big performance in place of a frustrated regular, while the team’s hardnosed catcher takes it upon himself to compensate for the shortcomings of a suddenly inconsistent bullpen and a frighteningly unreliable home plate umpire. Willie Randolph, Paul Lo Duca, Cliff Floyd, Duaner Sanchez. Guest Stars: Jeremi Gonzalez, Jose Valentin, Tim Tschida, Derrick Turnbow.

They can’t give everything away in these capsules, though it hardly seems unexpected anymore that the Mets don’t settle anything until the fourth act. How many shows have they put on this year that involve scores like 9-8, unlikely storylines like those of Valentin’s 4 RBI and Gonzalez’s 5+ innings, tense subplots involving a slump (Floyd’s), a blown call (Tschida’s), hairtrigger ejections (Sanchez and Randolph) and leads that aren’t what they appear to be until the credits roll? When they end like Saturday night’s did (or last Friday night’s against Atlanta or the Wednesday afternoon before that in San Francisco), we’ll stay tuned. It sure beats the hell out of watching any more of what was on during the week:

You know that guy you see coming to the plate in the late innings against whoever your closer is and you just know he’s gonna bring you bad karma? The guy who makes you cover your eyes and your ears even though it’s almost impossible to do both at the same time? Well, that guy is me. My name is Burrell.

Before it went to Hall in a handbasket, I was pretty excited to join Sunday’s edition [2] of The Pedro Martinez Show already in progress, but I’d actually been looking ahead all afternoon. No, not to the Cardinal series Tuesday night, but to two series that end tonight. It’s goodbye to one of my favorite sitcoms of the past decade and farewell and amen to the best drama an over-the-air network has ever broadcast.

The sitcom is Malcolm in the Middle, that rarest of television concoctions that was great at the beginning, greater at the finish, yet rather mushy in the middle. I was ready to write it off two or so years ago as another That ’70s Show, a comedy with lots of kids who grew uncomfortably old to watch. But once Stephanie and I start with a series, we usually stick with a series (as we do with our team). We stuck with Malcolm and we were rewarded. Its final two seasons have been its strongest, its aura more eccentric and nuanced than ever before.

Malcolm got a lot of notice when it debuted in January 2000 for looking different from most sitcoms, but it should be remembered for inhabiting its own universe in the way the best art does. Of course Fox sentenced it to a slow demise by pre-empting and yanking it about the schedule as deemed temporarily convenient (they did the same to the aggressively subversive Arrested Development and the hilariously heartwarming Bernie Mac, two other recently defunct Foxcoms abused to death by their handlers in 2006), so it probably won’t be remembered very much. But the passing of the family with no discernible last name deserves a nod. Malcolm will never get satisfaction, Reese will never get a brain, Francis will never get it together, Dewey will never get his way, Jamie will never get to speak and Hal and Lois will never get completely played by their kids the way so many TV parents do. They will never quite garner the kudos they merit either, but Stephanie and I enjoyed their company immensely. (8:30, Channel 5, in case you’ve forgotten it was still on.)

“A weekend at spring training. Mike Piazza is going to be standing in the batting cage. He’s going to turn and see me. He’s going to say, ‘Dude.'”

“Well, I wouldn’t want you to miss a legitimate ‘dude’ sighting.”

“So I can take off?”


Imagine you found out about the 1986 Mets around 1989. Let’s say you saw Games Six and Seven against the Red Sox or came across a copy of A Year to Remember and were intrigued. You then somehow found a way to watch every game from 1986. It took you a while, but you got through it and after watching every previously recorded inning of the regular season, the playoffs and the World Series, you were hooked. By now, it’s 1991 and you’re up to speed and you consider yourself a full-fledged Mets fan and you’re ready to follow them in full. Alas, you find out that 1986 was five years ago and that the Mets aren’t close to what they used to be.

This, in a so-so analogy nutshell, was how I got hooked on The West Wing. A great deal of fuss was made over this show when it premiered in the fall of 1999. The pilot aired on September 22, the same night the Mets were trying to even a three-game series with the Braves in Turner Field and reduce their deficit in the N.L. East to one. As you can imagine, my attention was on what was really going on in Atlanta, not some made-up nonsense in a fictional White House. Even when the ’99 Mets took their final bow, I wasn’t particularly interested in this show. Though well-meaning folk urged me — given my bent toward the political — to check it out, I decided I watched a lot of TV, I had plenty of shows, I didn’t need another one.

The only thing I knew about The West Wing while it was winning awards and praise was it was winning awards and praise, awards and praise I figured belonged to The Sopranos, a cable drama that had the good sense to debut in January and air in a time slot with limited competition and hardly any baseball to distract me.

NBC eventually funneled the first few seasons of The West Wing to Bravo, which ran it and reran it. One Friday night in very late 2003, I came across a marathon of what I would later learn were episodes from the third season. Around 11 o’clock, I was intrigued. By 4 in the morning, I was absorbed. I started catching the nightly repeats on Bravo. Hey, this is pretty good after all. I stopped by the Virgin Megastore near where I worked in January 2004 and took a flyer on the first-season DVDs. Brought them home on a Friday night and popped one in the machine. Stephanie found me on the couch at dawn Saturday, prying open my eyelids, working on my eighth or ninth episode.

In a matter of weeks I went from non-fan to hardcore fan. It was conversion of the most intense sort. The only thing like it in my life was when I morphed from petless soul to Cat Person in the hour or two it took to adopt and carry home our first kitten. Between Bravo, the DVDs, a handy paperback guide and a number of helpful Web sites, I had become immersed in the first four seasons of The West Wing. It took probably seven months before I figured out who exactly was who and understood how what I had seen on Bravo connected to what I had seen on the discs.

What I didn’t know, come summer 2004, was that the best of The West Wing was already over. It was the first four seasons, 1999-2003, that enchanted me so. When I was ready to dive into the fifth-season reruns and the sixth-season launch, it was no longer what it once was. Aaron Sorkin, who had created President Josiah Bartlet and chief of staff Leo McGarry and deputy COS Josh Lyman and communications director Toby Ziegler and his deputy Sam Seaborn and press secretary C.J. Cregg and everybody and everything else that filled this wondrous version of Washington, had already left the show. It continued without him and, sort of like the 1991 Mets, didn’t perform like a champion despite a good bit of the cast remaining the same.

Hence, it’s not all that sad that tonight on Channel 4 at 8:00 that The West Wing ends after seven seasons (overlaps Malcolm; God Bless DVRs). It’s been pretty good this year, but it hasn’t been The West Wing with which I fell in love in early ’04. And that West Wing is the one that has severely impacted what you’ve been reading here since early ’05.

“Oh, this is going to be a good night. My woman, a fine stew, and a Mets game on national TV. You see how I slipped that last one in?”

“I saw.”

I still watch a lot of TV, comedy mostly. I don’t like heavy stuff as a rule, I don’t care for conflict; I sort of (sort of) wish the Mets would win every game 9-zip. Yet I consider it my very good fortune to have lived in this golden age of dramas, to have been exposed regularly to the three greatest ever created for the medium: The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The West Wing. The first two have been on HBO where they don’t demand as many episodes and they let you curse a lot. That gives them something of an advantage over The West Wing, I suppose. On any given evening, depending which one I run into, I’ll tell you that any of the three is tops. I like the profane and profound ground The Sopranos broke. I like how nobody on Six Feet Under was obviously good or bad, just alive until dead. But I really like how The West Wing of Aaron Sorkin infiltrated the way I think and the way I write.

Maybe because there are more installments of it than the others and maybe because they’re still on Bravo fairly frequently and maybe because I subjected myself to such a crash course in it, I can’t think of another show (not even the eminently quotable Simpsons) that’s influenced me the way The West Wing has. It probably has more to do with the indelible characters and their unimpeachable aspirations, all of which flowed from Sorkin. Everything they did was in the service of creating a better government and a better country. I love to watch them walk fast and talk faster, to see the rows of neon bulbs light up over their heads, to piece together what’s next, to attempt and occasionally effect meaningful change in sixty minutes including commercials. First it made me want to be like them. Eventually it made me want to write like that.

I’ve made the occasional blatant West Wing reference [3] in these pages. More often, I’ve dropped an homage [4] or two into the text that maybe only another Wingnut would get. If I’m lucky enough that you notice a certain pace or rhythm to my writing and if I’ve managed to truly tell a story in the course of a thing, that’s likely the unseen hand of Sorkin at work. When I’m framing our fervor for this baseball team in unusually high moral terms, I’m pretty much channeling the spirit of that show. Many writers have unknowingly contributed to my pastiche stylings, but there is only one whose television show absolutely altered the way I go about my craft, hopefully for the better.

My thanks to Aaron Sorkin. That was awfully nice of you.

Because TV series available as boxed DVD sets are pushing indoor plumbing and the drag bunt as eternity’s most important invention, I’ll never be without The West Wing, the one that I was slow to catch on to but relentless about staying with. I’ll always have the noble Bartlet, the warm and wise McGarry [5], the cynical but righteous Toby, the former teen-schlock actor [6] I came to consider My Sam, the passion of the Cregg, the steadfastly supportive Donna Moss, the admirably alert Charlie Young and, now that all is said and done, my favorite character, Josh Lyman.

Why is he my favorite? Oh, no particular reason…

“I don’t know why you think the Committee to Re-Elect needs us to protect them. And if Ritchie’s strategy is what you say it is, won’t Josh Lyman figure that out in five minutes?”

“It’ll take his assistant Donna five minutes. It’ll take Josh half that time.”


“Maybe a little longer because the Mets lost last night, and he’ll need to focus.”