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TeeVee Awards 2001: Biggest Disappointment

At first blush, the only things Star Trek: Voyager and The West Wing would appear to have in common is a Wednesday evening time slot and a cast of bipedal hominids. One show is a critically acclaimed, people-pleasing drama on a major network; the other, the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek franchise on UPN. One concerns itself with dramatizing the business of government; the other is an intergalactic iteration of Gilligan's Island. The list goes on.

So why are these two wed together as the winners of this year's Biggest Disappointment award? Is this another example of the indecisive, bickering Vidiots voting to a draw on a major show category?

Maybe. But we prefer to look at the overall gestalt, the zeitgeist, the whatever-German-word-will-gull-people-into-believing-we're-onto-something-here. We are big fans of the big picture. We like to ask ourselves, "Why? Why did these two shows disappoint us beyond all others?"

The answer comes down to respect.

We really don't ask much of television shows. From a medium that continually employs Tony Danza, how can we? We like the shows that do what they set out to do and do it well, like Gilmore Girls or The Job or Ed. These shows aren't particularly grand in ambition. What they do well is tell a story.

So it once was with Voyager, insist those Vidiots who have not yet recanted their Star Trek fandom. Yes, Captain Janeway and Chakotay were basically the Skipper and Gilligan in a series that lacked the earthy humor of the Howells. But that isn't a bad thing: for years, Voyager drew implicit parallels between the strange and terrible journey Odysseus made and their own trip home. Voyager exploited the strength of the sci-fi genre and used fantastical situations to tell ethical parables; the end of its fourth season, featuring a past enemy of Janeway sending the crew back toward the threatening space of the Borg, is still one of the all-time greats in terms of bringing the metaphorical birds home to roost. Best of all, Voyager continually stressed that maybe, going home wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

For seven years, we watched Voyager -- well, except for the ones who recanted Trek and those think it's just silly sci-fi for the kids -- waiting to see what would happen when a makeshift crew composed of anti-Federation terrorists and Starfleet personnel finally, inevitably made it back home. Would the powers that be recognize that the sum of the crew's achievements far outweighed their former criminal status? Would Captain Janeway be demoted for her occasionally unorthodox leadership? How would everyone adjust to life after coming home?

Unfortunately, the show answered none of these questions. Rather than provide any sort of denouement to the seven-year trip, the series ended with a bogus time-travel plot, gratuitous Borg battles, and a big, fat smack in the face to anyone who had bothered investing any time or energy in the characters over the course of the show. The show's writers and producers addressed this oversight in one moment at the very end, when the crew gathers together before the Stock Climactic Battle and toasts, "to the journey!" Which is sort of like Hawkeye assembling the cast of MASH together and saying, "Hey, how's about a nice round of applause for the Korean War?"

That sort of thing would be fine, except every good travelogue has a chapter about what it's like to be home, and skipping that part shortchanges everyone who patiently waited for years. In the end, Voyager demonstrated how little they respected both the epic story arc they had crafted and the people who trusted the writers to do justice to that story. Heck, even killing the crew off or leaving them stranded forever in the Delta Quadrant would've been more appropriate an ending.

So what does The West Wing have to do with this? After all, Aaron Sorkin's presidential opus is a young'un compared to the creaking Voyager; people don't yet have real history with the show. Beyond that shared time slot, The only thing those two would appear to have in common over the last two years is a marked tendency to play fast and loose with the space-time continuum. Even ardent Sorkin apologists disagree over whether the first season's cliff-hanging massacre at the Moldavian Embassy took place in May or August.

But the two shows are bound by more than facile coincidence. They're united by respect -- or the lack thereof. The first year of The West Wing managed to balance a respect for governing ideals with a funny, fallible reality of actually trying to govern; the people who breathed life into that show had their slapstick moments, but more often, they were vested with an inherent dignity that managed to survive public gaffes and scandals.

This year, however, few of the characters emerged with their gravitas intact. We realize that one of the comedic elements Sorkin frequently employs is contrast -- Hey, it's seasoned, smart people doing dumb things! -- but this year's series of pratfalls, mishaps, and comic misunderstandings were tone-deaf and flat. We do not think Ainsley Hayes's transformation from a smart, sangfroid professional to a drunken Republican sex kitten is hilarious. Josh Lyman slip-sliding his way through the halls of Congress may seem like the height of physical comedy to some -- to us, it was as out of place as Jerry Lewis pratfalling his way through a docudrama. And just how many ways can you take C.J. Cregg -- once a cool and composed professional -- and turn her into a hapless bumbler? Allison Janney wasn't the only West Wing cast member who had to endure indignity after indignity this season -- the show could have easily changed its name to Our President and His Idiot Staff without anyone raising an eyebrow.

Then again, we may not have been in the same frame of mind viewing any of those scenes as the author might have been when writing them.

From the cheap seats, it doesn't look as if the people running the show respect the characters enough to treat them with any measure of consistency. That goes double for plot lines -- a potentially intriguing story where Sam Seaborn's legal prowess has appalling consequences for the government was raised and sunk in one episode, rather than playing out subtly over the course of his subsequent work. We met a marvelous foil in GOP consigliere Ann Stark (well-played by Felicity Huffman), who disappeared after one episode, never to be seen again save for an occasional appearance in the "Previously on the West Wing" segment of the show. And we never did find out what happened to professional irritant Mandy Hampton.

Paying attention to The West Wing yielded few rewards this season. In fact, paying attention to the show often left us with a palpable sense of deja vu; after we watched the episode The Stackhouse Filibuster, many of us realized... hey, we've seen that framing device before! On Sports Night! And that episode where Sam found out his father was having a decades-old affair sure was compelling. Almost as compelling as when we saw it before. On Sports Night!

Those weren't the only instances where we noticed the cross-show recycling. We don't have a problem with re-using good ideas, but such blatant self-copying makes us suspect that the people responsible for the show don't think we're worth the effort to come up with a new twist. Guess we'll know for sure when William Macy shows up as a ratings consultant during sweeps.

We stuck with The West Wing this season because the first season was good. But we have to ask ourselves -- why continue watching a show that has so little regard for storytelling, or makes so little effort to stretch beyond plot devices already road-tested on other shows? Why should we care?

There's a lot of television out there to watch, and much of it is crafted with loving attention to characterization and plot. These shows respect the story, and they respect the audience experiencing that story. In the end, the reason both The West Wing and Star Trek: Voyager get the nod for Biggest Disappointment is because they no longer respected the stories they were telling or, by extension, us.

Additional contributions to this article by: Lisa Schmeiser.


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