Saturday, February 1, 2020

What I Learned from "The West Wing Weekly"

This is one of those moments where I'm going to use my blog to express something that only has tangential relevance to computer role-playing games. I just don't have anywhere else to express it. (Even the real-life alter-ego of Chet Bolingbroke doesn't participate in social media.) This doesn't take the place of, or delay, an article on the next RPG.

This week marks the final episode of my favorite podcast, "The West Wing Weekly," which covers one of my favorite television shows. The podcast started in 2016. I didn't discover it until last fall, and for the last half-year, it has kept me entertained on the way to and from my new job. I'm not sure what I'll do without it.

I hope most of my readers have watched The West Wing, but if not, it's on Netflix and well worth a watch. Though the pilot is more than 21 years old, it seems more relevant today than ever. More important, I'm convinced that if you could make a list of the 20 best television actors of the last 20 years, 10 of them will have been regulars on The West Wing, and another 8 will have appeared as guest stars. Everybody on the show (with one exception that I'll leave unnamed) is incredible. If there was a character in the script who had two words to say, they managed to find someone who absolutely nailed those two words.

The television series ran for 7 years and 156 episodes, and "The West Wing Weekly" covered an episode a week with analysis, background information, and a lot of humor. As the podcast developed and became popular, the co-hosts were able to get writers, producers, and actors from the show, plus real-life political figures, as guest commenters. The final show, recorded live in Los Angeles, had 30 cast and crew members from The West Wing in attendance, including creator Aaron Sorkin and actors Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Marlee Matlin, Jimmy Smits, and Martin Sheen. 

Emceeing the entire thing was Hrishikesh Hirway, a name I didn't know five months ago and will now never forget. When the whole thing was over, I went home and made an impromptu speech to Irene about how much I admire him. I repeat the crux of it here. Hirway isn't a "regular guy," exactly--he's a talented composer who went to Phillips Exeter and Yale and already had several successful podcasts--but he certainly wasn't famous. Yet when he was thinking about show business, he decided to write West Wing actor Joshua Malina for advice. He didn't know Malina, but they'd both gone to Yale, and why not? The worst he could do is not respond. Malina did respond and they became friends. Later, Hirway got Malina's advice on moving to Los Angeles. And still later, he convinced Malina to lend his name and fame to Hirway's new podcast idea: obsessively analyze the ins and outs of his favorite television show. Five years later, the guy is standing on a stage with more than two dozen of the best actors, writers, and directors working in television, including Martin freaking Sheen.

Irene, who I thought was only half-listening, then stunned me by saying, "Well, isn't that what you do?" I couldn't even fathom what she was talking about. I thought she was making fun of me. But she explained: "On your blog. You started talking about your hobby, and now you're always talking with game developers and fans." She was right. The games I write about aren't as well-known as television shows, and their authors aren't as famous as Hollywood stars, but it was still idiotic of me not to have made the comparison. I get a couple thousand readers a week and a few hundred comments. I've been personally congratulated by Lord British. The co-creator of the Quest for Glory series sometimes comes by to chat.

My point here is not to elevate myself by comparing myself to Hirway and Malina and their podcast. Rather, it is to say that the podcast--which I often enjoyed more than the actual episodes they were based on--has emphasized for me that criticism is an art of its own. Although criticism owes its existence to some other original art, it need not be less interesting, less informative, or less insightful than that original art--indeed, at times it can be more so. I don't mean to suggest that my work always, or even ever, reaches such a level, but it's certainly a nice reminder that it can aspire to such a level, just as it did with more than several episodes of "The West Wing Weekly." What a great podcast, and what an uplifting message to carry us into my blog's 10th anniversary.

****

You can listen to "The West Wing Weekly" on its web site or wherever you get your podcasts.

And any CRPG fan would know that dweomer is a fourth word beginning with "dw."


44 comments:

  1. Seeing as there are no comments on this post yet, I'll take this opportunity to express my appreciation of your blog. I've been a reader for about a year now I believe, and I found your site when explicitly looking for forums or blogs about crpgs for inspiration. Though in my late thirties by now, I only started my journey in games development a couple of years ago, and your blog is absolutely perfect motivational material; Your meticulous presentation of games and their various mechanics has allowed me to know infinitely more than I could have found out through playing by myself. I'm not even interested in more than a fraction of the games here, but there is a wealth of interesting ideas in them that whet the imagination.
    So thank you for this treasure trove that you are amassing. I have recommended, and shall recommend it to anyone I ever meet with an interest in crpgs.

    Sincerely

    Niklas Björkeroth

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    1. I hope not to down the tone here, but I find that this comment is just perfect as it is. If there is one modern way to show appreciation without tainting the original tone, I'd do my "+1 like" here

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  2. You seem to think the podcast was greatly strengthened by its guests, so reinforcing that aspect of your blog may increase its apparent value for readers. I quite enjoyed that last interview you did, for instance.

    It's easy to see design decisions and think they were great or terrible ideas, but I bet it would be very instructive to find out, at least some of the time, why apparently bad (or brilliant) decisions were made. I think that might add a lot of depth to the criticism, not just observing that certain decisions were made, and how much you liked or didn't like them, but trying to find out the underlying thought process and design goals.

    Of course, that part would have to be treated carefully... saying "Feature X sucked, why the hell did you do that?" is probably not ideal interviewing technique. :)

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    1. I'm not normally a fan of digressions in content, or guests - I come to see the person who always writes the blog writing more of the sort of entries that made me read the blog. I often skip podcasts that decide to derail their regular output for an interview.

      Chet's interviews are mostly okay though, because they're fairly tightly confined to the topics that he's recently covered, and aimed at answering specific questions that were raised during his personal experience. The Paragon one was pretty great, for instance.

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  3. I'm vaguely interested in watching West Wing, but from what I've seen and read it feels a bit...Utopian? Sanitised?

    I've been recommended Veep as 'good watching' - not sure if that's any different though.

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    1. I don't know if "Utopian" is the right word. Maybe "idealistic." The fictional world has all the same problems as the real world but the characters are pretty universally well-intentioned. Even the opposition is generally portrayed as well-meaning people who just have different values.

      I don't think Veep even compares. It's completely cynical.

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    2. Veep is backwards West Wing. They're very different in tone.

      The pitch of The West Wing is: "What if our leaders were genuinely our best and brightest minds, motivated entirely by a desire to serve our nation and make it the best it could be, with an openness to new ideas and a love of education? Although they're still, ultimately, flawed humans."

      The joy is in the intelligence. The conversations they have are clever, educated, nuanced. Showrunner Aaron Sorkin has a love of language and fills them with allusion, rhetoric, poetry and passion.

      It's not conducted with naivety. Sorkin is well aware that politics doesn't measure up to this mark. The purpose is to illustrate that it *could* be, and what that would look like, and how we could be approaching our national problems. It's a tone that the Obama era very much consciously responded to, if not necessarily achieving all its aspirations.

      That said, Sorkin's progressivism only goes so far. He's routinely terrible at presenting women in his shows - CJ Cregg is the high watermark for him, thanks largely to Alison Janney's performance in the role, and he frequently comes back to the idea that great women exist to inspire great men. He's a believer in statistics, but inclined to underestimate people's lived experience of oppression and discrimination and overestimate their ability to overcome it. And he's a foreign-policy interventionist, in favour of using America's power actively to police the world, which is not an indefensible position but one which for Sorkin starts with "let's do good, then worry about the consequences" without allowing for how history and culture makes "doing good" a much murkier proposition than he makes out.

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    3. Thanks for the insights, guys.

      I find it a bit hard to get into the glossier political or police procedurals these days - involves suspending disbelief in a way I'm not altogether comfortable with.

      But there's always space for some feel good programming that allows an escape from some of the unpleasant truths of life, so I might float this as an option to watch with my better half.

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    4. You can safely judge it on its first episode. If you see nothing you like there, it may not be for you.

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  4. Idealistic fits well. More than that, it was just full of people doing the right thing, something that shouldn't be idealistic, but seems a long way from where we are lately.

    I was always struck by how every character seemed to say that thing you wished you had said at the time.

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  5. Longevity and a willingness to be dismissed certainly count for something. I am in frequent correspondence with a number of people who were once legendary to me, just because I wrote to them and I’ve been around long enough that they could Googlestalk me and find out that I came to my admiration honestly.

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  6. Last year I finally made my dream come true and joined a team working on a single-player CRPG (after 10 years of developing failed MMOs and mobile games). I don't know if you ever get to our game, but if you ever do, I'll be greatly honored (and some other member of our team, too: after all, one of them introduced me to your blog all those years ago!).

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    1. Best of luck! Maybe you can drop the name of the CRPG once it becomes available? Newer games do make an occasional appearance here such as Lords of Xulima which was inspired by this blog and available on Steam and GoG.

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    2. The first of our games is already released, so I can freely name it: Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I only joined in time to contribute to Enhanced Edition and various patches, though.

      I hope my contributions to the sequel, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, will be more significant. BTW, our Kickstarter campaign is set to begin very soon ;)

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  7. Critiques are good but I´ve read your blog a long time and know that you don´t like criticism yourself. You delete people or have your lackeys flame them. Shame on you, hypocrite. Reform yourself. Let free speech reign

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    1. Free speech can destroy a blog if it's just for the sake of it.
      If well mannered, it spices it up, but some people seem to equalise free speech with being rude

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    2. @the line

      It actually just sounds like this isn't the place for you. It is however, the place for Chet, and me, and others. So we'll keep on enjoying our place, and you can keep on enjoying Codex :)

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    3. I've been reading this blog for a good few years now and I can't offhand remember any instances of this behavior from our addict. Except maybe the time he urged people to not vote for Trump. And ifirc he was pretty reasonable even then.

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    4. Well, in the spirit of free speech: kindly fornicate elsewhere.

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    5. I apologize for the bad joke but I feel like Chet has seems to have crossed the line sometime back..I'll be here all week folks...
      I've been reading the blog for a long time now but I have never seen a comment deleted that politely disagreed with Chet or his opinions. I have seen comments deleted that were rude or leading down to a flame war. In the end, we come to this blog to read the opinions of a man who likes jazz and loves his wife and is addicted to CRPGs and the tone we expect from the comments should reflect the same pleasant collegiality we see in his articles.

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    6. Hey guys, are we "flaming lackeys" now?

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    7. I suspect "the line" is the one and only commenter whose comments I have ever systematically deleted. If so, line, congratulations on managing not to work a reference to The Real Texas or The Superhero League of Hoboken into your rant. That must have taken real self-control.

      I am guilty of deleting that commenter's entire history--he knows why--as well as the occasional select comment that was clearly just a troll or a strong of obscenities. I have never once asked a reader to respond with a specific comment on my behalf.

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    8. Let me add: line, you'd have a much better point if you critiqued how I RESPOND to criticism rather than alleging that I censor it.

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    9. Flaming lackey reporting for duty, sir!

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    10. Here is a (in my opinion) good explanation, what free speech is about

      https://xkcd.com/1357/

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    11. There's no particular reason that a personal and largely apolitical blog about CRPGs requires a comment section of any sort, or requires any deeper criticism than ceasing to read it if you don't enjoy it. There's certainly on obligation on Chet to maintain his comments section as some sort of public forum for wide ranging opinions. He's welcome (and in some jurisdictions possibly obliged by law) to delete any comment which he doesn't want to take responsibility for publishing.

      Also, the regular reminder that this pattern of provocative comment -> censuring -> complaint about free speech is the opening steps of a number of alt-right community attacks aimed at recruitment and radicalisation, and good faith need not be assumed where a pattern exists.

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    12. Many people assume that "free speech" means that everybody everywhere has to entertain them on anything they want to talk about. You can't scream obscenities at 3AM without a visit from the cops in most neighborhoods, and blog owners definitely don't have to put up with people starting drama (or really, any conversation they don't feel like entertaining) in their comment section.

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    13. I was going to write a long post about what free speech is really about, but it would be repeating the XKCD comic.

      I'll just add that,yes I find the Addict fairly sensible to criticism. So I am, and most other people I know.

      In that I find the classic "How to win friends and influence people", fairly spot-on.

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    14. I'm very late to the party here, but I would argue that the comments section of Chet's Zelda post is Exhibit A in how Mr. Line's argument doesn't hold water.

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  8. You've kept me entertained on my way to my job a couple of times, too. Whenever there's a new entry on a weekday morning, really. If not, I'm reading the comments.

    I really don't care that much if something is art or not or how someone grades something. The important thing is that you create something that entertains a lot of people, and hopefully you have fun doing it.

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  9. This is a smart post re: criticism as art. Many, if not most, of your posts are more enjoyable, thoughtful, and smarter than the games you are discussing. It is the same with book/movie/game reviews.

    There's no way I'm going to play the majority of the games you discuss and the ones I have played, I'm not going to play again, but I enjoy reading your criticism of those games. It's focused my own thoughts about playing games and what makes a good game, and how that has changed for me over the years.

    You approach all the games with an open mind and treat them as respectfully as they treat their audience. Even the ones you don't like, especially the ones you don't like, you treat honestly. You explain exactly why a particular game is bad, and are honest that sometimes it's just your taste. And importantly, you don't spare games that insult the player.

    I've been reading this blog since 2011. I found it looking for a discussion of Wizardry 1. It was on my mind, and I had no one to discuss it with. Your blog fulfilled my need and more. I've been here ever since.

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  10. CRPG fans would also know that that word is spelled "dweomer."

    There is also "dweeb," an unattractive or inept person, though not sure if that would count as it's just a portmanteau of "dwarf" and "feeb(le)."

    If we include archaic words, there's "dwale," another name for belladonna, and "dwine," to pine or waste away.

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  11. If you need a new podcast, I highly recommend revolutions:

    https://www.revolutionspodcast.com/

    Goes through various world revolutions in a highly entertaining manner. His previous podcast on the history of rome is also excellent, but you have to like Roman history obviously.

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    1. Seconded. And seconded with starting at Revolutions. His History of Rome is his "learning how to podcast" show. Revolutions is more professional overall.

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  12. "I didn't discover it until last fall, and for the last half-year, it has kept me entertained on the way to and from my new job. I'm not sure what I'll do without it."

    I'll validate your parallel by saying that I read your blog almost exclusively during my daily commute.

    I still need to catch up with all of the 2016-2018 posts, no risk of running out of content anytime soon.

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  13. Hmmm, from the outside looking in (not being in the US), Free Speech usually appears to by the cry of the religious or racial bigot (who'll often use that same platform to rail against any form of gun control law).

    For the record, another nice post Chet!

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    1. That's primarily because the US tradition of free speech is so deeply ingrained that those are the only people who regularly need to invoke it. A lot of practices common in the world (legally enforced rating systems, for example) as a whole are quite literally illegal in the US.

      Pretty much the only times views are regularly suppressed through legal means (as opposed to "nobody takes this moron seriously" in this modern era are extreme bigotry (who throw a fit at anyone who can hear them) and extremely non-conformist religious/social/economic philosophies (who usually just go to the courts and win instead of bellowing).

      This has been a serious problem with deceit in politics - specific examples don't belong here, but there's been many examples of politicians trying (and often succeeding) at falsely labeling opposition groups as white supremacists - because we don't have strong mechanisms to shut it down.

      On the whole, however, the general consensus is that censorship laws are far too easy to abuse to ever risk implementing them.

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  14. I bloody hate Sorkin's liberal view as something that is in the middle of good spirited people. No. Politics are a war between people that want to oppress and people that try to survive, and Sorkin directly denies, deletes loads of voices with his very blind, very "let's not be too liberal", very simplistic view of social questions. At least nowadays The West Wing can be seen as laughable, with the best part being some of its actors believing that they are good political commentators. Sorry. I just hate it.

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    1. Did you hate-watch all 7 seasons?

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    2. I honestly don't know how someone concerned enough about politics to have those views could have missed that the point of West Wing isn't to suggest that this *is* how politics is *currently* done, but rather to suggest an attitude to take *into* politics to improve it - an attitude of constant questioning of received wisdom using both evidence and creativity, an attitude of genuinely wanting to improve the nation for everyone, an attitude of respecting and elevating intelligence and education without shutting out those who don't have the opportunities to acquire that.

      Sorkin doesn't portray the results perfectly because he's imperfect himself, and yes, his progressivism is a fairly insular middle-class white male progressivism that undersells the experience of other demographics, but I can't take issue with the idea that politics could be better if good people gifted with intelligence and education engaged with it earnestly and selflessly.

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  15. That Irene woman sounds like a smart person, better keep her around! We're all benefitting from her being OK with your addiction - and occasionally she drops a pearl of wisdom like the one reported here, that I cannot think but improves your blog.
    As a long-time reader of your blog, please express my appreciation and admiration of her support for your unique undertaking.

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  16. I just want to say your blog has been one of the brighter things in my life for years. I am no longer a frequent reader, but I know where to find something good to read here when I need some cheering up. Thank you so much for your art!

    - Adam

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  17. I have never watched the show. But I listened to an in-depth review by Chapo Trap House which was engrossing. https://youtu.be/MW30Zg2PjVI

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I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

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Also, Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

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