Time was you watched a TV drama, the whole thing got wrapped up in a hour. Perry Mason would meet a client, Dr. Kildare would get a case, Charlie would call the Angels, and sixty minutes later, everyone could go to bed. But in the eighties, things changed. In Wiseguy and Hill Street Blues and other the other Steven Bochco shows, we got arcs–a story might get drawn out over several episodes. Then in the late nineties, along came David Chase with The Sopranos, where we learned to stop thinking about single episodes, and got accustomed to thinking about whole seasons full of interlocking episodes and, as we have seen most recently in Mad Men, the series from Chase’s disciple Matthew Weiner, ongoing themes. These shows have the habit of wrapping up their seasons with a crescendo. In the last episode of Mad Men, for example, Don and Betty broke up, and the agency dissolved and reformed.
What’s going on in Washington these days is the performance of a David Chase-like script. From Dick Cheney to Maureen Dowd to Jon Stewart to Saturday Night Live, President Obama has been criticized for doing nothing, or worse, dithering. This seems reminiscent of the complaints Sopranos fans had about the mid-season episodes when nobody got whacked, or mid-year screams of Mad Men fans when little happened except the mounting of angst.
But tomorrow, President Obama is going to finally announce his Afghanistan plan, and the Senate is finally going to take up the health care bill, meaning that we’ll likely have some kind of health care bill passed before the State of the Union address. (“On Afghanistan, all President Obama has to do is explain why doing more now will ultimately cost less. On health care, all he has to explain is why doing less now would ultimately cost more,” as Rick Klein cleverly puts on ABC’s The Note.) Assuming these loose ends tie up as neatly as Phil Leotardo getting shot and Tony reviewing the menu at Holsten’s, then we all owe Obama a big reassessment. As Jacob Weisberg argues in Newsweek, “If, as seems increasingly likely, Obama wins passage of a health-care-reform bill by that date, he will deliver his first State of the Union address having accomplished more in his first year than any other postwar American president. This isn’t an ideological judgment. It’s a neutral assessment of his emerging record.” Along with passing health care legislation that has eluded every president since Harry Truman, Obama will have stopped the onset of Great Depression II with his stimulus package, and replaced “Bush‘s unilateral, moralistic militarism with an approach that is multilateral, pragmatic, and conciliatory.” And found time along he way to hold a beer summit, throw out the first ball at the All Star game, and get a dog, we might mention.
David Chase couldn’t have scripted it better.