The Relevancy of The West Wing: How a 21 Year Old Drama Became New Again
Through the pandemic and the summer months of free time stuck in our homes, my family and I took up watching and re-watching lots of different TV shows. One of the shows we watched that’s stuck out between Tiger King and Game of Thrones is the late ’90’s and early 2000’s political drama The West Wing. My family and I rewatched the show in the summer, what was my dad’s fifth or sixth time seeing the show through, and my first time watching it. I missed whole episodes and didn’t know what was going on most of the time, but the show drew me in and I’m watching it with purpose this time around.
Although it’s been over twenty years since the show began, for posterities sake, this article will contain spoilers.
The West Wing, if you haven’t heard of or watched it, is about the fictional Bartlet presidential administration and its senior staff. It follows the ups and downs of the day-to-day of running the White House, from comedic moments involving bureaucratic red tape to more realistic and sobering plot lines. There are well-written speeches, glorious debates, and passionate monologues packaged and sent by a cast of young, liberal, and easy-on-the-eyes Ivy-League staffers.
The show ran for seven seasons, following the administration through two terms and the beginnings of a new president. There was drama, comedy, romance, and always the well-recognized “walk and talk” scene of the senior staff roaming the walls of the West Wing while dolling out verbal blows. It is, quite literally, the blueprint for any modern political show or movie. You can’t get through a tv show or movie or play today based in American politics without a reference to the show or it’s writer, Aaron Sorkin.
So why is it still important today? Why did someone like me, so cynical and fearful of American politics, become so involved in such an idealistic show, and why does it matter?
To answer that, I’ll have to explain a little bit more about the show.
At its root, its biggest virtue and most popular criticism is its unfailing idealism. Even the show’s cynical, more realist character of Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman embodies this entertaining and comforting ideal. In the show, despite the constant congressional red-tape and headaches, the best man triumphs. The speeches given and the arguments made genuinely sway people. In the show, no matter how big the problem or how huge the mistake, the best speechwriter wins.
For example, the president Jed Barlet is discovered in the first season to have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, a fact that was kept from his staff and the public. Now, the viewers know the president is not impaired in his decision making by his condition, however the challenge in the show is convincing the American public that a president that withheld health information from them was fit for re-election.
And can you guess what happens? He wins, and holds a second-term.
The show is a Democrat’s dream; a president that’s educated and well-spoken with a staff that would walk on hot coals for him and each other, plus an opposition party that is almost always reasonable. There’s a sense of bi-partisanship even in episodes when they try to draw party lines for a source of conflict. People listen to each other, lines of loyalty and friendship run deep in the White House, and the conflict of the episode can be wrapped up with a wise speech and quote in latin from Martin Sheen.
This is just to say, it is a dream.
It’s not quite cynical for me to say this, anyone who understands the current political climate can see this show as a comfort and an ideal, with its first, second, and third goal to entertain viewers about American Politics.
So why, why, why is it important?
Precisely because of its unfailing idealism. Forgive me if I keep mentioning that word, but it’s the truth.
In a time when American politics has become so divided, sometimes rightfully so, the show serves as a two-fold message.
One, about the dangers of electoral politics as a whole and the very real ‘trap’ of neoliberalism.
In the entire time in the White House, there’s very little major change made. They nominate and confirm a Supreme Court judge, the pass some laws here and there related to gun-control and environmental protections, but I’d challenge any avid viewer of the show to name something they did that would have greatly impacted American life if it were real.
This isn’t to say this is a bad show and that all politics should be denounced as a worn-out stalemate, but it’s certainly an important sentiment to ponder. In an election year where everything is on the line, how can we expect monumental change when even in this bi-partisan liberal wonderland, almost nothing of that caliber was done?
It’s a message on the dangers of relying only on federal politics to make change, and ignoring local politics and community organizing to create that same change in a grassroots level.
Don’t leave yet though. I said I was drawn to and love this show despite my personal cynicism, so what’s the second part?
I believe the show can serve as a touchstone and a dream of what American politics could one day be. Sure, I know it won’t be quite as entertaining, the day-to-day as dramatically moving, the press-secretary as pretty, but it’s an ideal for a reason.
The show meets and exceeds its goal of entertaining its audience. It passes with flying colors and does more than invigorate viewers-it inspires. It’s energized thousands of viewers young and old, and I’m aware of an entire generation of political students inspired by the show’s characters to do what they do.
In a time where unrest is the only certainty, where change is the only constant, and where worry is the only calm, this show is more than an escape. It’s more than just a dream, it’s a goal. While it would be easy to jump to labeling the show as quixotic in its most fantastic moments, the very nature of its setup begs you to give it the benefit of belief and treat it as a romance instead.
This is just to say, it’s an escape. It’s a relief, it’s an ideal, it’s a world where good triumphs over evil and American government only exhibits symptoms of corruption instead of being the root. And I realize there are criticisms, all of them quite valid. The show is overwhelmingly white, it doesn’t treat its female characters the way they deserve (looking at you Donna Moss), and twisting the law is played off as a necessary evil.
It also showed a generation and a half what it meant to fight for something you believe in. It continues to show what government can be. It’s showed me loyalty, love, friendship, passion, and a healthy dose of latin phrases.
American government propaganda? Definitely. A comforting and contemporary drama? Also yes.
A fantasy where government can use its power to do good, despite systemic failings, where “no one, no one get’s left behind”? Why should it remain so?