Revisiting The West Wing: A Stirring, Comforting Fantasy

Catching up with the acclaimed political drama (now streaming on Netflix)

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching a lot of The West Wing on Netflix. I had followed the show during its original broadcast run, but lost interest, perhaps coincidentally, just after Aaron Sorkin left the series he created. Now that the every single episode is available to view whenever I want, I’ve found myself sucked in, picking up where I left off. When I have some free time and want to decompress, I watch some West Wing. It’s almost therapeutic.

Still, all this bingeing raised some questions: Did the producers have some kind of crystal ball that gave them the ability to make shows seem contemporary when watched today? How could Josh not have realized that Donna was in love with him from the start? And, perhaps most important, Is The West Wing such an enjoyable show because it’s also an unrealistic show?

All but the show’s most fervent fans will admit The West Wing is hardly an honest depiction of how politics is practiced in the White House. Watching any one episode is enough to make that clear: Everyone involved genuinely seems to be working towards some idea of a greater good, even if those greater goods occasionally clash. Even the “villains” of the piece — usually, but not exclusively, Republicans, with the religious right popping up as bonus boogeymen when needed — have their own internal moral compass that protects them from the outright demonization.

On some level, The West Wing was clearly intended to be somewhat grounded in the real world; the show’s tendency to create plots built for maximum educational potential — with facts, figures and statistics filling discussions of policy and political intrigue to both bring viewers up to speed  — makes that abundantly, and often boringly, clear. For whatever reason, however, the “realism” of the scenarios in the series isn’t reflected in the characters that populate the world of the show.

It isn’t that Josh, Toby, CJ and Donna were idealistic, as such; you might expect that in a few politicians and policy wonks,  — even if much of the idealism may get gradually replaced by the self-centered cynicism on display in modern political fictions like House of Cards. No, what truly marked The West Wing‘s characters as fantasy figures was that they were so perfect. Their idealism was paired with a universe in which such an attitude made perfect sense, because things did tend to work out more often that not.

Situations where that wasn’t the case, and our heroes ended up meeting with some kind of failure or resistance, almost always proved to be temporary setbacks on the road to ultimate victory that would be the cause of some conflict, much angst-ridden self-reflection and the ultimate realization that they really were right, goshdarnit. Toby, facing a severe sentence for leaking classified information, is pardoned in the series finale because, Hey, his criminal actions came from good intentions, didn’t they?

I can only imagine what the show looked like to someone who wasn’t on board with The West Wing over-arching message that government was a great thing, and the more government, the better; even when Republicans were brought into the series to offer alternate viewpoints, they would eventually surrender or change their minds if they stuck around long enough. The show’s viewpoint came to win over any attempt at being fair and balanced just as Fox News was popularizing the term.

The West Wing worked so well because it was based on a particular fantasy: not that there are some good people in Washington, but that it is filled with them. That fantasy is as much part of the charm of The West Wing as the fast-paced dialogue and Martin Sheen’s wondrous ability to glower or charm.

The West Wing still appeals so strongly, I suspect, because it offers up a vision of a government that works, or at least actually has the country’s best interests in mind even when it fails, and a President who really is as smart and as caring as we want the Leader of The Free World to be. Both of those thoughts are very reassuring, especially considering the alternative offered by the reality. When it comes down to it, who wouldn’t want to watch that on a weekly basis?