The West Wing was very much of its time. It premiered at the tail end of the Clinton administration, and reached its cultural zenith at the end of a decade of peacetime for America. What happened in the interim — and even more-so in the early seasons of the show — was a much more rose-tinted version of American politics than we had seen before...and definitely more than we've seen since.
The Aaron Sorkin-helmed political drama centers on fictional President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet and his staff. From workplace romance to international crises, the show was everything optimistic audiences were looking for as the Clinton years came to a close and the Bush administration began to change America in a big way. During the first four years of Bush, when the show was still on-air, it served as a form of idealistic escapism for people who were unhappy with the reality of American governance. To say the show was a cultural touchstone during its seven year run is an understatement: it became so engrained into the cultural lexicon that politicians themselves began cribbing its dialogue.
The West Wing most definitely favors "good" men, idealism, and the ability of C.J. Cregg's version of "The Jackal" to diffuse even the realest of political snafus — that's one of the things that makes it such a pleasure to watch. But is this idealism always a positive thing?
THIS WEEK'S TV SERIES: The West Wing (1999 - 2006)
Ned Hepburn: I think the idealism ultimately works to the show's advantage. It's probably the most fully realized of Sorkin's TV work. It may be a little gung-ho and heavy handed at times, but that's just part of the show's charm — The West Wing is supposed to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I just think that people have become awfully jaded in the 15 years since the show first aired. "So he created empathetic, well-rounded characters, big deal" — that's such a depressing way to feel. It may be at times saccharine or overtly earnest but at least it's unapologetic.
Sorkin started out writing plays and it shows in both the characters and their dialogue. It's also written about a very important guy, the kind of guy who could effectively say one wrong word and lose an ally, so the alternative would be something really serious. Instead Sorkin made a big ol' golden retriever of a show, and who doesn't love a sweet, slobbery golden retriever to greet them at the end of a long day?
Brandon Wetherbee: The idealism in The West Wing isn't exactly the problem. It's one of the reasons the show is watchable more than a decade after its premiere. What's absurd is the level of seriousness of each and every action, combined with the idealism.
A speech about 'standing up for the little guy' and 'the possibilities of tomorrow' and 'the belief if your fellow man' is maybe needed once or twice a year, not once or twice an episode. If the speeches were a little toned down, if the consequences were a little more realistic, it may be more enjoyable. The idealism seeping through every scene is great on paper but coupled with the serious level of life, it's almost reaching prime time soap opera territory. Life isn't like that. No one's life is like that.
What do you think? Is The West Wing a representation of the America we wish we lived in? Did that America ever even exist — and could it? Do you find the show too idealistic or do you love escaping into the Bartlet administrations world of good men and justice?