Triumph of the West Wing

A first class soap opera is restoring our faith in politics. But how far can it go?
August 19, 2001

when president Josiah "Jed" Bartlett (Martin Sheen) cursed God in Latin in the finale of the second season of the US television drama The West Wing, over 20m Americans watched the show. The occasion for his rant was the funeral of one of his closest colleagues whose death was marked by a moment of silence in the California State Assembly. (Yes, the real one.)

This mingling of the real and fictional would have been familiar to most American followers of The West Wing. Al Gore visited the set during the election, and the New York Times recently ran an editorial urging the Bush government to adopt policies that have found favour in Jed Bartlett's White House. Indeed, in the last election, polls showed that more Americans would have voted for Bartlett than for either Bush or Gore.

In short, West Wing fever has spread through the US. It even on occasion outstrips ER in the ratings. In Britain, its viewing figures are less staggering. The pilot episode attracted a large audience, but after that the figures fell off sharply, according to Channel 4's chief executive, Michael Jackson. Consequently the show was moved to an 11pm slot, where it attracts about 1m viewers. Yet many of those who do watch the show in Britain (including many political insiders) still adore it-Channel 4 was besieged with protests when it considered dropping a few episodes from the first series. This is despite the fact that the show has a tendency to add rousing music to the soundtrack when any of the characters launch into a speech about the greatness of the US or the sanctity of the presidential office. This is hard to take for viewers who are a) not American, and b) more accustomed to seeing their politics made fictional in the form of satire as in Yes, Minister.

But, though the packaging of The West Wing is ribboned with American self-righteousness, once you rip open the package, there is a great deal of complexity, wit and substance to be found.

Neatly described by its creator, Aaron Sorkin, as "the two minutes before and after what you see on CNN," The West Wing grapples, sometimes quite brilliantly, with real political conflicts without over-simplifying. For this reason, there is enormous support for the series in Washington. Sona Virdi, an assistant to Jesse Jackson, cites a recent episode on Aids drug funding in Africa. She says, "Not many people really knew about the intricacies of the US government's involvement in helping African nations pay lower prices for Aids drugs, but the show... educated millions. This makes our job a lot easier when talking about these issues with people around the country."

The West Wing has also taken on such topics as hate crimes, capital punishment, school vouchers and mandatory minimum sentences. But, of course, the reason the series reaches out way beyond the ranks of liberal policy wonks is because of its wit, its characters and its storylines. The show focuses on census laws or campaign finance reform for one episode or two or even three. However, like any good soap opera these issues are wrapped in a narrative which pulls people along for other reasons: will the Press Secretary, CJ, and the reporter Danny, get together; will deputy communications director, Sam Seabourn, continue his relationship with Laurie the law student/call girl; will Sam's boss, Toby, ever smile; will we see any cracks in the marvellous friendships of the people who work together to run the world?

Of all television's meagre offerings, only Frasier can compete with The West Wing for the intelligence of its humour.

President: CJ, on your tombstone it's gonna read: Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

CJ: Okay, but none of my visitors are going to be able to understand my tombstone.

President: 27 lawyers in the room, anybody know post hoc ergo propter hoc? Josh?

Josh: Ah, post, after hoc, ergo, therefore... After hoc, therefore something else hoc.

President: Thank you. Next.

What Sorkin has done is to create a fantasy White House team and placed it in the world of real politics. And by revealing the real conflicts and dilemmas of modern politics-usually debated only in private in the real world-he even makes politics intellectually stimulating again.

But how far is Aaron Sorkin willing and able to take this? For a while he can juggle storylines so that the characters can be lovable, upright human beings each with one eye on the polls. In the pilot episode, for instance, White House staffers discuss what to do about the 1,200 Cubans who are making their way to the US coast. Once they land, Sam and Toby agree, they can't be sent back because it would lose Bartlett the Cuban vote in areas such as Dade County. "To say nothing of the fact that it's wrong," Josh interjects. "Plus that," Sam concedes.

But it's not always possible for political expediency and morality to go hand in hand and The West Wing's most gripping moments occur when the two are at odds. So, how far is Sorkin willing to lead his characters into the muck of US politics? In season two-now only on E4 in Britain-we see one of the staffers stab old friends in the back. Does that signal a shift? How can Sorkin continue to walk the tightrope between showing the flaws within US politics while maintaining a mood of liberal patriotism? And how far will the network bosses allow him to go on issues such as the lobbying power of big companies with big advertising budgets.

For now, though, the White House of The West Wing seems like a good place to be. Not without its ups and downs, its idiocies, compromises and defeats, yet ultimately a place where people go to work because goshdarnit they want to make the world a better place. A place which, in a post-Clinton world where cynicism equals political savvy, it's a pleasure to have an hour each week to lose oneself in smart, snappy fantasy-realism.