A first class soap opera is restoring our faith in politics. But how far can it go?by Kamila Shamsie / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
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…