There are two reasons I felt compelled to write about Aaron Sorkin’s seminal series about life in the White House. One, I recently wrote about Sorkin’s film, The American President, which was the really the precursor to The West Wing. Secondly, the ATX Television Festival honored the show a few weekends ago by reuniting the cast as well as the producers for a panel.
My introduction to The West Wing was a few years ago, something I spoke about in my post about The American President. I became obsessed with all things Sorkin after discovering The Newsroom. For some reason though, I associated The West Wing with old people. I know that sounds dumb, but there’s really no classier way to put it. I associated the show with an older audience and didn’t think I would be able to relate.
I’m happy to say I was wrong – not necessarily about the show being associated with an older audience, but about it not being accessible. I, of course, like others my age, discovered the show long after it was on the air, on Netflix. I meant to only watch one episode, but that’s not what happened. I watched them all…not in one sitting of course, but let’s just say, it was over the course of a few weeks. I watched Bartlet and Josh get shot in the season one finale and in the same week, saw CJ get a death threat well into season 3.
No one really talks about it, but there is a major difference between consuming a show all at once and waiting from week to week to see what’s going to happen. Being 24, I still clearly remember the hysteria I felt, rushing home to watch the Gilmore Girls finale. Now, we take in multi-season television shows in sometimes a week or less. It’s sort of like a drug. We all tell ourselves we’re only going to watch an episode or two but that never quite happens because it’s right there and WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.
I found this pattern particularly interesting in the case of The West Wing. I quite literally couldn’t stop. It was a problem. The real world was just less interesting than the lives of Josh, Toby, CJ, Sam, Donna and President Bartlet. Aw, if only people really spoke like that. I recently decided to revisit the show and was struck by the relevance of the show today. True, they don’t have cell phones. Okay, they do, but really OUTDATED CELL PHONES. With the recent Democratic Presidential Primaries, I was struck by how much of Bernie Sanders’ platform is spewed by Bartlett and in later seasons, Matt Santos.
In the midst of my binge, I called my dad, who of course already knew I loved the show. I told him I was re-watching it and he told me he had no interest. When I asked why, he told me that the show was too depressing. Given that most of the show was made during the Bush years, he found it unrealistic and upsetting now. I never had a problem with the optimism and idealism which the show displayed as I was a Sorkin lifer, but my dad, having a degree in political science and having seen many more presidents than I have, couldn’t handle it.
I, however, completely disagree. Through shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing, I acquired an interest in politics and news, two subjects which I had little to no interest in before. The purpose of entertainment to me is twofold: obviously, we watch for entertainment value, but beyond that, I go to the movies and watch TV to be provoked intellectually. I believe that entertainment has the power to change perspectives, to help us walk in someone else’s shoes. Aaron Sorkin’s work does that for me. During the ATX panel, Bradley Whitford who played Josh spoke to this, saying…
“No human being will ever again write 22 one-hour episodes for four years – beautifully written, complicated verbally, complicated personally, funny, about something, as 11 feature films a year. It is extraordinary. It will never, ever happen again!”
On a superficial level, The West Wing is just a joy to watch. The character dynamics are fun and the dialogue is fast. The Josh-Donna of it all doesn’t hurt either.
But, with each episode I consumed, I learned something new. I was not a political science major and so, many of the problems the characters had in the White House were foreign to me. The Josh and Donna dynamic was partly a way for the audience to understand these big concepts – Donna would ask Josh a question and he would answer in simple terms.
I also started listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast hosted by Joshua Malina (who plays Will Bailey in later seasons) and Hrishikesh Hirway. I, at first, thought this might be a waste of time, but after 12 hours in a car listening to every episode, I have a different opinion. Joshua and Hrishi discuss the show with humor and don’t always sing the show’s praises. In addition, they’ve had several guests on the show, one of which was Eli Attie, who in addition to being one of the writers for The West Wing, was also one of Al Gore’s speechwriters during the 2000 election.
The show is ambitious which is what I love most about it. Looking at today’s television, I’m struck by just how special The West Wing was. It was a network show which succeeded in having opinions, compelling character drama, and also just being plain entertaining. There are, of course, moments that feel outdated. However, quality writing and acting stand the test of time…even if Sorkin may repeat himself sometimes. Millennial problems, amiright?
All seven seasons of The West Wing are available on Netflix….so, um, you should watch now….What’s next? 😉