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20 years later, ‘The West Wing’ still holds up

staff note

Twenty years after it first premiered, “The West Wing” remains one of the most influential shows in modern TV history. The show not only set the standard for sky-high production budgets (around $3 million an episode) and pioneered the “walk and talk” technique, but it also inspired thousands of young liberals to take up politics and, for better or for worse, helped shape how they currently work within American institutions. In fact, some of the show’s biggest fans are former Obama administration staffers. A popular podcast entitled “The West Wing Weekly” underscores the lasting impact of the show, managing to draw in guests including Senators Tammy Duckworth and Bob Casey, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and South Bend, Ill., mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

I love “The West Wing,” sans the nearly-unwatchable, post-Aaron Sorkin season five. Binging it at the behest of like-minded friends at the beginning of the Trump presidency, it served as an excellent source of political escapism from the cruel and apathetic administration, a sentiment shared by countless other liberals, both in and out of government. The staffers in the Bartlett Administration care about institutional norms and integrity, and they want to use their immensely powerful roles as a force for good. The show has always been used as political escapism, initially designed to be a less scandal-ridden version of the Clinton Administration and later as the left’s counterweight to the Bush Administration. President Bartlett himself, a Nobel-prize winning economist, committed husband and walking encyclopedia, represents the antithesis of Bush, Clinton and Trump.

The first two seasons of the show are uniformly excellent, with Sorkin’s witty, smart and idealistic dialogue (sometimes to a fault) guiding an uber-talented cast. Fan-favorites C.J. Cregg (played by Allison Janey), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and, of course, Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) anchor an array of complex and well-realized characters.  “Two Cathedrals,” the second season’s finale, is my favorite episode of television ever. The episode’s shining moment, President Bartlett’s cathedral speech, is my favorite television moment. Sure, the show often reeks of self-righteousness, much like Sorkin’s other projects (I’m looking at you, “The Newsroom”), but when Sorkin’s writing works, it really works

After “Two Cathedrals,” the show loses a bit of steam, with subsequent Sorkin-led seasons suffering some issues in focus and consistency. The show goes off the rails in season five before recovering to deliver two compelling, campaign-driven seasons, led by superb performances from Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda as rival presidential candidates.

While the show has taken on a bit of a new glow in the Trump era, its flaws have also been further exposed in 2019. A lack of diversity is usually one of the main pieces of criticism rightly levied at the show, as mostly old, white men control the levers of power in the Bartlett Administration. Dulé Hill was the only Black main cast member throughout the show’s seven seasons, playing the President’s body man, Charlie Young. The show also faced backlash for its representation of female characters in positions of power, and eventually, it attempted to address these concerns in later seasons by making Cregg the White House Chief of Staff and adding Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) as Deputy National Security Advisor.

The show’s roadmap for Democrats in politics is also problematic. While at times, like in season five’s “Shutdown,” the show leans into the hardball politics that permeate modern day Washington, most of the show subscribes to the “Big Speech Theory of Politics,” wherein a moving speech can captivate the other party and generate compromise. The show’s idealism is reminiscent of Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” line. 

A perfect example of this occurs in season five episode “The Supremes,” in which Bartlett nominates both an intensely liberal and a conservative justice to the Supreme Court. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, an eerily similar situation arose in the Obama administration, but Republicans prevented Obama’s relatively moderate choice from even receiving a vote in the Senate, incorrectly citing an arcane Senate norm on SCOTUS nominations. The modern Republican Party regularly engages in obstructionism and bad faith politicking, which requires a more aggressive Democratic response. While some would argue that “The West Wing” is just a TV show and shouldn’t be expected to reflect political realities, Sorkin preached throughout the show about his method for beating the right. Sorkin’s political idealism breeds inaction and promotes unrealistic compromise with a largely unwilling party, at least on politically divisive issues.

Despite its flaws and general unevenness, “The West Wing” is a very good show. Like many others, I will be eternally grateful to it as a motivator for my interest in politics, even if political work may not be as glamorous or self-aggrandizing as it’s portrayed to be on “The West Wing.” Recognizing where the show gets it wrong — politically and artistically — is necessary if it is to have a lasting impact for another 20 years.

Jack Rubenstein is a Trinity sophomore and Recess culture editor.

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