“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful individuals can change the world.” So said fictional President Bartlet in the series ‘The West Wing’ (2001 – 2007). The series is named after the administrative wing of the White House (the western wing) where the offices of the President of the United States – the Oval Office – and his close aides are located.
The series, created by Aaron Sorkin, was a massive hit and received numerous awards. In its roughly 7-year-run, it charts two terms of President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet. He and his close aides (Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff, Press Secretary etc.), form the principle characters of the series.
Prima facie, ‘The West Wing’ is just another office series, just that this office is running the world, so to speak. Yet, as we know, with great power comes great responsibility. The President and his staff work tirelessly to bring better policies to America and its citizens while fighting tooth and nail with the Congress and the Senate. The series gives us multiple perspectives of legislation, execution, and communication of policy. There are also some internal and external threats the President deals with.
The series is so authentic that Barack Obama reportedly used some dialogues and speeches from it in his first campaign during the primaries of the Democratic Party. The creators of the series roped in retired and working political operatives and staffers from previous administrations for their perspective. As a result, though fictional, the series plays itself out like a simulation of the real world.
All’s well so far, but now, here’s the problem.
Aaron Sorkin is famous for his sharp dialogues and moralistic approach. Simply put, he is a hopeless idealist who writes well. However, it won’t be far-fetched to mention that he repeats his own tropes more than often in anything he writes. As a result, ‘The West Wing’ characters, from President Bartlet to the most insignificant guest appearance, are ‘people of principles’, taking the ‘holier than thou’ approach throughout the series.
There is an all-round stink of pretentiousness; each character claims to have a moral high ground and yet the series portrays all of them as flawed humans. In the same breath, as Sorkin mocks the Republicans, our principle characters are shown to be recognising the true goodness in them. Under the garb of politics, all characters with their ‘high morals’ come across largely as hypocrites of the highest level.
Of course, no character can, or in fact, should be perfect. However, Sorkin’s unnecessary moralistic approach robs them of reality and paints a dreamy picture in the minds of audience while reality is far different. His characters are closer to the ‘ideal’ image which the normal audience, who also vote in real life, would love to see in the White House, but don’t. It is a classic subversion of reality.
I can trace this to real-life Democratic Party’s unbridled approach of humanism. Known for its soft approach and excessive humanism at the cost of non-action, Democrats themselves are a confused lot. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the firebrand young Democratic Congresswoman famously said that “Oh God! In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”
The young wing of the Democrats leans more towards socialist ideas than the so-called ‘harm-no-one centrism’ of old guards such as Joe Biden or even Hillary Clinton. As if on cue, ‘The West Wing’ even brands many (fictional) Democrat leaders/representatives in the Congress or Senate as ‘stupid’ just because they are not in the line with the principles of our lead characters.
Similarly, Republicans in reality cry foul over the Democrats’ coast-to-coast elitism and fan the sentiment of negligence, and even conspiracy theories in rural and mid-western America. Unfortunately, the series uses this to portray them as evil but never introspects why.
Despite being set in the early 2000s, ‘The West Wing’ fails to take into account the failure of USA as a democracy, which had just seen the worst of its electoral system in an election which brought George W. Bush to power. The series takes much from the Clinton administration through themes like balanced budget and progress in Arab-Israeli peace. Yet, even though it coincided with 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was expected to talk about, or at least toe a storyline which addressed erstwhile issues, the series rarely gets anything contemporary in and refuses to get off its high horse.
‘The West Wing’ creates a narrative of America no different from the characters themselves – “yes, we are a flawed nation but what great morals and ideals we have” and so on. ‘Liberal’ viewers get the idea that these fictional characters would do a better job in the White House than then President Bush. Compared with the different narratives we have around India as a nation, ‘The West Wing’s narrative won’t be unfamiliar to our audience.
The success of the series lies in convincing people of that narrative. The series introduced American politics to the world and also to many Americans who, following the series, got more involved in political discussions. To the world, the series also highlighted fundamental issues which governments should ‘ideally’ deal with. ‘The West Wing’ showed Americans and the world what America could be. There is no better advertisement of America than ‘The West Wing’.
Americans have often struggled with the idea of having the next Abraham Lincoln or… well, the ideal President. Franklin Roosevelt was closer, while the untimely death of John F. Kennedy cut the dream short. Bill Clinton was almost there before the Monika Lewinsky scandal became public and shattered many American dreams. Obama was the next hope of America, who as a President managed to keep his public image untarnished.
This American struggle is put to rest in the fictional President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet, a Nobel Prize winner, multiple doctorate holder, and a most ethical and principled politician. What is there to not like about him? ‘The West Wing’ serves this hangover American image of President on a platter.
Despite its high handedness, ‘The West Wing’ is very well written and directed. All actors – Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Richard Schiff, John Spencer et al – play their parts to perfection. It is worth studying the craft of this series to see how a complex drama can be presented in an equally appealing and easily understandable fashion. Rarely does it so happen that a series with such complexity is presented with such finesse.
A real-life incident related to the series (and which is often narrated) goes like this: when she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton met Burmese politicians who told her that they referred to DVDs of ‘The West Wing’ to study ‘democracy’. With her first-hand experience of American democracy and the system, Hillary’s response sums it up. She said, “I think we can do better.” Perhaps this is the best appreciation and criticism of the series.
However, criticism should not deter readers from watching the series. Today’s times are difficult; the essence of American democracy has withered in the last decade or so. In the times of Trump, the series looks even better with its imbibed sense of morality. It is good to have a cocktail of idealism, morality, ethics, and an image of principled politicians in the times when reality is devoid of all. When reality is horrible, idealism is solace for many. Perhaps this is also a success of ‘The West Wing’.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.