“The West Wing” is one of the greatest television shows ever made, and for my money, it’s probably the single most entertaining. When it clicked, it could do absolutely everything that was within a TV show’s power to do. Aaron Sorkin writes the hell out of the dialogue. There are about eight or nine characters with as much depth as any other series lead. The plot makes tax codes and trade disputes riveting and the comic interludes are perfectly placed. The show wears its lefty politics on its sleeve, but it’s also pretty good about not being preachy.
“The West Wing” is also often a problematic show, no matter your politics. One thing common to all of Sorkin’s TV work (“Sports Night” being the chief other example) is that the episodic structure is often too neat, so well put together that you can paradoxically see the seams. The show will throw three plots at you, and at some point about halfway through the episode the thematic connection becomes apparent. However subtle it is, it’s never quite subtext. The show never hits you over the head. “It’s too well put together!” is kind of a silly quibble, but a television show reminding you how well it is written is, tacitly, also reminding you that it was, after all, written. And being reminded once every three episodes or so that “YES, YOU’RE WATCHING A TELEVISION SHOW” is a little jarring.
It’s easy to make fun of every great work of art, and Sorkin’s style lends itself to mockery particularly well. It’s not really a problem in the vast majority of episodes, but “The West Wing’s” distinct visual and dialogic language makes it obvious when the episode doesn’t have much to say. I can only think of five or six episodes during Sorkin’s entire tenure that came off as formulaic, but all the walk-and-talks, the simple conversations that have about five minutes’ worth of quips and SAT words flying around the corridors of power make up a hyperstylistic tone that makes those episodes so much more grating. I realize the criticism really boils down to “There were like five episodes that were only pretty good,” but I have high expectations for the best network show of the decade.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to talk about “The West Wing” without at least addressing the Sorkin-less seasons. Season five was not very good, and there’s no way around that. Sorkin’s successors betrayed much of the characterization the show had spent four seasons building. The plot points veered toward the melodramatic. The opposition was demonized. But credit the writers for bouncing back in seasons six and seven. Though none of them approached Sorkin’s cleverness or virtuosity (and really, who can write dialogue like he does?), their deconstruction of major characters and subversion of the idealism that was fundamental to Sorkin’s version of the show was fascinating to watch, even if some of season five’s weaknesses occasionally still popped up.
Oh, and also, during Juwan Howard’s cameo, they made him say he went to Duke. So screw them.
To some, “The West Wing” is a by-product of the left-wing extremism hijacking Hollywood. The show, which depicted seven years behind the scenes of a passionate, productive Democratic White House, was disparaged as an explicit expression of creator Aaron Sorkin’s prominent liberal bias. And it’s true that the Bartlett administration is at times deeply inspired by the glory days of the Clinton administration, except embarrassing hiccups like that affair with Monica what's-her-name never occur.
To me, and admittedly, most of TV’s critical zeitgeist, that’s a ridiculous oversimplification. Sure, Bartlett was a Democrat, and sure, the conservative point of view is hard to find inside a left-leaning White House. But to me, the program was that rare political construction that managed to separate itself from party boundaries. In an era before partisanship and gridlock became so disgustingly pronounced, the show depicted characters on both sides of the aisle as selfless individuals motivated by their core beliefs about the best course to take the country.
Staff members in the Bartlett White House went out of their way to consider all sides of an argument, making their final decisions based not upon party affiliation or political convenience, but on the maximum amount of benefit to the country as a whole. Over their two terms in office, our friends on Pennsylvania Avenue often reversed their positions after closely reviewing the facts. They expanded their horizons by hiring Ainsley Hayes, one of their most vocal conservative critics, because she was “smart.” And after his daughter’s kidnapping, they advised President Bartlett to invoke the 25th amendment and cede temporary control of the White House to a Republican Speaker of the House, a move that the neo-conservative writer’s room of “24” would’ve considered political suicide. Even in the post-Sorkin era, the show remained decidedly idealistic, a universe in which negative ads were truly a sign of desperation and a live-over-the-airwaves appeal to voters made the difference between a concession speech and a surprise rebound in New Hampshire.
In a scene from an early episode of “The West Wing,” Donna, assistant to Josh, the White House deputy chief of staff, wonders why the President won’t give the federal budget surplus back to the citizenry so she can buy a DVD player. She promises, promises, promises to buy American.
“We don’t trust you,” Josh says.
“Why not?” Donna asks, dismayed.
“We’re Democrats,” he replies. “You shouldn’t have voted for us.”
No politically motivated equivocation. No attempt to retain a potential supporter by sugarcoating the truth. Just a quick, educational snippet of party platform analysis, and it’s back to work for their country. If only Washington really ran so smoothly.
Disclaimer: I have a continuing relationship with NBCUniversal, which aired “The West Wing” during its original broadcast run.