Forget The Politics, Enjoy The Drama: The West Wing Celebrates 20 Years

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Cast of The West Wing (Photo by NBC)

With the debut of The West Wing on NBC in September, 1999, network television found the show that ushered in its own “Golden Age,” much like The Sopranos had done for cable.
The series about a fictional Democratic president and the functioning of his White House went on to earn critical acclaim and win a then record-tying 26 Emmy awards during its seven-year, 156-show run. Though it never finished higher than 10th in the yearly ratings, it drew, at its peak, 17.2 million viewers.

The strong ensemble cast, sharp dialogue (it mastered a technique called “walk and talk”), vital political debates and humanizing of the political class made the series one of the most acclaimed in television history. It shows up regularly on “all-time great” lists.

Genesis

The series would not have seen the light without The American President (1995). That romantic comedy starring Michael Douglas as widowed chief executive Andrew Shepherd provided the inspiration and impetus for the series. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has said in interviews that he wrote an excessively long script for the movie and was to draw on its plot elements, story ideas and even dialogue throughout his tenure as executive producer of the TV series.

Sorkin had visited the White House in researching his movie script, had met with President Bill Clinton’s top aides and had observed West Wing employees. In interviews he said that he had been impressed with the passion, idealism and dedication to serve the public that the staff exhibited. In his mind, the visit negated the popular perception that public servants and bureaucrats were self-serving, power-hungry and lazy; he noted that they worked long hours in cramped cubicles for a fraction of what they could earn in the private sector.

Sorkin, who wrote the scripts for virtually all of the first four seasons (he left before the start of the fifth year), had to be convinced to make the television series. Politics, he said in interviews, had never made for good dramatic television or ratings success. In dramatizing conflict, no matter what side of a controversial issue you came down on, you were bound to alienate 50 percent of the viewers. This was poison for a medium that depended on “eyes” to get the needed advertising dollars.

The West Wing, as originally conceived and for the first few episodes, was mainly concerned with the nuts and bolts of the staff functions. The president was supposed to be a minor player, rarely seen.

“I was the last one to join the cast and when I started, it was just a peripheral character—the focus was to be on the staff, not the First Family,” Martin Sheen (President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet) said in an interview, “When I did the pilot, my contract was for just three years and it was confined to maybe three or four episodes every season.”

Of course, Sheen’s screen presence increased, and Bartlet soon became the central character.

There is no doubt that Sorkin’s left-liberal sympathies set the tone for the show. In a piece in Vanity Fair magazine, Joy Press wrote: “The West Wing’s vision of a liberal, populist president…and his staffers served as a fantasy bubble for battered Democrats—an addictive weekly dose of idealism, collegiality, gravitas, and quasi-Shakespearean speeches delivered on a dime.”

The show hired consultants from both major parties who had worked in the White House to lend realism to the settings and procedures, and critique and develop ideas.

Inherent Drama

Ever since the expansion of presidential power that began with Franklin Roosevelt, the Oval Office in particular and the West Wing of the White House in general have assumed outsized roles in our politics.

It’s where big decisions are made that affect the lives of millions, shape the nation’s direction and determine war and peace. And as commander-in-chief with a nuclear arsenal at his command, the president has at his fingertips the fate of humanity.

Drama is inherent in the way that various competing political, social and economic forces try to influence the president and his staff in making decisions. And also in the way that staff intrigues play out in the making of policy.

The “King and his court”–and their equivalents throughout the ages—have provided dramatic inspiration for writers since the great Greek dramatists who lay the groundwork for the theater as we know it.

The West Wing dealt with palace intrigues, egos and ambitions, the compromises and backroom deals that are at the heart of “sausage making”—the crafting of policies and legislation.

Every television series reflects the ethos, attitudes and world view of its age. Star Trek, despite being set in the distant 23rd century, presented occasional shows that were thinly-veiled allegories of the great forces and debates that made that decade so memorable and influential.

Likewise, though it tried to avoid direct references to current events, The West Wing had something to say about issues like same-sex marriage, nuclear proliferation, marijuana legalization, terrorism, military responses to foreign crises, homegrown political extremism and many others.

It had its critics, with conservatives complaining that their views were simplified and right wing figures were caricatured.

“The Left Wing,” concluded US News & World Report columnist John Leo, and his view were echoed by others.

The series ended in 2006, with its last two seasons partially taken up with a presidential campaign to succeed Bartlet. Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) defeats Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) in the election and then appoints his rival as Secretary of State.
It is such a reminder of a less divisive and toxic political era that keeps the series popular in streaming services.

To those who miss the series, a weekly podcast began in 2016 that discusses every episode, and features former cast members.

According to Wikipedia, “On March 25, 2019, screenwriters Josh Olson (Oscar-nominated for A History of Violence) and Dave Anthony launched The West Wing Thing, in which the hosts ‘watch and then discuss’ an episode of the series, analyzing and critiquing the show itself as well as its relationship to real-life American politics, both at the time it originally aired and in the present day.”

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