On Finishing The West Wing

My quest to watch all seven seasons of The West Wing has finally concluded, and I’m starting to dip into the special features and poke around a bit. The show’s been recommended to me for years, primarily by liberal folks, which is perhaps not a surprise since the show revolves around a liberal presidential administration. It sometimes takes me a while to get involved in something wildly popular, as I tend to be suspicious of anything that so many people like, which is why I didn’t start watching the show until it had been off the show four years.

This is a show that starts slowly, or at least it did for me. The first season had an extremely dated feel in terms of costuming and technology, although I’m sure later seasons will start to feel dated in a decade too. But it wasn’t just that it felt dated. It was slow. It was hard to get into and I often found myself drifting off, unfocused. I started the pilot episode four times because I kept putting it on and then wandering off and then going ‘damnit, I was trying to watch that and failed, again.’ Once the show built up a bit more momentum and I started getting interested in what was happening with the characters, I stopped having that problem.

One thing I like about The West Wing is that it didn’t really make an attempt to show lives outside the West Wing. It focused on what was happening in the White House, or on trips, I think both to underscore that this kind of work tends to eat all your time and you don’t have much of a life outside, and to keep a focus on the events in the White House. Personal lives got dragged in by bits and pieces, especially in the last season when everyone started pairing off like they were the last people on earth, but the focus, always, the focus was on what was happening in the halls and offices of the West Wing, and how the characters were responding to that.

I was kind of irked by the male centric nature of the show. The show revolves primarily around male leads, with a few notable exceptions, and some of the women seem more defined by their relationship to the men than they do by themselves. Donna, for example, is very much viewed as an extension of Josh, until later seasons when she starts to get more independent after chafing for years at being kept in a position she’s outgrown. CJ is one of the few women characters who stands on her own, eventually rising to a very powerful position, but she’s a standout in a show that seems to care more about men and their problems than anything else. I also noted that most of the secretarial positions were held by women, which really sent a great message to viewers.

The characters on the show are often more concerned about how their actions will look than what those actions really are, something I’ve brought up in early discussions about The West Wing because I think it’s a common trait among white liberals. One of the themes running very deep below the surface until the last season is about race, and how liberals do and don’t deal with it, pretty much panicking any time it comes up and being hyperaware of how their thoughts about race might seem, rather than examining those thoughts. Oh, the handwringing over hiring Charlie to be the President’s valet, just for example. And in the last season, with Santos running for President, one of the greatest scenes is the one where he tells his primarily white campaign staff ‘you know, I am really sick of being taken as the voice of every single Latino in this country.’

Sometimes the moralising on the show gets a little heavy handed, and I am thinking particularly of the season that started airing in the fall of 2001. At other times, it was more deft, as characters were challenged by tricky ethical issues and often came up short, and sometimes recognised that they were falling short. One thing the show really highlighted is how polarised politics in the US has become as a result of the dominance of two parties that appear honour-bound to resist each other at every turn. It was difficult for the Bartlet Administration to actually do anything, even things it had pledged to do, even as it is difficult for real world administrations, because there are constantly outside factors to consider; how actions will impact the midterms, for example, or a carefully negotiated peace accord.

This is not necessarily a very challenging show for liberal viewers, I think. Most of the things it covers stay within the comfort zone and characters are rarely faced with positions that might challenge, really challenge, liberal political positions. It also primarily provides a one dimensional view of conservatives, with a few exceptions, leaving viewers to sit smug in their righteousness. This is very much a show that makes liberals feel better about themselves and the causes they support, because of the way it is structured. Look at Ainsley Hayes, for example, who is used as a figure of fun and mockery because she’s a Republican. Even as people respect that she is a critical thinker and a valuable addition to the team, it is made clear that her positions are oh so silly and oh so obviously wrong, because how could they be otherwise? Every now and then the show punks viewers, as it did during the episode revolving around putting two judges on the Supreme Court and showing that sometimes, liberal and conservative views actually align, albeit for different reasons.

I also found a lot of eerie similarities between the Santos campaign and the Obama campaign, which intrigued me; I guess the show is fairly prescient in some ways. One thing that really interested me was viewing the Santos transition, and seeing the President-elect and his wife trying to adjust to the fact that their lives were changing in a pretty major way. I imagine it would be overwhelming to suddenly have the Secret Service dictating the rules of your life, blocking off your street, and so forth, and I’m sure they aren’t the only incoming First Family to have chafed against the new restrictions in their lives.

I figure most readers have already seen this show and have their own opinions on it, but for those who haven’t, I think it’s definitely worth a look. It’s slow at first, but it gets better, I promise you.