The West Wing
If you are good to the people around you, and if you and your friends stand by each other, then the world can become a better place.
Many fictions hold this belief. The West Wing argued that it remains true even when the stakes are highest. And for four years, under creator and showrunner Aaron Sorkin, this was the guidance by which all dilemmas eventually resolved. Characters did their jobs at substantial cost to their lives outside the office, but found solace in the people engaged in the same task. And they spoke and acted with an understanding of what it meant to work together. The staff brought a speechwriter into the office because he was an exceptional talent, but accepted him because of the one assessment that mattered: Sam’s message that “he’s one of us,” a member of the family. Speaking privately, where he has no cause to lie, the President invoked the violence directed at his adviser and implored God to explain how he could do this to “my son.”
The personal lives of the show’s characters also drove its storytelling. The fate and happiness of its central individuals tied into the success of what they were hoping to achieve. And their relationships did not merely arise from their labor, but held instrumental value for governing. The same bonds were recognizable from the best places on television, a favorite bar or an emergency room, a regional branch or a precinct. And again, here, they resonated because of the context in which they occurred. By embedding its personal stories within the political process, The West Wing found a way to depict government that riveted as televised drama and felt more intrinsically interesting than almost any other fictional space one could spend time.
This perspective was not, in any sense, a perfect formula. The show’s article of faith could lead it astray, if not artistically than ethically; the loyalty the characters esteemed and demonstrated, shaded with reverence for power and patriotism, often held the president up as a benevolent king. A limitless appetite for political ideas rarely translated into a fair presentation of political argument, and the rigged nature of how debates played out could suggest the strings of marionettes. It reached too far, too often. That the show could not help itself in doing so was also for the good. “Every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity might well be limitless”; The West Wing was a place where a line like this could exist in sincerity, for better or worse. It was possible, and understandable, to hesitate at the leap this took, but its achievement was how, more often than not, you believed them.
Believed them. Buying into this vision meant investing in a set of people this closely-knit, this complementary in their skills and approaches, this well-suited to help each other in helping their country. Conflicts were, because of this, rarely external. Meaningful challenges came when the characters doubted the central tenet and lost their way, looking for answers outside of themselves or the people around them. Real failures were of will, or of spirit, or of nerve. And all those failures were mended with the love and support and commitment that came from the people beside them.
The credo was not to be tossed aside when challenges rose to their highest points, but to be sought out ever more at precisely those moments. And this is where the idealism of The West Wing actually rested. Level-headed about government and institutions, even pessimistic in the limits of power or the capacity for change, the show reserved its reckless, foolish, unabashed faith for its assessment of people. It is not a fantasy about society and its governance, but an optimism about the potential impact of human relations on a small scale. To reject its assertion is understandable, but what it says is also what we so often hope art, at least, will believe.
After Sorkin’s departure, The West Wing loses no enthusiasm for the potential of politics to make the world a better place. It simply rejects the idea that success or failure in this task has anything to do with the relations between the people carrying it out.
This transition registers at first as a series of false notes, a certain warmth no longer infusing the show. Yet because the sets and the faces of the characters remain recognizable, the change seems like a failure of craft, an uncertainty at how to tell new stories in unmastered forms, or the product of flagging energy.
It becomes clear, however, what is happening: the new cold is no accident. It is unmistakably not a lost voice, but a lost belief. The show retreats from Sorkin’s argument, and the mode of storytelling it inspired and fueled, and re-creates itself along new lines.
The West Wing becomes a story not about an office, but about a business. Where the show’s pilot had introduced us to a character with an axe over his head, and spared and forgiven him, resignation letters are now accepted. Firings are routine, and useful. People entertain the pleas of friends and colleagues, and respond to them according to their professional responsibilities. And the importance of what the characters do, and confront, is now in what it will mean for the people outside the places where they sit and stand.
Everything inherited must be made to fit within the new paradigm. The show frays personal connections with superseding obligations, and severs them with fistfights, calls to lawyers, and zero-sum political warfare. When not going after every bond it can get it hands on, it re-conceives old characters or relationships in more sinister terms. And if it doesn’t succeed, it gets there on the second attempt. The President sends Leo on his way, and nearly kills him; a campaign loads him with responsibilities, and succeeds in doing so. The writers, handed the loss of a actor, choose to stage his death only hours before his colleagues celebrate with unreserved joy.
The writers do not disguise their loss of faith in Sorkin’s central tenet, but bring it to the fore, refuting it in almost every conceivable permutation. The aim is to demonstrate without any possible misconception its new creed. And to make this case, it has governing and politics continue to proceed, undisturbed, and undaunted by the small cruelties it accumulates. The old answer is no longer here, and if the show cannot quite prove that it never was, it does its best to convince that it was an unnecessary comfort.
The West Wing goes about this careful deconstruction while also remaking its rhythms, audaciously, on the fly, upending the status quo not by some unforeseen event—a slew of dead characters, a nuclear war—but by following the logic of political chronology through to its natural conclusions, and transitioning from a focus on governing to a focus on campaigning. The show becomes a drama about professional politics. Season 3 featured the campaign as an “arc,” but its details were perfunctory; the conflict concerned whether characters would find the will to reassert themselves after understandable self-doubt. Seasons 6 and 7 dive into and root themselves in once-incidental details, moving their stories forward on buses and planes and making their homes in hotels. The show in these years constructs a meticulous political simulation; and if it is no more realistic than its prior incarnation, it clearly hopes its creation will hold the interest of a real election cycle.
It is easy to withhold affection from the replacement engine propelling a familiar vehicle. It is more difficult to ignore its achievement. Heresy requires commitment, and the one thing The West Wing never lacked, at any point, was giving its all. The show rejects what Sorkin’s show thought about the world while freeing itself from the mode of storytelling this belief inspired, and with an effort too well-directed to be thought of as missing the point, or otherwise failing in what it had set out to achieve. Television criticism of our current moment values both focus of theme and an audacity to push forward, and the final three seasons have both in abundance. If showrunners like David Chase or Matthew Weiner deserve any credit for undermining or hollowing out the working premises that had brought viewers along, then the The West Wing in its later seasons deserves far more, for it executes a peerlessly ruthless transition. It believes something entirely different, and remakes itself so that it is right again.
Sorkin’s West Wing told its stories with the first set of characters I ever became really attached to, and its lessons felt applicable to a world I was slowly trying to understand. I remember what The West Wing meant to me once. It was natural to expect, in returning to the show’s early years, that I would wince at its optimism. I assumed what was important about it, or what had felt important about it, might have faded with the novelty of encountering its ideas and politics.
Yet the show in its early years only ever needed to convince you of one argument, and if it did, it was enough, and remains enough, to animate everything else taking place. Its stories valued people, and found them valuable in their own right. And if their stories resonated all the more powerfully because of where they were and what it meant for what they could achieve, their circumstances were not the real basis of our interest.
It matters what art has to say about people, and how it says it. The later West Wing wants us to know that people matter most of all because of where they get to be. And at the place it arrives, after all its hard work, there could be no better proof of its own judgment.
There is no one left to care about.