Two decades after the show debuted, Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama continues to speak to our political situation.
The West Wing takes place in a fictional universe with a new Democratic administration. The history of the show departs from our own shortly after the Nixon administration. From 1999 to 2006, the show followed the life of the Bartlett administration into the election to replace the president at the end of his term.
After its debut in 1999, it quickly became one of the most expensive series of all time up to that point, as part of a new standard of television shows with big budgets. The show is also memorable for its special live episode that took place in 2006, with actors ad libbing at points. For a mainstream, high rating US television show, The West Wing also stands out for its willingness to tackle theology, a theme that the show returns to throughout its run.
Jed Bartlett, the show’s fictional president, was slated to become a trainee priest and was an alumnus of the Catholic university Notre Dame. A former Christian pacifist, he is forced at several points to wrestle with his faith’s implications when it comes to questions of war and peace.
In the pilot episode, the president ends up discussing theology in a memorable exchange with
denizens of the United States’ religious right.
Rev. Andrew Johnson is one of the Ministers at Hope Uniting Church in Maroubra Junction and a “big fan” of The West Wing.
“At its base, The West Wing was like any top line TV: characters you invested in, great scripts and snappy dialogue,” he said.
“More than that, when it arrived in 1999 it was aspirational and inspirational TV. Our real life political landscape was shallow and playing to the base.”
“The West Wing offered a vision of politics that lifted up, not dumbed down—gave us the hope that intelligence, commitment and morality were not qualities to be sneered at, but values to be lauded in our leadership.”
One of the show’s Christmas Episodes, In Excelsis Deo, stands out among its most thoughtful episodes.
In this episode, a homeless Korean war veteran is given a full military burial thanks to the efforts of a White House staffer. Here, we see people from very different circumstances witness the funeral side by side, a reminder of their common humanity and the same ultimate destiny.
Another famous episode, written on the fly after 9/11, explored terrorism and Islam’s relationship with other faiths. Called ‘Issaac and Ishmael’, it invoked scripture and provided a unique explanation of terrorism.
For a show with legions of fans and a long legacy, The West Wing is far from perfect.
Creator Aaron Sorkin’s witty dialogue and vision of what politics could be earned the show plaudits from critics and viewers alike. However, Sorkin’s repeated use of particular tropes stands out, especially when looking at The West Wing side by side with his next television show, The Newsroom. Both shows feature an interaction between their main protagonists and a therapist early on, protagonists with father issues, and sections in their respective scripts that become overly wordy.
Sorkin’s writing has been criticised for a far more serious reason, namely that The West Wing comes across as sexist.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of The West Wing is that the show does not offer a politic that is useful. This is a point that Rev. Johnson took up.
“Like many of our great stories, its failures are the flipside of its success,” he said.
“In reaching for a greater moral vision of politics, the show has been accused of setting up a moral snobbery around education, wealth and a political-saviour complex. Would our political impasses really be solved if we just elected the right individuals? Or does that ignore the systemic issues of poverty, racism, and sexism? It’s a valid question without a resolving answer.”
Another criticism is that in demystifying the presidency and making it the subject of night time entertainment, The West Wing contributed to a wider entertainment culture that provided the lens through which Americans view the presidency. Former staffer to President Obama, Bruce Wolpe, has argued that Trump appears more legitimate as a result of this framing of the presidency.
“The answer to the nagging question of Trump and why he has gotten this far, and won the election to become the 45th president, is that America’s entertainment culture, in the way it portrays the presidency, works to legitimise even a Donald Trump as a serious contender for the highest office in the land.” – Bruce Wolpe.
Putting this much emphasis on The West Wing may be a bit of a stretch. Rev. Johnson argues, “The criticism only stands if we think the show is actual political commentary and not entertainment.”
With HBO rumoured to be considering bringing back The Newsroom, there may be more of Sorkin’s vision on the screen again.
The West Wing is now streaming on Stan and is available on DVD.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor