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20 Years Later: ‘The West Wing’ is a Whole World Away

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us and what’s offered in real life, is as far away as one can possibly imagine.

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The West Wing made its debut on NBC in September of 1999, and it arrived as something of a dream come true for a certain type of TV watcher — someone highly educated, politically liberal, deeply engaged with politics, and likely a habitual consumer of Time, Newsweek, and all of the Sunday morning news shows. 

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us and what’s offered in real life is as far away as one can possibly imagine.

To that type of audience, the series had a lot to offer beyond the service of a respected and talented company of actors — led by Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, and Allison Janney — as well as a slick visual and musical style that seemed to just scream “prestige.”

The West Wing was a vision of a Democratic White House run by smart and competent people who truly loved public service, and they were serving a president with both an Ivy League professorship and a Nobel Prize in Economics. The show was set in a world where the smartest person in America somehow got to be president.  

The series was created by Aaron Sorkin — riffing off of his 1995 script for the movie The American President, also about an uncommonly decent and competent commander-in-chief (in which Sheen had played the White House chief of staff to Michael Douglas’ POTUS) — and even though The West Wing nominally had a writer’s room, Sorkin is generally understood to have written every episode himself in its early years. 

The West Wing landed as well with its target audience as any show in memory, for a few good reasons: for one thing, it was really, really great right out of the gate. Sorkin assembled an amazing cast, gave them strong situations to play, and got audiences hooked. The West Wing ran on all cylinders for its first two seasons or so, finding a way to make the everyday minutae of running the White House exciting, dramatic, and even funny.  The first season’s greatest moment? Definitely the “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” scene:

There’s another reason why the show succeeded. It might be odd these days to say that 1999 was a time of great cynicism about American politics, but 20 years ago the nation was coming off of the Clinton impeachment — a time of massive partisan warfare, and when many liberals and Democrats were feeling somewhat let down by Bill Clinton. So here came a portrayal of a Democratic president — Bartlet — who not only was a lot smarter than Clinton, but didn’t have affairs with interns, and didn’t otherwise act recklessly. Sure, the show tried to create a parallel plot about Bartlet facing consequences for concealing his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, but it never quite made us doubt Bartlet’s decency. 

Great as it was in its early years, the bloom came off The West Wing rose rather quickly. 

First, George W. Bush was elected president, and then the 9/11 attacks took place, and both of those things made the world of The West Wing resemble modern American politics less and less, while making the stakes of its plots matter less as well. The show tried to catch up, first with an ill-advised post-9/11 episode that was literally a sanctimonious lecture, and then with halfhearted terrorism plotlines, and later with the character of Robert Ritchie (James Brolin), Bartlet’s Republican opponent and a lazily conceived Bush stand-in.  

Later, Sorkin was arrested for drug possession, and began publicly feuding with his studio bosses, leading to his departure from the series after the fourth season. The show sputtered for a while under new showrunner John Wells, before finding greatness again in its final stretch, as proto-Obama Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) sought to succeed Bartlet as president. 

Later, Sorkin was arrested for drug possession, and began publicly feuding with his studio bosses, leading to his departure from the series after the fourth season. The show sputtered for a while under new showrunner John Wells, before finding greatness again in its final stretch, as proto-Obama Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) sought to succeed Bartlet as president. 

The show wrapped up in 2006, after 7 seasons and 156 episodes. And two years later, Barack Obama — himself a former professor, later a Nobel laureate, and probably the political figure on the planet most in line with the ethos of The West Wing — was elected president of the United States. 

The West Wing has something of a complicated legacy, one not helped by the viscerally hostile reactions to Sorkin’s post-West Wing series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom. Neither show was as strong as The West Wing at its height, and part of the problem was that while the gravitas and importance Sorkin applied to his writing fit with the White House, it was wildly out of place when depicting a TV comedy show or a cable news network. 

Also not helping was “Sorkinisms,” a viral video from 2012 that showed the writer’s tendency to re-use the same words and phrases in his work, often three or more times. There was also an over-arching sense that Sorkin, who created the great character of C.J. Gregg, had somehow lost the ability to write convincing female characters. In later-period Sorkin, every woman is the same person, and sounds like every other. 

Sorkin’s non-TV projects have been better received; he’s been nominated for screenplay Oscars three times, winning for 2010’s The Social Network, and though his complete illiteracy about the Internet has been a theme in his later work, give credit where it’s due; he saw that something foul was going on at Facebook many years before the rest of us did. 

The West Wing‘s entire run is available to stream on Netflix, and new fans over time have discovered and loved it. The show resembles an idealized view of politics for a certain generation of viewers who grew up with it, and it’s not a rare sight for West Wing cast members to endorse or campaign for real-life political candidates, as most of the cast did for Hillary Clinton in the home stretch in 2016. 

But that’s just the thing: We all know what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016. There are many on the left side of the political spectrum — the Chapo Trap House podcast especially — who frequently decry the lessons The West Wing taught a generation of people about American politics and how it works. It represents a version of politics that’s Hollywood, celebrity, and wealth-centric — one centered on the mostly false notion that a brilliant speech can solve just about any political problem, and that’s nearly always center-left and not left-left. This doubles as a critique, by many of the same people, of the real-life Obama presidency.  

Like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, The West Wing was an aughts show that was by liberals and for liberals. It was never about convincing undecideds or fence-sitters, which was part of why it made so little sense for its cast to stump for Hillary Clinton. 

In one of her only truly inspired columns, The New York Times‘ Maureen Dowd — said to be a sometime paramour of Sorkin’s — in 2008 collaborated with her old beau in order to envision an election-year conversation between the real Obama and the fictitious Bartlet — and it got to something key about the series.

“I didn’t have to be president of America,” Bartlet told his real life counterpart. “I just had to be president of the people who watched ‘The West Wing.'”

“I love that it has, almost in a weird way, more resonance now, than it ever did even then,” Rob Lowe said of The West Wing when I interviewed him earlier this year. “It’s just a part of people’s lives still, it’s really an amazing thing to be a part of. It was always a wish fulfillment show, when it was made, it was sort of a what-if, if only we could have a situation…now, 20 years later, I think it would not be wish fulfillment, but it would literally be science fiction.” 

Twenty years after its premiere, the gap between the vision of politics The West Wing showed us — of a competent and professorial president, supported by a staff of brilliant, dedicated public servants — is as far away as one can possibly imagine from what’s on offer in real life. Your mileage may vary on whether re-watching The West Wing makes you feel good about that gap, or makes you feel even worse about it. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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