I’m watching the third season of “The West Wing,” and finding myself amazed this show ever existed. It’s such an anomaly. I mean, think about it. Aaron Sorkin – a playwright with a couple Rob Reiner movies and a failed ABC show under his belt – says to NBC, “I want to do a character-based office drama set in the White House, centered around a Nobel-winning intellectual president.” And NBC said, “Sounds like a sure-fire winner!”
(Probably not exactly how it went down, but still – the damn thing made it to air, right? Go with me.)
This wouldn’t have happened had the show been created after 2001. Our new-millennium politicians tend to sing praises for Jack Bauer of “24,” not President Josiah Bartlet, after all.
But squeaking by in 1999, at the tail-end of the Clinton administration, it made a bit more sense. An idealized, liberal White House drama. A show based around characters presenting ideas about how America could become a better place. Illustrated by spouting shitloads of dialogue while walking through long corridors. And somehow it worked.
Season 3 is most interesting because this is when it stopped working. Not so much because it tried to do anything different. Quite the opposite – it tried not to, in the face of the entire American political spectrum shifting post-9/11. Watching season 3, it seems almost quaint – these characters having long, impassioned discussions about RU-486 or affirmative action, when the real world was still trying to figure out how to cope with, well, you know.
The show’s way of coping with 9/11 was to kick off the season with a self-contained “parable” episode, “Isaac and Ishmael,” wherein the leads discussed the nature and origins of Islamic extremism with a bunch of high school students. The conceit was both absolutely brilliant and mind-bendingly condescending, since the high school students the uber-intellectual senior staff was teaching was really just a stand-in for the American public. It was the first sign that Aaron Sorkin maaaaybe thought he was around to show the viewers how much smarter than them he was.
And from there, things got a bit wonkier. I always recalled season 4 (which ended with a very “24”-esque First-Daughter-kidnapping arc) as the point when the train went off the rails, but season 3 is where things first got off-track (stopping locomotive-based metaphors….nnnnnow). Because it seemed like they were actively ignoring the reality outside their window, only occasionally tossing it into the discussion mix briefly with no real meaning.
One episode had Toby Ziegler, my favorite, vigorously defending bold language against Islamic extremism in a foreign policy document by bluntly declaring, “They’ll like us when we win.” It’s an unnervingly coherent argument for aggression, coming from the most morally confident character on the show.
Which might have had more impact, if more of that episode hadn’t been devoted to Sam trying to explain he wasn’t being sexist when he told a female friend she looked hot in an evening gown (one of many points where you started to wonder exactly when Sam became a voice through which Sorkin could grind an axe or three – the entire subplot reads as Sorkin shouting to some woman he once offended, “This is why I’m not sexist, and if you’d have just listened to my long explanation at the time, I wouldn’t have to shove it down the mouths of my characters!”)
(Another issue where the series writer started to more liberally inject his own ego into the show: having leads correcting their opponents’ grammar and improper phrasing. One example: When a congressman says a bill is “dead as a Greek poet,” Sam chides him by saying he’s sure there are still some living poets in Greece. Well fuck you, Sorkin, you’re the one who wrote the damn line.)
By the end of this season, the show’s attempts to fight off reality reached its head by introducing Robert Ritchie (read: G.W. Bush) as a plain-spoken (read: moronic) Republican (read: moronic) presidential nominee folks really seem to like. But Bartlet trounces him in one debate. How? By Being Smarter.
And that is about the point where the show left Idealism Station for a long layover in Magical Fantasy-Land Junction (okay, now I’m done with the train metaphors, promise).
All this said, I really do miss “The West Wing.” Like I said, it’s a show that couldn't exist today. But if there’s one thing this show inspires, almost bull-headedly, it’s hope for tomorrow.
Who knows? Network TV is nothing if not a recycling of ideas (see: CW’s fall-season “90210” redux). If Obama wins in November, and his first couple years aren’t a total mess, maybe we’ll see “West Wing: The Next Generation.”
(I mean that as a cheap punchline to wrap up this post. But I can guarantee you some producer in Hollywood is already putting a pitch together, just in case.)