The Other Columbus: West Winging It
I recently rewatched all seven seasons of “The West Wing” (1999-2006). I promise that I wasn’t bored. It was an experiment. I wondered what might happen to a person living in our current political climate if they took shots of earnest political fantasy to the head, especially an elixir as fine as “The West Wing.”
“The West Wing” wasn’t just a television show; it was a television show that believed it could change the world. There were certainly viewers that made different decisions about their lives while it aired, people who considered the machinations behind the headlines of their lives. The idea that if something changes one person’s life for the better it makes an action worth doing comes to mind. Even I, as politically jaded as I have been for much of my life, found solace in its embrace of Romantic idealism and unjaded American fervor. It was a pomp and circumstance even a revolutionary could whistle along with once in a while.
Consider that “The West Wing” featured one of the most perfectly cast ensembles, the greatest episodic writing of the last half of the 20th century, and had a character in President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) that any American on either side of the aisle could be proud of even as they disagreed with aspects of his platform.
Now consider all of that in light of the Trump reality, an experience starring the most disposable White House staff ever, fronting the most ludicrously unprofessional, jaw-droppingly dishonest administration that has ever existed. Even if one did not believe in biblical End Times, all of the smoke coming off of the political landscape should at least give one reason to reconsider one’s faith.
I put this experiment off for a long time, even through the Obama years. A favorite episode would make its way onto my television now and then: “The Indians in the Lobby,” “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” “The Midterms.” And, honestly? The pilot episode has got to be one of the best first episodes of television ever made.
Getting back into the show was easy, all warm bath and sapiosexualism. Contrary to my expectation, the thing that leaped out to me in the rewatch was how much reality has aligned with fantasy rhythmically. The situations are different, but the beats are spot-on. This is actually a terrifying thing to notice. I expect a different crisis every week on my television shows, less so in my presidential administrations. Trump’s real world laundry list of faux pas and scandals had outstripped “The West Wing”by the end of the third season on volume alone.
With all of the gotcha moments of the Bartlet presidency, you’d think impeachment would have been a larger arc. As it turned out, not so much. And as I would note through the rewatch, things that would have nailed any other president to the cross were just Mondays in Donald Trump’s world. If it came to light that the president’s press secretary misspoke at a news conference, that wouldn’t even make the news now. On “The West Wing,” CJ Cregg’s missteps were fodder for several episodes.
Not that audiences would have bought the drama of a West Wing impeachment now that we’re in the midst of another one, the second in recent memory. Considering how much bandwidth Trump’s impeachment has been burning through, Jed Bartlet would have had to strangle a small child in the Oval Office on the show to come close to what we’re experiencing now in the real world.
Warning: Here I must spoil the conclusion of a television show that ended 14 years ago to make a point.
By the end of the series, when it came time to usher in a new administration to replace the human moral compass that was Jed Bartlet, I thought the twist of electing Latinx President Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) was a huge reach, one that nearly pulled me out of the caprice of the show just when I wanted it to never end. I was hardly alone: The last season was the lowest ranked of them all, and pulled in the least amount of viewers overall. I suppose a non-white president in 2006 was a bridge too far. I carried that criticism with me for a handful of years, until Barack Obama became the first black president, which any black person that isn’t Barack Obama will tell you they didn’t see coming in their lifetime. Maybe the West Wing had something to do with that. Considering they based Santos on then-Senator Obama, the outcome on both television and in reality is pretty on the nose.
What we do know is that no amount of watching “The West Wing” could have prepared us for the backlash of an Obama presidency. No one who voted for Trump watched “The West Wing,” and if they did, they hated it. “The West Wing” may have swayed some conversations at the time, but in the midst of a daily political firestorm, hope seems almost naive.
In the real world, our entire news cycle is mired in the third-ever impeachment of a president, which is to say that our lives are mired in impeachment. In “The West Wing,” an act worthy of impeachment was deftly scooted through and ended in censure, but there was nothing resembling the rigmarole of an impeachment. As it turns out, impeachments make poor television, especially in real time. They also make for horrible water cooler talk. And social media debate. And dinner conversation.
In the end, I thought I would be unable to watch the show, that reality had become so patently ridiculous as a matter of course that watching the show would feel like a bad fantasy, or worse, maudlin. I feared that Donald Trump may have magically turned one of the greatest TV shows of all time into trash with an anti-Midas touch. I need not have feared. The show is definitely bittersweet to me now, but not ruined. It is a lot like seeing an old girlfriend who has done really well for herself, and realizing you feel genuinely happy for her. Of course, the inverse of that is that she sees you at the same time, slumming with a horribly acting, downright trifling partner who can’t chew with their mouth closed, so there is that to consider.