When I graduated from college in 2007, the country was preparing for a major election. President George W. Bush had reached the end of his two terms. The Great Recession had begun to unfurl. It was in this environment that a colleague recommended I pick up The West Wing.
I had been binge-watching TV before there was a term for that level of engagement, and I quickly sank into Aaron Sorkin’s show about the inner workings of the people who run the White House. It’s a particularly addicting story, especially for someone who was caught up in the enthusiasm of the presidential race that would eventually bring President Barack Obama to the office.
Since then, I’ve drifted back to the show every four years. I don’t ever necessarily plan to, but as candidates begin putting their names forward for the land’s highest office, I end up going back to the beginning, jumping in as we’re introduced to President Bartlet and his staff, then following their ups and downs as they spend two terms governing the country.
The West Wing has remained popular since it went off the air in 2006. It helped lay the groundwork for a whole new generation of shows about politics, like Veep, House of Cards, and Madam Secretary. It’s also inspired people to go into politics.
Rewatching the show again during the heat of the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I came away with two thoughts. The first is that the show endures as a good civics lesson, showing that the inner workings of government is complicated and heavily dependent upon the people who come to work each day. It’s an optimistic take on the politicians and staffers who work to make the world a better place, whether that’s for their party, their district, or the country at large.
The second takeaway is that the show has not aged terribly well. It’s pretty clear that this is a show with few women on the writing team. (Women don’t even show up in the scripting credits until season two.) There’s a persistent level of casual sexism early on, and it sticks out like a sore thumb, especially after several years of real-world focus on women and minorities in politics and the workplace.
And the type of political rhetoric on display in The West Wing is noble, high-minded, and reasonable. The characters aren’t infallible, but they’re knowledgable policy wonks who are willing to argue in good faith over the philosophical differences they have with their opponents. At the end of the day, they make their case and the people follow, or someone finds a better alternative.
I first picked up The West Wing as Barack Obama began running for president, and the show seemed like a natural sequel to real events: One of the show’s presidential candidates, Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits), was loosely modeled after then-Senator Obama, and both took the White House after campaigning largely by focusing on their policies and agendas.
This is where The West Wing ceases to become a roadmap. The show ends with Santos’ election, but real life continued. Washington, DC became more like Netflix’s House of Cards, a deeply cynical drama about abuses of power. Instead of the high-minded political rhetoric and careful compromises of Sorkin’s world, we were treated to years of gridlock and racism directed at the Obama administration.
Binging the show again this year, I wondered how the Sorkin-verse might have tackled movements like the Tea Party, or the ongoing War on Terror. At the same time, I concluded that this fictional version of our political system doesn’t need to map onto our own world perfectly: it’s there as a good reminder that politics is about who shows up to govern, and that, however vilified Washington insiders have become, the people who work there are public servants, trying to make the world a better place in their own small way. I wonder what a rebooted show would look like.
With the unprecedented election of Donald Trump to the White House, I feel that the show can help restore some faith in our government. The show gives viewers the opportunity to get to know a group of White House staffers over seven seasons, and while they’re fictional depictions, they’re a way to understand the people of the Capitol. We’ve been carried along on this brutal presidential election, but understanding the complex role that human beings behind the scenes play in running the nation can only help us understand the process better as we move on to the challenges that are to come.
As President Jed Bartlet so often said on the show: “What’s next?”