West Wing: Dated and Relevant
For my research on Project Lazarette I needed to get a good sense of the political ecology of Washington. Alexis suggested I needed little more than The West Wing.
How fortuitous that there are seven whole seasons of it and I’ve never seen an episode!
I’m almost at the finale of season one and I’ve really been enjoying it – and outside of all the familiar faces (oh hey Peggy from Mad Men, the President’s daughter and Ron from Parks and Recreation, the flannel-wearing wildlife expert) – I’ve found the series both incredibly resonant and dissonant.
Resonant: The series is obviously based on an idealized Clinton White House. (Former Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers is their consultant.) But where Clinton was sullied with a sex scandal and some ugly political tactics, the Bartlet White House are reliably the good guys. The staffers are politically pragmatic but ultimately idealistic. They hew to good strong moderate policies but they still believe in the power of government to change the world for the better (in fact they talk about it in those terms with one another). So why is that resonant today? Because it sounds a hell of a lot like an Obama White House (perhaps with the subtraction of Rahm Emmanuel). An idealized, centrist egghead Commander-in-Chief and his young, idealistic staff who are there to change the world. (And surely I’m not the first to point out the Jon Favreau/Rob Lowe similarity.)
So how is it dissonant? As relevant as the series may seem on the political front, it looks and feels like the product of a long-gone age. Little things: the plot of the first episode revolves around an accidentally-exchanged beeper and one of the hot-button issues of the day is flag-burning. But also the production itself: Where nearly every network drama these days pulls from the cinematographic playbook of NYPD Blue with shaky, urgent, hand-held follow shots – The West Wing (which was a late contemporary to Blue) is all smooth dolly shots or Steadicams. And the music! The score is exactly what you would get from a music library search for “Presidential” – all martial drums and inspiring horns. More than any other element in the series the music draws my friendly snickers. A heavy line of dialogue before the break will go unanswered and then the music will swoop in like a flag-bedecked eagle to remind you that these are Important People Doing Important Things.
Let’s go back to resonant. It’s not hard to imagine that many an Obama staffer were following along with those swoops before and after commercials and with all the trials and tribulations of the Bartlet White House. And in some way (perhaps un/sub-consciously) it’s easy to think those same staffers are today emulating those same idealistic fictions.
But if the arc of The West Wing is resonant with the present administration (and possibly presents an unconscious roadmap for its staff) – is it possible that the very idea of an idealistic centrist Democratic administration is as quaint and dated as the rat-tat-tat of the snare drums that open each episode? We no longer think the closing monologue of a Deputy Director of Communications deserves soaring orchestration – or if it did, it would be in a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fit of political naivete.
Season One shifts with the Bartlet Administration making a big gambit of its own idealism: stirring things up and tacking away from a centrist focus on reelection. Their poll numbers are down because they don’t do enough (and indeed, I wonder if in the real world of 1999/2000 the ratings for the show were down due to their inaction). So they decided to do something about it. As we look at the Obama Administration’s flagging poll numbers I can’t help but wonder how many of its members are calling back to that first season of The West Wing and quietly arguing in the break room that that’s what they need to do. Take a stand! Shift peoples’ opinion in their favor!
But, watching this series today I can’t help but ask: If the Obama Administration unleashed the full force of its election-season idealism upon the present-day DC, would that feel as quaint and hokey as the credit music of The West Wing?
Interestingly, Josh Lyman is actually based on Rahm Emmanuel. Just a bit of trivia.