“What are you thinking about?”
Idealism is, at its best, a marriage of hope and pragmatism: the belief in the best vision of the world and the tenacity to realize that vision in the face of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles hurled from every direction. When those of an idealistic persuasion rise to the position of governance, to the opportunity to realize their vision, a battle is waged between preserving and realizing the pragmatic idealism that paved the rocky path from campaign to governance and the danger of compromising oneself amidst the reality of the systemic corruption, unrepentant self-interest, and the dinner theater of the political stage, where the dinner rolls are stale and useful only as weapons to hurl at those who disagree in stubborn, childish, arm-crossing and tantrum-throwing displays of churlishness.
That THE WEST WING so deftly examined those battles, both between walk-and-talk White House staffers and between the detritus-strewn aisles of American politics, with each and every episode is a testament to both its timeliness and timelessness.
During its initial airing (1999-2006), I lived in a tiny studio apartment in Boston with a television whose sole means of communication with the outside world was a pair of $20 Radio Shack bunny ears. My choices were limited: Fox, Pax, or QVC and, as I watched endless reruns of THE SIMPSONS and SEINFELD amidst the fall of my musical aspirations and the backdrop of Bush Junior’s second war in Iraq, my inchoate understanding of the world grew in incremental realizations that the imperialistic, xenophobic propoganda wrapped in flag-waving bravado of the Bush Junior years was not right, let alone human and, when coupled in 2004 with the doldrums of the Kerry campaign, whose namesake was the most ineffective Democratic “standard-bearer” since Dukakis, and the resulant election night heartbreak leads me, in retrospect, to one inescapable truth: had I watched THE WEST WING in its initial airing, I would have slipped further into a despondency wrought by the chasm between the hope of the alternate present of the Bartlet administration, in which an honorable and flawed human being sat in the Oval Office with the humility and sense of duty it deserves, and the cowboy-boot-up-your-ass spur of the then-reality of the world stage in which the leader of the free world was a rodeo clown who didn’t wear the right makeup and the best chance of unseating him was a piece of snowboarding driftwood.
In bringing humanity to the image propogated by the bullet-point-and-Capitol-backdrop sound bite reciters that appear, see-sawing from drone-like chess pieces or well-timed volcanic eruptions of vacuous, rhetorical bullshit, THE WEST WING showed that the people making the laws of our land and halting the march towards World War III were just that, people: some energized, some overwhelmed, some attaining personal self-actualization of their mission in the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue–the sacrifice being only family, sleep, and health–by the weight of winning the prize that they sought on the pandering, baby-kissing, hand-shake-and-break reality show of the campaign trail.
That’s not to say that the show was without its faults: the often heavy-handed descents into soapboxing to the detriment of drama; the abysmal Toby-leaked-space-shuttle stuff in the seventh-season and subsequent efforts to show that the show hadn’t lost sight of the Bartlet administration in its twilight; and, most notoriously, nearly all of the show’s fifth season, the first of the post-Sorkin era, which hemmed and hawed its way to find direction, until the magnificent Israeli-Palestinian peace summit sequence at Camp David, which sadly, was all-too-presecient in its harrowing depiction of (then former-) Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s near-fatal heart attack (John Spencer, who played McGarry, tragically died of a heart attack midway through the show’s final season).
At its best, THE WEST WING represents the epitome of a concept I hold dear: that the best television shows are filled with characters that you look forward to seeing with each passing week. As we approached the end of the series (we watched all 156 episodes in a four-month Netflix binge), I began to lament that I would soon never see these characters again; now I understand why my wife (who watched the show during its initial airing) would perk up as soon as Toby (Richard Schiff) showed up on BURN NOTICE or MAN OF STEEL or Donna (Janel Maloney) appeared on HOUSE or THE BLACKLIST or House Speaker Haffley (Steven Culp) showed up on LONGMIRE: it was a chance to see them, if not in character, again after THE WEST WING–and the Bartlets–had flown off on Marine One at the first light of the new Santos administration.
And now, like the show itself, I must bring this to an end.
I’ve been writing this piece on and off for the four months in which THE WEST WING was an indelible part of our lives and the thought of crafting a final word for a piece on a show that I never wanted to end has been a struggle. So I’ve decided that I won’t have the final word.
A recent Twitter exchange: