TV Rewind: Taking Comfort in the Unrealistic Political Civility of The West Wing

Watching Aaron Sorkin’s beloved White House drama during the 2020 election year is like comparing your favorite home-cooked meal to a stale Big Mac

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TV Rewind: Taking Comfort in the Unrealistic Political Civility of <i>The West Wing</i>

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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Most election years are already akin to hell. The exhausting news cycles, the petty political bickering, the neverending spree of campaigning and the flood of lies spewing from the thin lips of spiffy white men vying for the role of leader of the free world—it’s the worst kind of American theater. So add in a global pandemic, a long overdue racial justice uprising, and a completely disorganized plan for voting safely amid the ongoing health crisis on Nov. 3, and it’s a recipe for an exceptionally unhinged election. Welcome to 2020.

In a political landscape that’s looking more and more like a season of Veep every day, and a year defined by loss and confusion, I was craving the polar opposite of such chaos in my TV watching. I could’ve turned to the cozy Gilmore Girls for the hundredth time or perhaps the familiarity of Sex and the City, but I needed a more specific type of comfort. I was guided towards NBC’s The West Wing (which is still fairly cozy, for anyone wondering) by a friend, and it turned out to be just the ticket. The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin, is everything 2020 American politics is not: polite, empathetic and wise. So you can imagine how it put my weary, liberal soul at ease.

For starters, the president around which the show centers—Josiah “Jed” Bartlet—is played by the cheery Martin Sheen, who was so good at pretending to be president he was forced to deny rumors that he was considering a real-life presidential campaign back in 2008. Bartlet has the folksiness of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton’s wide grin and the politics of an Episcopal priest (which is funny considering the frequent references to Bartlet’s devotion to Catholicism throughout the show). He’s overflowing with wisdom and grace and is always quick to forgive his staff members should they make any blunders. He draws applause and laughter at every speech, but he knows when to spit fire, too (he tells off a televangelist who opposes gay marriage in front of dozens of people at a state dinner in Season 1). His values are strong. He’s a proud Democrat who practices what he preaches, but he’s always willing to listen intently to opposing views. His idealist version of president would appear attractive at almost any time during modern American politics (and almost certainly did when the show premiered in 1999, a year after Clinton’s impeachment). But compared to our current POTUS, Jed Bartlet is like something out of a fairytale.

Not only do the Democrats stay cool as cucumbers throughout the first two seasons of The West Wing (I’ve yet to begin the third), but the Republicans also appear as good-natured public servants who genuinely want what’s best for Americans (Can you imagine?!). In Season 2, a rising Republican star named Ainsley Hayes even joins the staff in Bartlet’s White House (Again, in 2020? Never!), after he became very intrigued by her sharp performance on a political round table program. “The president likes smart people who disagree with him,” explains Leo McGarry, Bartlet’s Chief of Staff as well as right-hand-man and old friend. There are few statements that better sum up Bartlet’s character and the ensuing lively discussions that define the show.

McGarry (played by John Spencer, who passed away in 2005) is joined by advisors Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford, long before he’d engage with his creepy side in films like Get Out and The Cabin in the Woods), his backpack , and Sam Seaborn (the abundantly charming Rob Lowe), as well as communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and press secretary C.J. Cregg (played fiercely by Allison Janney, who recently admitted it’s still her favorite role). Together, they are (mostly) a force for good. Of course, The West Wing is a soapy, feel-good drama, so we do spend quite a bit of time navigating these characters’ personal lives as well as their political aims. The melodrama is almost laughably earnest at times, but the sooner you embrace that the warmheartedness is essential to the show’s magic, the more content you’ll be.

Still, the first two seasons have the air of an all-nighter cram session in the library before a big college exam. Everyone is frantically walking around the White House offices in large packs of people talking a mile a minute (classic Sorkin!) like they’ll simply never have enough time to get it all done. Staffers cancel dates, slip on familial duties and bark orders at each other day and night, all in service of the American people. Individual episodes might deal with a particular bill the president supports, or perhaps a State of the Union address or other iconic political event. The actual issues at hand, everything from gun control and gay marriage, still (unfortunately) feel quite topical today. While this is not a good look for how far we’ve come as Americans, it is a testament to Sorkin’s impeccable scripting, which lends itself to a prestige drama that still finds time for heart and humor. The West Wing has all the ups and downs of real-life politics, but it’s just so much more damn endearing.

So, even if things go awry in November, there’s always The West Wing there waiting for us, a special reminder of the noble dream of what American politics could be if everyone was a little nicer to each other—and if Sorkin had written the Constitution. Stay tuned for the theatrical West Wing reunion later this fall on HBO Max, which is bringing cast members together for an important cause: When We All Vote, a non-partisan campaign encouraging Americans to use their right to vote. See? Political civility is still possible across party lines in real life—but maybe only if politicians stay out of it.

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Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.

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