Name some of America’s most beloved presidents. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson. Those are all great choices but you’re missing a key one: Josiah Bartlet. Bartlet was the president of the US from 1999 to 2007…on television. That’s right, Bartlet was the president on The West Wing, the NBC drama that still holds up and is regarded as one of the most cherished TV shows of all time. Ten years after its series finale, it holds a special place in many peoples’ hearts. The world – especially the world of politics – has changed drastically since the show’s conclusion but the show continues to have a strong fanbase.
How does it maintain that lasting power? What is it that keeps people talking about and loving The West Wing?
The West Wing was Inspiring
Unless you’ve been living under a blissfully protective rock, you’re aware that America is a bit more than a month away from electing a new president. It’s a task we take on every four years and should be full of big thoughts, common causes and motivational rhetoric. Should be. Often times politics is gross and bitter and disheartening. Not so in The West Wing.
Make no mistake, things got heavy and dramatic just like our real political climate. However, Aaron Sorkin’s show existed in a wild, pie-in-the-sky fantasy world where elected officials actually stood strong for what they believed in. They were highly educated, steadfast in their resolve and also incredibly charming.
The West Wing was the Washington, D.C. we wanted and not the one we had. Premiering right after the nasty Clinton-Lewinsky debacle, Sorkin wrote the show as an alternate world where a set of liberal politician advanced the nation without sexual scandal or incompetence. Sorkin wrote the show to be grandiose, inspiring and full of wide-eyed idealism. He knew things didn’t really work like his show. That’s okay, sometimes fiction detaches from reality just slightly so that it can explore ideas without being bogged down by the depressing real world. By embracing its larger-than-life idealism and optimism about the political process, The West Wing showed us what politics should be and that felt good.
It Was Smarter Than Us
People often remark on Aaron Sorkin’s walk-and-talk approach to dialogue. Basically, it works like this: two (or more) characters walk down some labyrinth of a hallway, avoiding people and passing papers to others. All the while, they are neck-deep in some complicated and intense conversation. As if that’s not hard enough, they somehow remain witty and pleasant through it all. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
But that’s not how people talk, critics say. The answer is: of course that’s not how people talk. That’s Aaron Sorkin for you. Again, he created The West Wing with a hefty dose of fantasy. The characters were far smarter and quicker than you and I. That was intentional and welcome. Having characters with almost comically large IQ’s fit the universe of The West Wing so well.
This approach hasn’t played as well on other Sorkin projects since then. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Newsroom felt smug and condescending. That’s because you don’t want to see a sketch comedian or news anchor rub your nose in their superior intelligence. That’s not the case with The West Wing because you want the president and his team to be smart. In fact, you want them to be the smartest people on Earth. Having a president who can educate you and mentally school opposition is reassuring. It makes you feel like the world can work with the right people in charge.
Having astute, brainy characters on the show was a stroke of genius by Sorkin. It might not fit all of his projects but it certainly fit The West Wing perfectly.
It’s Sorkin’s Best Work
One thing is undeniable about Aaron Sorkin: he is a special, one-of-a-kind writer. There are some who don’t agree with that sentiment but, dang it, they’re wrong. I am more than willing to die on this hill.
Even though he’s not subtle and visits the same tropes often, no one writes dialogue like Sorkin. The way it bounces back and forth between characters, progresses the story, and doesn’t hold a viewer’s hand. Sorkin’s characters speak unlike anyone else. It was one of the many pieces of the puzzle that made The West Wing shine.
Form the walk-and-talk hallway scenes to the historical and pop culture facts to the quick, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes, Sorkin was at his most Sorkin-esque in the years he spent in the White House. To some his style is grating (they’re crazy) but to many it’s a unique and memorable touch that you can’t find anywhere else. Does the Sorkin approach always work? No, sometimes it’s embarrassingly saccharine and and redundant. But it worked and it worked brilliantly on The West Wing.
We live in a divided time. We live in a scary time. We live in a transformative time. Our world isn’t as inspirational or hopeful as it should be and neither are our politics. The West Wing remains a beacon of network TV drama because it played to our democratic desires and did it well. We will always need that sort of hope, especially every four years.