It is easy to make West Wing references in Washington, D.C. Numerous individuals will know what you’re talking about, the building is just down the street, and the show is based on life here, in all its political glory. There is also a cohort that self-describes as the “West Wing Generation,” and I consider myself a member of this club. I was probably 17 when I started watching the first season on DVD and got hooked on the challenges and resolutions playing out on screen. I remember re-watching some scenes with the infamous walk and talks; there was so much information being covered at such a rapid pace.
Everyone grieves when their favorite shows go off the air. It’s a cycle in television and many shows have large fan bases, especially if they’ve been around for years. Seeing the recent West Wing PSA reminded me how much I miss the show and why I feel a connection to those individuals who are also members of this West Wing club. A few months ago, there was a great Vanity Fair article which profiled the Sorkinization of U.S. politics. I know a number of my friends identified with the piece . The show made politics mainstream, it provoked thoughtful conversations, and it made details and nuance entertaining.
Not everyone enjoys details; mainstream media can rarely sell those pesky complexities of governance. The West Wing cohort gravitated towards the quality of the show itself. I personally found it to be engaging, challenging, and yes, thought-provoking. There were fascinating conversations and debates on policy options and decisions, both foreign and domestic. The balance between policy and political strategy frequently reared its head, especially during re-election campaigns. For many, the show made government feel a little less abstract.
In seven seasons, there are many quotable moments (that we West Wing-ers refer to often), but there are also numerous quality human episodes. One of my favorites is the September 11, 2001 special, Isaac and Ishmael. In it, school children visiting the White House are caught in a building lock-down and end up in the cafeteria conversing with senior staff. The questions they posed were many that Americans were also grappling with at that very same time. Beyond the hurt, grief, and outrage, there was a world of geopolitical implications and even ten years later, I still appreciate the incredible dialogue and writing in that episode.
There’s another episode I really enjoy watching, 20 Hours in America. In it, Toby is so obsessed with messaging that he forgets he’s outside Washington among actual constituents who frankly just don’t care as much about the spin. They want to know about subsidies and how policies will make or break their livelihood. Then, Josh, Donna, and Toby are left behind by the motorcade and we meet many other individuals and hear their personal narratives. We watch the wheels click for Josh and Toby, and they head back to Washington with ideas and energy. We see Sam trying to staff the President and feeling in over his head; we’ve all had those days. Then, there’s a bombing at a swim meet, and we see unity around tragedy, complete with Sorkin’s soaring rhetoric. We know and identify with these moments.
I enjoyed the characters, their personalities, humanity, humor, and flaws. I didn’t always agree with the outcomes, but I loved the process. There are moments in the show where you can see the weight of the choices and you witness the consequences: the carrier flight being sent out of Norfolk into the hurricane’s path (first season), the rescue mission in Columbia (second season), the decision to send a humanitarian force to Kundu (fictional African country, season four), and the list goes on. Every President must wrestle with these moments, and regardless of whether you are a die-hard Democrat or Republican, you know your candidate – if elected – will face hard choices in that seat. It’s a common thread that unites 43 men in our history. Yes, the characters are sometimes very clearly driven by values and ideology, but we all are in our own ways; despite the witty dialogue, the show allowed that to shine through as well.
Many in the West Wing generation identified with the can-do attitude, the spirit of service. At a time when governing appears to be gridlocked, when campaigning dominates coverage, and when many Americans long for government to produce something, the show serves as a reminder that people are part of government. People in the room make the decisions. This “West Wing Generation” grew up watching people try, fail, and try again. They watched fictional characters deal with the details and some who were inspired, said: "Yeah, OK, I want to do that someday. I want to get involved and be part of those conversations, I care about the outcomes."
Practically, most people who love the show can agree that it is not reality, but the show also didn’t say everything was perfect, or that it would be, or that everyone would always win, and so on. They acknowledged disagreements, dissension, and ideological differences and anecdotally, I think many of my fellow West Wing friends really genuinely appreciated that aspect of the show. Often, the end wasn’t neat and tidy. Some days, if I’ve had a bad day or am particularly frustrated by the national dialogue, I’ll indulge my craving for smart and inspired. I’ll turn off my electronics and pull one of my boxed sets off the shelf. Personally, I prefer the first four seasons when Sorkin was around. I’ll select an episode that feels like an appropriate mood-changer (possibilities include Celestial Navigation, Let Bartlett Be Bartlett, The Stackhouse Filibuster, The Leadership Breakfast, The Women of Qumar and Game On) and maybe pour a glass of white wine. I’ll put my feet up and let the theme music run.
Politics is messy, life is complicated, and the West Wing acknowledged both realities while still providing savvy quality entertainment.