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"The West Wing" Turning Right?

(Note: There's another, earlier, essay here about The West Wing program: "The West Wing")

When the continuing drama of the Bartlett White House (NBCís prize-winning series "The West Wing," on Wednesday evenings) began to acknowledge that, like every American administration since Franklin Roosevelt, its life was coming to an end, we wondered how it was going to be handled. Would it be the end of the series, after six seasons, after it had won four consecutive Emmy Awards as Outstanding Drama Series?

The Democratic White House under Jed Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, has offered an alternate, though mostly fictional, universe to the real-life White House under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. While Clinton was in office, the show seemed to present additional insights into the process of running the executive branch of our government. When Bush was elected in real life, the fictional West Wing provided additional contrasts between Democratic and Republican values and approaches. (My Republican friends have difficulty seeing any "balance" presented in the drama.)

Objectively (if there is such a thing), the show has consistently maintained quality in its writing, directing and acting. According to the NBC Web site, ĎThe West Wingí holds the record for most Emmys won by a series in a single season (its first). Other awards include a Peabody Award for Excellence in Television, five Golden Globe nominations and one Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Series, and three Television Critics Association Awards.

I have been one of its most loyal viewers. Something draws me to the world it portrays, one of internal integrity and believable situations and conflicts. Even while it "lives in a world of its own," it often deals with issues that confront our government and our country, facing the dilemmas that confound our best real-life minds. Itís been tempting, at times, to fantasize about what kind of country we might have if Jed Bartlett were really our president.

So now, nearing the end of his second term in office, he is gradually fading in dramatic importance in the story, to be replaced, it seems, with someone else. Could anyone else fill his shoes? Enter two new characters, played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smitts. Alda plays a Republican senator from California who is apparently the candidate his party will nominate for the next president. Smitts plays a Democratic congressman who had decided to retire from office, but who is convinced by a West Wing staffer to run for president. Over a few weeks of the show, the new campaign takes shape. Both Alda and Smitts come across as having great idealism and integrity (in contrast, alas, to many of our real-life candidates).

At this point, near the end of the sixth season of the show, I still do not know who the next president is likely to be. And thatís assuming that the network carries the show next year. Do we start over, with practically a whole new cast and a whole new set of political givens? The showís insights into the political process, whether Republican or Democrat, continue to be interesting to me. There is no end to situations and conflicts in the program, just as there is no end to them in the real world of Washington, D.C.

Iím inclined to guess, right now, that the Republican candidate, played by Alan Alda, will take over the reigns of the mythical government during the next season that starts in the fall. The main reason, I think, is that the United States has had a real Republican administration for four years, and the program needs to incorporate that fact in order to maintain relevance to its audience. (My son, who has voted Republican ever since he was old enough to make such decisions, has never watched the program, judging it to be too "liberal" for his tastes. Iím curious about whether he might change his mind if the program were to depict an administration more closely aligned with his values. Iím also curious about how relevant it will be to me, if its orientation so changes.)

Some might decide that itís time for "The West Wing" to come around to the point of view of the country as expressed in the election of last fall. But in my mind, the most important situations presented to an American administration have less to do with which side of the aisle is in power than with how competent and wise the people in our administration are. Those were the situations depicted in the past six years of drama, and if a Republican president is elected, he or she will face the same kinds of situations. What I wish for is that the series will provide us with the same kinds of insights into the real world, to counter the black-and-white images that our news media are inclined to portray. Just as the election of 2004 did not reveal a vast polarity in important values among our population, the basic orientation of "The West Wing" drama series need not change a lot. Considering that the writers and producers of this successful program are not likely to be changed substantially, I donít expect that the world view presented is apt to, either. Thatís my opinion.

The best fiction reveals life to us as it is under the surface, beneath the sometimes bizarre and garish face that is most apparent. It makes us think about our values and viewpoints and points out conflicts that each of us must face in ourselves from time to time. Watching only the five-oíclock news on network television does not always give us an accurate picture of our world, nor of our lives. Some people see fiction as a way to escape reality; Iím one of those who look for insights that can help to clarify my own reality.

Iím looking forward to the next season of The West Wing, even ifóespecially ifóa Republican president enters that fictional office. It just might scuff off some of my ragged prejudices and allow me to see the "real world" more clearly.

 

Donald Skiff, March, 2005

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