Thursday, May 18, 2017

Broken Dreams: Rewatching The West Wing in the Age of Trump

Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing.

When it premiered in 1999, The West Wing was a Platonic ideal, an optimistic, aspirational dream about what American politics could someday be. I recently indulged a craving to rewatch it (which, in hindsight, can only be categorized as the screech of my drowning mind grasping for purchase on saner shores), and I was shocked to discover that now, in 2017, it's not just aspirational – it's pure fantasy. The West Wing isn’t terribly realistic, but I never thought I'd see it as downright escapist. I used to think House of Cards was like The West Wing's evil twin, showing us the dark flip side of political motivations and maneuvering – but we live in a world where the Netflix drama's cautionary storytelling has been rendered irrelevant by the much worse reality we've been forced to accept. The political America that The West Wing depicts, a place of competence, hard work, cooperation, and hope, seems as fantastical and far away to my modern eyes as the forest moon of Endor. Maybe that’s why my brain reached out towards it. I just needed to escape, if only for an hour at a time, into a world where things made sense.

The White House of President Josiah Bartlet (played with folksy paternal wit by Martin Sheen) is one that prizes competence above all. The primary staffers under Bartlet – John Spencer’s Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry; his deputy, Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman; the communications tag team of Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler and Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn; and Allison Janney’s Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg – aren’t just the leaders in their respective fields; they’re near-superhuman avatars of professional excellence. That one friend you know who just seems to be operating on a higher level than everyone else, no matter what they do? Each of these characters graduated above that friend, with honours, and then went home and slept with their date. Writer-creator Aaron Sorkin made his bones with The West Wing (his short-lived sitcom Sports Night notwithstanding), and a large part of the show’s success must be attributed to the way its cast embodies the best of humanity. The America of The West Wing is plagued by the same muddy international reputation as the real West Wing, but this is a reputation that Bartlet and his staff constantly seek to shatter through the application of their fierce, creative, ever-firing brains. Is it any wonder that this comes as a relief when my social media feeds are filled with videos of the Press Secretary aggressively making an idiot of himself, the President himself speaking in garbled, incoherent terms, or the entire administration being admonished for its gross incompetence? This is a White House that even Sorkin couldn’t imagine, a place in which reason and discourse aren’t the norm – they’re the enemy. The West Wing couldn’t have anticipated this level of institutionalized ignorance, and so its cleverness and luminosity seem almost tragically deluded by comparison. 

Even lower-level West Wing staffers, such as Janel Moloney’s Donatella Moss (a name I never get tired of saying aloud) or DulĂ© Hill’s Charlie Young, are played with the same dignity and poise as the President himself, suggesting a White House that holds itself to the highest possible standard: a place that asks everyone inside to dedicate themselves as wholly to their jobs as the person who sits in the Oval Office. The oft-parodied “walk and talk” sequences popularized by the show – which were a way to show off both the expansive, detailed sets as well as Sorkin’s trademark patter – are just one way that the show portrays the White House as an active seat of government, where the buzz of phones and televisions and criss-crossing staffers running from meeting to meeting suggests a building full of people who have worked their asses off just to be there. The West Wing is, in essence, a television drama about public service, and the passion of those who serve. Toby Ziegler’s dedication to his administration’s moral duties, C.J.’s dedication to her responsibility to the press, and Bartlet’s dedication to using his powers for the common good are sewn into the fabric of every episode. Contrast this with our reality, in which the President of the United States spends millions of taxpayer dollars to go on resort trips, fucks off to the green when he gets bored, and has whined that being President is harder work than he’d like. Is this the behaviour of a person who has earned his status and station through hard work? Who feels bound by a sense of duty? Who is guided by a moral compass? Who serves anyone but himself? President Trump is like the dog who actually caught the car it was chasing, and doesn’t know what to do next. I know there are hardworking people – the ones the press has no room to write about – who are actually running the country in the midst of all this, and I enjoy The West Wing in silent tribute to them. 

Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing.

Another hallmark of the Bartlet administration is its spirit of cooperation, which of course has no seat at Trump’s table. Romantic relationships make up a good chunk of The West Wing’s myriad subplots, from Sam’s liason with a hooker who’s taking the bar exam, to C.J.’s romantic trysts with Timothy Busfield’s White House correspondent Danny Concannon – but these are secondary to the relationships among the senior staffers that are forged, tested, broken, and remade by the constant pressures of the job. It’s only by supporting one another – especially when they don’t want to, or when it would be politically damaging, such as in the wake of Leo’s confession to the press about his history of substance abuse – that any of them survives through Bartlet’s terms as President. Trump’s administration is marked by similar fighting for survival, but not as a united front against political opponents: everyone in there is simply looking out for number one. Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, behaving for all to see like the leering vizier intent on stealing his master’s power, has been caught out by the suspicious sultan in his nakedly evil ambitions and relegated to the kids’ table. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, speaking at an event in Berlin in support of her father, was booed by a crowd that saw right through her bald-faced insincerity. All evidence points to a White House in disarray, populated by liars and self-serving opportunists. I’d be surprised if Trump even made time to meet with half his staffers, let alone form bonds with them and treasure their counsel as Bartlet does with his core team. You’d think a person whom the world only knew as a businessman until recently – and a blustering, delusional, incompetent one at that – would at least know how to manage a staff. 

I think the most outlandish thing that The West Wing asserts, though, is its core message of hope. “I serve at the pleasure of the President,” a phrase often uttered by the staffers to indicate their solidarity with the Commander-in-Chief, could be the show’s rallying cry. They have faith that the man they backed will lead them in the right direction, and he himself feels he owes it to them in return to do just that. The West Wing exudes hope from every frame – hope that one day, if we learn to elevate the intelligent and goodhearted to positions of power and reject the corrupt and the greedy, the world might actually look something like what Sorkin puts up on the screen. Other shows, notably Star Trek, have taken on the challenge of presenting us as human beings in our best possible form, and few succeed at selling that daring, foolish, romantic optimism with the brilliance of The West Wing. But when something as insidious, as poisonous, as terrifyingly Orwellian as “alternative facts” is the living legacy of a real Presidential administration, hope and optimism can seem like distant, fading dreams. 

Many of my fellow writers at Critics at Large have aired their despair and rage about this bizarro reality in which we find ourselves, all with a finer-tuned political acumen than the one I possess. I know a lot more about cinematic craft than I do about politics, and I hardly feel qualified to speak on the matter. But I can’t deny my own feelings, and like the rest of us, I needed a healthy outlet for my confusion and melancholy. I turned to one of my favourite television shows to soothe those painful feelings, and it didn’t disappoint – but it also revealed the surprising gulf between what I imagined the world of American politics to be like, and what it really is. My advice for those feeling the same way would be to preserve your mental health however you can, and seek out solace in the fiction that shows you the world as you’d like it to be. Take those ideas, study them, and apply them in your life. But be wary of false promises and wishful thinking. Shows like The West Wing can provide a nice escape, but the real world is still out there beyond your window, and here’s the truth: Trump is always going to be stranger than fiction. 

 Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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