Since the advent of TV on DVD (and even more so since the creation of Netflix’s instant streaming service), I’ve been a shameless proselytizer for the many excellent TV programs of the last, say, decade and a half that I’ve caught up on once their original audiences moved on or well after the original audience arrived, anyway. The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones fit the bill. I was up on The Walking Dead from the beginning, although I admit to have fallen behind of late. (Curse you, midseason break! You throw me off every year.) TV has become THE place for long-form storytelling. It offers character development and narrative arc complexity that no two-hour film can match (not to say movies aren’t incredible in their own ways, but they’re obviously limited).
A great many smart people claim that TV’s take over as the preeminent form of narrative media started with The Sopranos. HBO was offering something that we hadn’t seen before, or so the story goes.
But I beg to differ. In 1999, right alongside HBO’s strange new animal debuted a regular ol’ network drama called The West Wing. When TV historians (because that’s a thing we have now) tell the tale of how the medium changed in ’99, they don’t often mention the show that brought a big time screenwriter and playwrite (Aaron Sorkin) and won four straight Emmys for Best Drama (I’m not saying awards always get it right, but it’s something). While The West Wing isn’t exactly forgotten (it routinely places pretty highly on “Best of” lists), it too often plays second class citizen to its cable-based brethren. Well, I’m here to tell you that it deserves better, that it deserves to be seen (or re-seen if you missed any of it the first time through).
1. The Theme Music
Not a compelling enough first reason, right? Right. But hear me out. Each episode of The West Wing opens with a short scene that sets the stage for the rest of the show and/or bridges the gap between the current and previous episodes. Almost without fail, the moment that ends the opening scene is (A) particularly profound, (B) shocking or unexpected in some important way, or (C) thoroughly amusing. And then the music swells from nothing into a triumphant wave of horns and strings that I would be totally ok with writing words to and using as our new national anthem. The music alone could convince me to run for office…
2. Its Aspirational Quality
… which leads me here. Politics is an ugly mess. We don’t trust, like, or even expect much out of our so-called public servants, right? The West Wing doesn’t pretend politics aren’t ugly, or that the politicians who create the ugliness should be loved anyway. Instead, it abides firmly by Churchill’s maxim that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The show’s characters constantly display ideals and aspirations that even they know they likely can’t achieve, and yet they never stop trying. The President and his staff are the show’s primary characters, and at every turn these people are besieged by the incongruities of political office. Political hectoring and horse trading and obstructionism frustrate their attempts to push an agenda that they feel is best for the country (even if you don’t). But even in these moments of near rage at the difficulties of the process, the show consistently illustrates that this is not just the way it is as a kind of fatalistic cop-out, but that this is the way it must be. Democracy should be messy and difficult and frustrating because nothing good comes easy. Defeats don’t crush their hope of service, they mostly just cause a redoubling of effort. The show loves to throw around the phrase “our best selves” used by Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet to describe the way we might be if we relied on hope rather than cynicism and pushed ourselves to make the right choices rather than the easy ones. I can’t claim that The West Wing shows us politics and government as it is; it aims higher, showing us instead what they might be.
3. Its Focus on Language
This may seem like a(nother) strange thing to focus on when it comes to a TV drama, but as a guy with a passion for the way we use words, The West Wing is practically euphoric. Not only is the writing excellent (although I’ll confess that things become a little more heavy handed and less crisp once you reach the Sorkin-less seasons [5-7]), but the characters themselves – primarily Communications Director and head speech writer Toby Zeigler and his deputy Sam Seaborn – understand just how meaningful language is to the way we address our nation’s most pressing political and ethical issues. These guys live and die with the right choice of words, and they consistently reveal to us all that has to be considered before we open our mouths or put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard.
4. You WILL Learn Something You Didn’t Know Before
A list of things I first learned about on The West Wing: capital gains tax, appropriations committees, judicial confirmation, mandatory minimum sentences, tax credits, health care reform, and continuing resolutions. This was between ages 14-16, during the show’s original run. Even though the show sometimes has to stage situations where complex governmental or political activity is taking place just so that the audience won’t be lost, these exchanges are usually provide genuine insight into processes that might otherwise remain entirely mysterious to viewers. (Yes, I know you can just look up the things I mentioned earlier, but isn’t delivering them through a satisfying narrative so much better? Yes. Yes it is.)
5. You’ll Want Jed Bartlet to be Your President
Ok, maybe you won’t. Not if you’re one of the lunatics who threatened Curt when he wrote about gun control. But I think a great many people would go for a president (however you feel about the current one) was a devout Catholic, Nobel Prize-winning economist from New Hampshire. There are times when this fictional Commander-in-Chief eviscerates an opponent or drops the hammer in a moving speech that I’m half-ready to leap from the couch and start going door to door. The gravitas of Sheen’s performance and the writing of the character never fail to impress.
So there. The West Wing is currently available in all its glory on Netflix’s instant streaming service. If you don’t have it, sign up for a free one month trial and binge-watch to your heart’s content.