Register Monday | December 9 | 2019

Political Fictions, Real and Imagined

As the West Wing winds down, the only political drama worth watching is on CNN

One of my husband’s oldest friends is Peter James Smith, who plays “Ed” on The West Wing. The character of Ed, almost always seen with “Larry” (Bill Duffy) is an aid in the White House who tends to walk briskly down corridors, hold papers and occasionally ask questions about random pieces of legislation. Occasionally he gets a really good moment: A couple weeks ago, Ed and Larry were trying to spy on the kerfuffle caused when Toby (Richard Schiff) admitted that he had leaked national security secrets. CJ (Allison Janney) noticed them spying and said something like “If you’re done with your work, perhaps you should go home,” and Ed jumped back with a classic comedic double-take. Last Sunday, as we had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant in LA, I told him that I thought it was the best episode in years. I also pressed him for gossip but sadly, he’s a right-on dude and didn’t reveal anything.

Both my obsession with The West Wing and my belief that it is now nearly as good as it has ever been are not shared by the majority of the voting public. Ratings are way down this year, though that is more likely the result of the show’s new timeslot (it airs on Sundays now, after six years in its Wednesday slot). Season five (2003-2004) was the really big sink, and that was because Aaron Sorkin, the insanely talented writer who created the show, left and was replaced by John Wells. (Yes, that John Wells—the man who gave us ER, but also was responsible for Third Watch.) Suddenly the writing was less crisp, the stories more politically moderate, there were more special effects and oddly, the lighting was darker. Only towards the end of last season, when the race to succeed President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) started heating up did we get a new, cracklingly tense West Wing.

Two things happened: CJ got promoted to Chief of Staff and Alan Alda was cast as Senator Arnold Vinick—the maverick, John McCain-ish Republican nominee for president. New faces and new situations helped the series, as does the impending end of the Bartlet presidency which freed the show to shift towards three parallel storylines: Bartlet’s troubled, lame-duck presidency; the surging Vinick campaign; and the campaign of Matthew Santos, a Democratic nominee played by Jimmy Smits.

Wells has said publicly that he has not decided who is going to win the election, and this is clearly a position based on what happened during Bartlet’s re-election, when his Republican opponent (in a twist of irony, played by Barbra Streisand’s husband James Brolin) was a barely veiled stand-in for George W. Bush: dumb as a sack of ping-pong balls and controlled by the religious right. Sorkin, a liberal, was accused of using his show as lefty propaganda and Wells has worked to make the show more moderate, making the Republicans nicer and the Democrats—especially Bartlet’s employees—vastly more flawed. But in the character of Vinick, Wells has created the liberal dream of a Republican: pro-choice and deeply troubled by the right wing of his party.

Meanwhile, Santos is a complex Democrat; a practicing Catholic, a free-thinker, and disgusted by politics-as-usual. It’s obvious that Santos is going to win the election because his campaign includes West Wing regulars Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford); Lyman’s once-trusty sidekick Donna Moss (Janel Moloney); and Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Bartlet’s former Chief of Staff and now Santos’s running mate.

A Santos presidency is not one I relish; partly because Vinick is a more conflicted, difficult character; partly because Alda is an electric, explosive presence on screen; and partly because Smits is a dull (if sexy) actor who portrays the same sort of politician. Plus, Santos’s wife is played by Teri Polo, who—although cute—is a far, far, far cry from Mrs. Bartlet; played by Stockard Channing, an actor who can emote more with her elbow than Teri Polo can with her entire body and 73 takes.

But the West Wing election is months away and until then the dramatic tension is high. This week for instance the episode will be live—Santos and Vinick will have a mock debate in a remarkable November-sweeps stunt. That should be fun. And last week, Toby admitted he was the leaker, which had been the central mystery of the lame-duck-president plotline. That episode was a political ethics debate fantasy; its depiction of betrayal, anger, arrogance and sadness was upsetting—even more so because I’m pretty sure that Scooter Libby’s indictment this week did not elicit the same sort of angst in the real White House. When Bartlet angrily and sadly fired Toby, accusing him of thinking he was a better man than the president, my heart clenched. Scooter’s resignation—caused by a much more serious scandal—was accepted “reluctantly.” That’s why the West Wing has been so loved, especially by middle-class liberals—it’s a complicated fantasy of how we want government to work, how we want our officials to behave; idealism always, and Machiavellian only when absolutely necessary.

I’m distressed by the ratings-dive this season because it makes another season less probable. I would like to be proved wrong about Santos and Smits, and I can’t imagine life without Josh and Donna and CJ (and Ed). I need a fantastical counterpoint to the actual White House—which is playing out like the worst horror movie of all time—and ABC’s new show about the presidency simply won’t cut it.

Commander in Chief offers Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen. Sadly, this first female president is not a candidate I can support. While the show focuses on the wacky “what if?” scenarios of a first female presidency, it is still about the White House and the West Wing, so the sets and the political problems differ only vaguely from what everyone’s been watching on NBC for the past six seasons. Perhaps trying to carve out its own identity, Commander-in-Chieffocuses more on the president and her unpleasant, tedious family, rather than on an ensemble of flawed, over-achieving political wonks. I don’t care a whit about the First Gentleman’s emasculation (get over it!), the First Daughter’s adolescence (grow up!), or how many cynical staff members the president can fire in one episode (yawn!). As the president, Geena Davis is surprisingly stiff and cold, and as her political opponent, the Speaker of the House, Donald Sutherland chews more scenery than a very hungry Anthony Hopkins. After watching last week’s episode, I was so bored that I switched to CNN, where the government drama was horrifically real, but at least interesting.

Ted Gideonse lives in San Diego and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Read more columns by Ted Gideonse.