TV show review: The West Wing

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You think the hair’s bad? Let’s get into the plot. Francois Pichard via Flickr

Considering the most presidential of office TV shows almost 15 years after its last episode

Movies and TV shows about the typical day-to-day workings of an office space abound, and it makes sense that some are more interesting than others. Such shows exist across diverse genres, from comedy/mockumentary to police procedurals. One such show, off the air for nearly two decades now, is The West Wing. This is where I must concede that, while technically there is nothing wrong with mentioning The West Wing as a TV show about the day in the life of an office staff, to do so runs the risk of missing a crucial factor. And that is even before I take into consideration the facts that The West Wing has been ranked among the best television shows of all time by several publications, received two Peabody Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and a staggering 26 Primetime Emmy Awards. In fact, The West Wing won the award for Outstanding Drama Series for four of the seven years it was on the air.

What is so special about a show about the daily lives of office staff? It so happens that the office that is referred to as the “West Wing” is located inside the White House. The employees whose lives we follow are the lawyers, speechwriters, campaign managers and of course, the Chief of Staff and fictional President of the United States Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen. Sheen plays a Democrat president who is a liberal academic with multiple accolades like a tenured professorship and a Nobel Prize in Economics to his name. In hindsight, his character is clearly based heavily on a mix of Bill Clinton and possibly Al Gore.

It should be mentioned here that even as an ardent fan of the show, it did get hard at times to stomach the notion of this superhuman individual who has been an economist, professor, governor of a state, and is also a wealth of trivia about pretty much any topic in the world. While the argument can be made that we should not be expecting realism from a TV show, I find it a little unfortunate that the show writers felt the need to depict the president as someone this extraordinarily talented and seemingly flawless. Except that’s not quite true: Bartlett does have his share of flaws, but it’s best not to divulge them here so readers can better enjoy their journey through seven years of life in the White House, with his competent and committed staff and one national or international situation to deal with after another.

Exceedingly well-written, the show also doesn’t shy away from being brutally realistic in depicting the real business of governing. The polling for national approval, the frequent meetings with the opposition to broker deals, the ways in which each side often essentially blackmails the other into accepting deals are all featured. Often, the main drama in an entire episode is the White House attempting to either do damage control on or leverage a moment when a staff or cabinet member says or does something that is guaranteed to rouse some special interest lobby like tobacco, guns, or Christian Evangelists. At least in this sense, the show is realistic – perhaps enough so to justify the cynicism we often feel about the political process.

Despite the accolades and the lasting legacy, The West Wing does have its limitations. For one, the overarching theme of the show often calls upon the viewer to buy into the notion of American exceptionalism, and the notion that the US president is somehow head and shoulders above his counterparts all around the world. While it cannot be denied that the USA is a global leader, it would also be nice to be able to watch a show without the oft-occurring reminder of how it is the self-proclaimed greatest democracy/the new world/the land of the free. Of course, the show went off the air in 2007, so maybe the writers can be excused of this. Even with this minor hindrance, The West Wing remains a wonderful show if you love drama, politics, and brilliant storytelling!

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