The West Wing: Terrible Blasphemy Or Best Show Ever?

We have a lot of strong opinions around here. While we generally try not to throw things, sometimes, it just doesn't work out that way. Such was the case when two of our editors realized their very, very different feelings about The West Wing, a much-beloved show from the late '90s that dramatized the personal and professional goings-on of the White House staff. Tensions were running high, but before it turned into an all-out brawl, we separated the pair and had them pour their energies into an impassioned defense of their respective positions.
First up, our executive features editor Neha Gandhi spills her heart about the many merits of this show — but she won't get off that easy. In round two, news editor Lexi Nisita eviscerates the popular program in a lightning round. Who wins the fight of the century? That's up to you to decide.
Oh, and by the way, if watching us argue amongst ourselves is your cup of tea, check out our epic battle over the values and faults of Lost right here.
photoEMBEdPhoto: Courtesy of NBC.
The West Wing Brilliantly Explores The Good And Bad Of Bleeding-Heart Politics
Quite frankly, it's a fallacy that this even requires writing. The West Wing is brilliant. And emotional. And evocative. And inspiring. And just plain old good television. What kind of person even needs to be convinced of all of that?
Apparently, some of you (ahem, Lexi — I've got your number). So, fine. Here we go.
First things first: This intro score and the one to Friday Night Lights are the only two that actually make my heart swell every time I hear them.
But, it's so much more than that. This is Aaron Sorkin being smart and quick and topical and Sorkin-y, before that was a trope. Every single episode (especially in the first two seasons) makes you put away the laptop and focus intently on what's unfolding in the scene in front of you. And listen to the razor-sharp dialogue. And fall in love with each of the characters — not just Josh and Leo and CJ, but Ainsley Hayes, too — for every flash of genius as well as every humbling moment of failure.
And sure, the stereotypes around the women who fill the secretary roles (and they are all women) is disconcerting (the promise of CJ's inspiring Press Secretary or of Ainsley's brilliant foil to Sam Seaborn aren't quite enough to counter that). And if I'm being honest, I still feel a little annoyed about pretty much everything related to Donna. But the show offers enough that thrills and inspires me outside of that, that I'm able to overlook it. Or chalk it up to a late-'90/early-aughts idea that wouldn't fly today.
Because most importantly, this show makes you think long and hard about what it means to commit to your liberal ideology (should you choose to do so in the first place), with rose-colored glasses firmly in place. Amazingly, the politics of this show lean bleeding-heart in a way that's powerful and beautiful and completely naive — and totally the point of good drama. You wish you lived in a country where State of the Union addresses were that short and sweet and built solely around ideology rather than practicality. And you wish you the problems bred by the inefficiency of democracy and the contention of partisanship were so easily put aside at the end of a 43-minute arc.
Even today, upon second viewing, when I'm not a bright-eyed college student chomping at the bit to vote in her first election, but rather, an adult who's seen politicians — from the far left to the far right — fail and succeed in equal measure, the moments of hope around ideas like gun control and of disappointment around fictional Central African coups, are no less powerful. Those things mean something. As does President Bartlet's stance on them. Even if it's not as easy to get behind muddied compromises and ever-rarer moments of across-the-aisle cooperation, in real life.
And finally: Josh Lyman. Is perfect. Even in his most pretentiously self-aggrandizing moments, he's perfect. And anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. The end.
Aaron Sorkin Is In Love With Himself, And It's A Huge Turn-Off
Look, guys. I'm going to be honest with you. I have only seen about four episodes of The West Wing. I know that gives me very little ground to stand on in this heated discussion, but the truth is, I just couldn't bear another second of it. Aaron Sorkin was actually causing me physical pain.
I first started watching the show after finishing Battlestar Galactica on Netflix. Desperate for a new fix and having heard rave reviews from a close friend, I thought this could be the one. And trust me, I went into it with more than an open mind. I was excited, thrilled, determined this would fill the void. It aches to think of how naive and pure I was back in those days.
Of course, I couldn't quite grasp all the topical references and the way the show supposedly encapsulated the mood of the liberal, American smartypants in the 1990s, considering I was watching it on a laptop screen more than a decade after the fact. So maybe that's part of the reason why I wasn't initially hooked, but it doesn't explain why I was groaning at record volume.
The dialogue, once you cut through the obnoxious Gilmore Girls (sorry, folks, but don't even get me started on that one) rhythm of it all, suffers from an obscenely magnanimous tone that's positively dripping with conceit at its own wonderfulness. This really hit home for me in a scene where a young, black man named Charlie is hired as the president's personal aide. While the President snaps at him at first, at the end of the episode your dear POTUS is redeemed with a quick speech about how yes, he is aware that the young man's mother was killed on the job as a police officer, and yes he and his administration are very concerned about the handguns that caused her death. I take no issue with the statements themselves about handguns and the sympathy for Charlie's mom (my problems with this show have little to do with its politics). It's the camerawork that gets me, here. The way we slowly zoom in on President Bartlett during his little speech seems designed to leave you awestruck at his humble, concerned brilliance. Then there's the fact that, after being written out of a final draft, Charlie was clumsily introduced into the show three episodes in, due to criticism that the show featured only white characters. Again, I don't have a problem with a show being more diverse, and I'm sure those criticisms were warranted. But instead of trying to create a more realistic picture of what the White House looks like, I got the sense that the show was just congratulating itself on having been generous enough to hire a black actor (so proud of you, guys!). And whatever his character may have developed into later, it felt like an obvious, awkward patch-up rather than a genuine introduction.
Now, back to the Gilmore Girls thing. The West Wing is basically that same style of cringe-worthy constant faux-punchlines, except this time, it takes place in a bunch of hallways. I feel comfortable saying that about 90-95% of this show is just people walking through hallways, passing each other sheets of paper, glorying in how busy and important they all are. As far as the banter goes, I'm willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, this is an example of "good TV writing." It's perky, fast-paced, and you can tune into the banter at any moment (for me, that was just further proof of the fact that the show has very little substance aside from its so-called witty banter, but I can see the appeal). So, perhaps that means that "TV writing" just isn't my thing. But as for the content itself around which this banter revolves, it still felt — at least in those first few episodes, and I know that may change — like a bunch of extremely nuanced, difficult issues were just brought up as opportunities for characters to deftly display their (as Neha put it) bleeding hearts.
I don't doubt that a large part of my very visceral response here is the fact that since The West Wing was on air, politics have become even more polarized, and fighting factions have made it even more difficult for reasonable reform to take place in this country. So, perhaps, viewed in that light, this show feels both naive and ridiculous in its attempt to dramatize the goings on of Washington. Episodes like the aforementioned "A Proportionate Response" (where Charlie first appears) claim to set aside cosmetic concerns and focus on more important things, but instead they conveniently brush off the nuance of American politics to make a stage for a whole lot of pomposity. I know I'm in the minority here, maybe I'm missing some kind of Sorkin-loving gene. Sorry, but I was born this way. Though, I do like CJ, because I pretty much like anything Allison Janney has ever done. Just not enough to make me sit through another 40 minutes of this show.

More from Entertainment

R29 Original Series