The World is Fucked, I'm Off to Watch 'The West Wing'
Fate has a funny sense of humour, last week I had an important stretch of events and meetings for work that I was actually looking forward to. No, really, I was excited! (I know, I’m a nerd, leave me alone…) So, of course, I was struck down with a nasty virus, which seemed to come with a requirement that I generate a significant portion of the snot quota for the population of greater Glasgow… You’re welcome for that pretty picture!
Excessive mucus aside, it meant about 4 days of doing nothing other than lie on the couch, feeling sorry for myself. I seem to get a similar virus every year to 18 months, and when it happens I find the best way to stave off my inherent propensity for slipping into a state of irredeemable grumpy hermit is to find a TV show or movie series to binge watch. I tend to like things that meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Is light-hearted and/or life-affirming
- Has lots of explosions and kick ass fight scenes
- Includes some element of magical realism
- Is something I already love and so the familiarity will be comforting
- Has at least one character whose dark wit is as black as my soul
- Is clever/teaches me about something through the drama
- Has hot superheroes
On this particular occasion the need for a distraction was compounded by the fact that I fell into a Twitter hole surrounding the current state of world politics. Tangent Alert! What the Actual Fuck is up with the world at the moment? We get one step forward (well done Ireland on repealing the 8th!) before Trump or some other eejit pulls us back a thousand steps. Railing against the G7, making pals with North Korea, tearing children from the arms of their parents? My mind can hardly compute the mindboggling idiocy and moral vacuum that is the grand high Cheeto…
But back to the main story, closer to home it was the continued efforts of the Tory party to ride roughshod over the Scottish people and our Parliament in their Brexit deal-making that was raising my blood pressure. I needed a distraction post haste, if there was any hope of me not exploding into a swearing, incoherent mess all over social media. Given the cause of my ire, it is perhaps surprising that I alighted on “The West Wing” as the binge-watching choice for my convalescence, but hopefully it will soon make sense. Also, why it might benefit more people to revisit this excellent programme.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show (if we’re currently friends and this is true of you, I may need to insist you rectify this mistake soon or our friendship may need to be dissolved….), it revolves around the fictitious US President, Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlett, and his staff, whose offices are based in the West Wing of the White House. Running from 1999-2006, it was created, and led for the first four seasons, by Aaron Sorkin of whom I am a BIG FAN. The show tell tales of the inner wheeling-and-dealing of DC politics as the administration tries to improve the lot of the American people and the world at large. The characters are all exceptionally clever and quick witted, but are sometimes prone to doing stupid things with the best intentions; they are flawed but fundamentally good.
It’s these interesting, funny, challenging and complex characters that bring me back to the show again and again. I’m pretty sure that by this point I’ve watched all of the seven seasons at least three or four times each, and some episodes many more times than that. For example, the first two episodes of the second season, “In the Shadow of Two Gunman, parts one and two”, are permanent residents on my ‘favourite TV episodes of all time’ list and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d watched them 10 times or more. So, while watching a show about politics would seem like an odd choice given what was upsetting and infuriating me, it falls so firmly into category 4 above (comforting familiarity) that this could be overlooked! It also gives a strong showing under 1, 5 and 6.
For a show about politics it can be wonderfully light-hearted. Check out the ‘big block of cheese’ episodes for good examples of this. Here, the senior staff of the West Wing are, for one day a year, forced by their boss to take meetings with people (at one point referred to as ‘crackpots’) who would never normally get their ear. Cue classic scenes such of researchers (including a young Nick Offerman!) lobbying for $900 million dollars to build a wolf highway and another asking for the penny to be abolished. These episodes are treated with a light-hearted humour and affection that is endlessly appealing.
It is also a show that can be life-affirming, even if it leaves you wishing that you lived in a world where Jed Bartlett was president instead of the current nightmare. One of the reasons I find it to be so is that the West Wing graces us with one of the greatest female characters of all time, C.J. Cregg, played by the incomparable Allison Janney. Janney won four of her seven Emmys for the role, and it doesn’t take much watching to see why. C.J. is whip smart, funny, forth-right and consistently beats down the chauvinists and mansplainers she encounters. She is arguably one of the more junior members of the main staff group at the beginning but rises to become top dog before the show’s conclusion. Best of all she is not stuck with a ‘bitch’ persona so often given to successful women in fiction. She is endlessly compassionate whilst taking absolutely no crap. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear me say ‘I’d like to be C.J. when I grow-up’, although on this recent rewatch I realised she was around my age in the later seasons. Boy, do I feel like an underachiever!
C.J. is also one of the many characters that displays deliciously dark wit through the series. It’s a show that is endlessly quotable, the dialogue coming fast and furious. While the main characters have obvious love and admiration for each other, they’re also quick with a sarcastic remark when the opportunity presents. A trait I always admire and am amused by. I particularly enjoy the President’s wit; the West Wing does a good job of showing the reality of what it means to be a human in a role where an entire nation expects you to superhuman. The camaraderie Bartlett has with his staff and their friendly banter perfectly demonstrates this human perspective. In a favourite scene, the President and the senior staff are shown playing poker, the president posing grammar and word puzzles at the same time (have I mentioned he’s the ultimate nerd, I love that too!) The result is a stream of affectionate jibes in his direction.
Finally, in reference to my list, watching the West Wing serves as an education. Not least about the structure and working of the US political system. I feel relatively well educated on the mechanics of US elections, Congress, the Senate and the White House and at least 90% of that knowledge comes from the West Wing (a nod also to Parks and Rec, but I’m sure I’ll write a blog post on my love for that show in the not too distant future). But it educates on a huge number of other topics too, from world politics to social issues. One of my favourite lessons comes from another of the ‘big block of cheese day’ episodes where C.J. meets with a group of cartographers. Turns out the world map we all know so well is just one ‘projection’ (the Mercator) and it’s not particularly representative of the actual size and relation of countries. In fact, as stated in the episode, it’s pretty prejudiced towards the Northern Hemisphere and the cartographers suggest using the Peters projection instead, which promptly blows C.J.’s mind (this blog post shows examples and includes the clip in question: http://theconversation.com/five-maps-that-will-change-how-you-see-the-world-74967).
This latest rewatch I focused mainly on seasons six and seven. Two seasons which I’ve watched the least and ones that are generally less well regarded as they are part of the post-Aaron Sorkin era. Part of the reason I chose to watch these was because they not only focus on the Bartlett White House but also on the election of his successor from primaries through to the inauguration. In a piece of epic foreshadowing the eventual democratic candidate, Matthew Santos, was loosely based on Barrack Obama. His opponent is a moderate republican called Arnie Vinnick. Both men were fundamentally good and the type of statesman I wish existed more in reality. At a time when politics is a seemingly never-ending run of depressing stories, it was wonderful to watch real political discourse, even if it was fictious, that elevated itself well above the lowest common denominator.
The reality The West Wing depicts is by no means perfect, but it is perhaps just that bit better than the one we live in. A place where politicians with real vision and morals exist. Sadly, there's no explosions or hot superheroes, but you can't have everything. I imagine I’ll return to the show many more times, particularly in the near future if the current political climate continues. If you’ve never seen it or haven’t watched it in years I recommend you remedy that as soon as possible. Perhaps it can help inspire us all to become more involved in the political process and stop the rot that has taken hold…