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No Country for Old TV Shows

When ‘The West Wing’ returns for a reunion special on Thursday night, it’ll do so in a world that, in hindsight, it woefully misjudged

HBO Max/Ringer illustration

Earlier this month, the writer Jelena Woehr posted a lengthy Twitter thread in the style of The West Wing, the NBC political drama that worked to make policy talk and comms strategy sexy throughout the early aughts. Together, Woehr’s tweets read like a spec script in miniature, expertly aping the voice of writer-creator Aaron Sorkin as the senior staff of the former Bartlet Administration debate whether to issue a statement on President Trump’s confirmed case of COVID-19. There’s rat-a-tat dialogue, soaring rhetoric, and playful sparring. But the thread’s central joke is just how out of place the West Wing model feels when populated with more modern details: Portland protests, Jacobin magazine, the Lincoln Project, and of course, Megan Thee Stallion.

And yet on Thursday night, The West Wing really will insert itself into contemporary discourse. The cast has convened for a reunion special to promote voter turnout, featuring cameos from the likes of Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Bill Clinton. (The special is technically a benefit for When We All Vote, a nonprofit cochaired by the former first lady and Miranda, among others.) Rather than script a new hour of material, the special is instead a theatrical staging of “Hartsfield’s Landing,” the Season 3 episode in which Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet faces off in a literal chess match with his senior aides and a metaphorical one with China over a military exercise threatening Taiwan. The episode is named for the kickoff site of the New Hampshire primary, in keeping with the preelection theme. The special’s premise thankfully precludes the possibility of Allison Janney explaining what “WAP” actually stands for, though the episode will be tweaked somewhat to allow for appearances by the likes of alumna Elisabeth Moss, whose Zoey Bartlet never appeared in the original episode.

But the return of The West Wing in modified form also calls attention to just how poorly some aspects of the show have aged since it left the air in 2006. The show remains a titanic piece of television: Sorkin’s dense, lively scripts, most of which he wrote himself before departing after Season 4; Thomas Schlamme’s dynamic direction, enabling its famous walk-and-talks; an ensemble cast featuring everyone from a pre–Mad Men Moss to a pre-Oscar Janney. Unlike most TV shows, however—even TV shows about politics—The West Wing always drew on verisimilitude to its advantage. All those heated arguments took place across a painstaking dupe of the White House’s cramped, crowded office space; a Season 3 documentary special sandwiched interviews with real-life politicos like Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger between the weekly exploits of the fictional Bartlet crew. The show offered both the pure entertainment of a broadcast serial and the educational thrill of revealing how government “really” works behind the scenes. But when The West Wing made the appearance of political savvy part of its appeal, it left itself vulnerable to shifts in the political climate that now reveal just how subjective its worldview always was.

The West Wing premiered in 1999, toward the end of the Clinton administration. For most of its life, though, the show functioned as an escapist counterpoint to the tenure of George W. Bush. A Nobel-winning economist who wore his fact-fueled erudition on his sleeve, Bartlet won a second term by clobbering the plainspoken governor of a massive red-but-diversifying state. James Brolin’s Governor Ritchie may have hailed from Florida instead of Texas, but when comms director Toby Ziegler urged Bartlet to make the election about “smart and not” in the very episode set to be reprised on Thursday, it was an obvious rebuttal to the beer test figures like Bush used to smear liberals as out-of-touch elites. And when the centrist wonk handed off the presidency to a charismatic younger Congressman, the Bartlet-Santos transition imagined a sort of Clinton-Obama handoff, without a Bush (or multiple wars) in between.

But such escapism is far less tenable in a world where viewers are all too aware what happened after the victory of Matthew Santos’s flesh-and-blood analog. Some skeptics have attempted to charge The West Wing with nothing less than leading the Democratic Party astray and leaving the door open for the likes of Donald Trump. That’s an awfully large sin to lay at the feet of a single TV series whose influence on actual politicos is very real but nonetheless intangible. (Besides, that criticism invites an unsolvable chicken-or-the-egg riddle: Did The West Wing lead the liberal ruling class astray, or is it just the most visible example of a shared mindset?) Still, more than a decade of hindsight shows The West Wing’s underlying philosophy to be as debatable as it is comforting.

In an interview to promote his upcoming film The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin described how he would script the upcoming election: “For the first time, his Republican enablers march up to the White House and say ‘Donald, it’s time to go.’ I would write the ending where everyone does the right thing.” It’s a moment of admirable self-awareness. Sorkin freely admits this isn’t what would actually happen—just the Hollywood version that reads to the screenwriter as dramatically sound. “Everyone does the right thing” is nonetheless a neat description of the West Wing ethos. Boundless enthusiasm and sterling intentions always carry the day, a notion that remains stubbornly persistent despite being roundly disproven. But The West Wing was as entitled to create a world where that’s the case as House of Cards was to have a soon-to-be-president throw a woman in front of a moving train. Like any channeler of the zeitgeist, its sensibility merely dates it to a simpler, or perhaps more naive, time.

As evidenced by that “smart and not” comment, The West Wing’s highest value is intelligence, far more than ideology. “There’s no such thing as too smart,” one staffer argues before the Ritchie debate. “I’m a lawyer. Let’s let reason and logic have its moment,” pleads idealist Sam Seaborn. Bartlet himself presents the intelligent as something akin to an oppressed class: “What I can’t stand are people who are out to convince people that the educated are soft and privileged and out to make them feel like they’re less than,” he sighs in “Hartsfield’s Landing,” a clear response to Bush-era anti-intellectualism. Obviously, this attitude borders on smug, even if it’s superficially satisfying in a “nerds shall inherit the Earth” sort of way. Less obviously, the value Sorkin puts on brains leads him to devalue other assets—like conviction, or clarity, or even effectiveness.

For an exercise in liberal wish fulfillment, The West Wing is oddly disdainful of untrammeled idealism. Like Clinton, Bartlet is a fan of free trade, an issue that upsets his base and aligns him with his opposition—an arrangement the show sees as more virtue than vice. Once a protester himself, Ziegler derides an anti-WTO crowd as “philistines” and “spring break for anarchist wannabes.” It’s not a show about movement politics, but the technocrats who rarely venture outside the Beltway to see the impact their spirited debates have on real people (apart from a celebrated episode that gives staffers the idea to make college tuition not quite free, but tax deductible). In a similar vein, their antidote to outsourcing-induced job loss is “trade adjustment assistance”; The West Wing’s emphasis on insider knowledge and trained expertise makes dry jargon a bonus, not an obstacle to be overcome. Bartlet may be a stolid New Englander whose insurgent primary campaign upset his party’s higher-ups, but that’s about all he has in common with a straight-up leftist like Bernie Sanders.

The West Wing’s strange mix of open partisanship, avid intellectualism, and allergy to big-picture ambition leads to an obsession with bipartisanship that’s exhausting after enduring a decade of Republican obstruction. The extended cast is populated with GOP operatives like career diplomat Albie Duncan; chipper lawyer Ainsley Hayes; and most uncannily, Justice Christopher Mulready, the Scalia type Bartlet installs on the Supreme Court alongside an RBG surrogate because, well, he’s smart. The projected conflict between the two judges is presented as a productive debate instead of an obstacle to Bartlet’s policy goals. It’s hard not to cringe at now, as the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat praises Amy Coney Barrett and ignores the railroading of her nomination just before a major election. Like the discourse around Barrett’s intelligence and lack of reliance on notes, The West Wing frames a struggle for control as a polite difference of opinion, something anyone is entitled to as long as they’re sufficiently informed. How a West Wing character wields power is never as important as proving they’re qualified to wield it.

All of these tics are minor manifestations of The West Wing’s central tenet: a deep belief in institutions—the same ones that, depending on whom you ask, are now either severely tarnished or revealed to be the thin constructs they always were. The West Wing shows its reverence in an infatuation with the ceremonial trappings of the presidency: Sam and Josh Lyman spend an episode preparing Bartlet’s speech for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which our current president routinely skips; Bartlet hires a secretary because she addresses him as “President Bartlet” even when she’s excoriating him, showing respect for the office. The West Wing spends a disproportionate amount of time on foreign policy, the part of the job where the president is most empowered to act as a symbol representing an entire nation. Fifteen years later, Donald Trump’s crass demeanor, host of enablers, and utter disregard for norms have made a laughingstock of such reverence. Whether that’s a net positive or negative in your book, it makes The West Wing look a lot less like a docudrama on rewatch.

“This country is an idea,” Seaborn argues. “One that’s lit the world for two centuries.” That’s always been a controversial statement for those skeptical of America’s history of racism or ugly record abroad, but in the Trump era, that belief is even harder to defend. The defining scandal of Bartlet’s presidency was his voluntary disclosure of a chronic medical condition, relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. As of this writing, we still don’t know when President Trump last received a negative test for the novel coronavirus, or even with total certainty when he first tested positive. Most fiction requires some suspension of disbelief. In 2020, The West Wing demands a leap of faith that may be too large for some to take.