“Because I’m tired of it! Year, after year, after year of having to choose between the lesser of who cares? Of trying to get myself excited over a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can’t get elected president. I don’t believe that, do you?” -Leo McGarry
I started watching “The West Wing” a few weeks ago, the first season DVD set having been sitting half forgotten on a shelf for the better part of five years. I never watched the show when it was on, but always had it in the back of my mind as one those shows that was of reputed enough quality that it should be on the list at some point. Nothing but reruns on television and the Internet, and this set of DVDs had floated to the top of a pile right next to the television through one rearranging or another, and so it won out over alternatives. I’ll not write a proper review here at this late date, not when enough words have been spilled elsewhere over it. The bottom line is that it is a fantastic show, the sort that might preach, but does so with such furious righteousness and intensely developed characters that it is simply a joy to watch. It’s one of those dramas that has more laughs than most comedies, even while being able to make you furious and heartbroken from one scene to the next.
The funny thing though is the absolute preponderance of purely political characters. Run through the list of main characters, the ones who all the focus is on. Sure, there’s the President, but he’s almost a side character in his own show. He’s there to say urgent things and get righteously angry. But the people actually running things are all essentially campaign personnel. Chief of staff, press secretary, media consultant, communications director, and deputies to each of those positions. Notice anything about those positions? The Chief of Staff is the gate keeper and schedule manager of the president and the others are all concerned with image right there in their job descriptions. There’s a regular revolving door of experts of the week, of generals and advisors for the problems of the week, but the core group, the people with their fingers in everything and actually running the country at the highest levels are the speech writers and campaign strategists.
It takes an astounding leap of story-telling confidence to make a show so fundamentally optimistic and idealistic centered around what amounts to the PR team. There’s a surface idealism, suggesting that despite the messiness and ugliness of politics on display throughout the series, the endless back room deals, betrayals, negotiations over the nonnegotiable, that there are still good people trying to do what’s right. But there’s a deeper cynicism when you peel back that layer, a cynicism about the nature of the system. The people who have risen to the top, who stand in the corridors of power and make the decisions that make or break our lives, are not the most competent, the most moral, even the best intentioned. They are the ones who can say the prettiest words though, the ones who carve the loveliest veneer for their candidate. They’re the ones who play the crooked game the best.
That’s the fundamental brilliance of the show, the way it sneaks in under your defenses. If the series had featured terrible and cynical individuals in these positions, the slick salesmen of appearances, it would have been a preachy mess. It would have punctured the veil of believability. Imagine the horror of an immoral man in the shoes of any of Bartlett’s crises, or nightmare incarnations of Toby, Josh and Sam, with all the demonstrated tools of manipulation but none of the deep faith in the mission of governing well. It wouldn’t have run for seven seasons because it would have had all the drama of watching a train wreck over and over again on an endless loop, no protagonists, no victories, just the monotony of sound and fury rendered impotent.
The hint is right there in Bartlett’s background. He was a dark horse whom no one gave a shot of winning, he was a Nobel prize winning economist who almost had become a priest. He is a man of brilliance, a man of faith, and a man who doesn’t have one shot in a million of actually winning the presidency. The show gives us impossibly idealistic characters fighting a broken system that they never manage to change. The calculus that lingers in our subconscious can notice that the white knights don’t really exist, can re-render each scene with who we really know runs things, and thus can a series of such surface idealistic optimism be a horrifying message of cynicism. The idealism is the sugar wrapping around the poison pill, of the suspicion that in a crooked game it’s unreasonable to hope for honest players.
Is the show that deeply cynical or does it just take on that sheen in the cynic’s eye? It’s both really, the show is a perfect synthesis of the optimist and the cynic. It manages to portray at different angles the dream of what democracy can be and the nightmare it can become. But in some things, you don’t get the dream without the nightmare. The elements that make a system work are sometimes the same elements that make it dysfunctional. Free speech doesn’t come without liars, and elections don’t happen without idiots voting too. The best we can do is fix the imperfections we can, accept those we can’t, and hope we can tell the difference. Go down swinging if we must. And that’s what letting Bartlett be Bartlett is really about.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.