We finished Season Seven of The West Wing recently. Yes, at last, I guess, but one of the glories of the DVD is how easy it makes attacking a TV series serially. I first saw Virginia Postrel mention this novelistic bonus side-effect of laser technology. And like Buffy, or War and Peace, watching it this way lets the grander themes unfold in a way that the deconstructive experience of catching a dozen arbitrarily ordered M*A*S*H repeats does not.
The comparison with Tolstoy is warranted at another level, as the world Aaron Sorkin gives us is a sweeping and moralistic one. It’s one of high power and great privilege, but also of real, intertwined relationships. It’s also a religous world. The West Wing has to be seen as a text in what Normal Mailer called the American Civic Religion, the set of beliefs and rituals in self-government and the transcendent nature of democracy that keep the institution running. The West Wing has an almost fairy tale idealism about political institutions that could serve as a counterpoint to the skepticism of Tolstoy towards Napoleon and his ilk.
It is a tribute to the comprehensiveness of Sorkin’s vision, but also the embedding of that vision in strands of civic religion, that a writing team was able to continue his work for the last three seasons. They were able to continue his work – rather brilliantly too – because the work itself was an extension of a culture. There are not many examples of great (or Great) works successfully being picked up by a second writer after the first had to leave it. Dreams In Red Mansion is the only one I know offhand, and that too was trying to capture the spirit of an age amongst people of privilege, though in private, not public.
Unlike War and Peace, but like Buffy, The West Wing is also genuinely funny. This was also the only way I was able to convince my wife to watch it, as she is neither a political tragic nor particularly fond of American political kitsch. It’s funny in a highly verbal, rat-a-tat-tat way of a good play or a screwball comedy. The ever marvellous TV Tropes lists three main characters as being Deadpan Snarks. B wouldn’t have lasted one episode without that element, let alone seven seasons. I am going to stray to spoilers now.
I think this dynamic also explains why the series evolved from having Sam Seaborn as the main character (of an ensemble) to the character of Josh Lyeman. Josh was supposed to be highbrow comic relief but in the end his character arc becomes that of the show over the seven seasons. The pilot episode starts with him being a Young Turk foolishly insulting the Christian Right on TV, and the final episode has him become Chief of Staff.
Josh, despite being a nutcase of sorts, is an also an easier protagonist to follow, because he has a job of more obviously doing things. Sam’s main job as Deputy Communications Director was a speechwriter, a relator of events. Furthermore every episode that features Sam writing an excellent speech is also a letter of congratulations from the writers of the show to themselves (and these were mostly in the Sorkin-dominated early seasons).
Of course I still love the character of Sam, who for a while was the last scientific positivist on American TV. I love all of the original characters for that matter, except maybe Mandy, who just left one day at the end of the first season, in the manner of Sorkin characters, and of a certain kind of office. But I didn’t like the ending. There are various suggestions that the writers plans were thrown by the sad death of John Spence. It’s understandable, given that, that they got distracted by the character arc of the team. But they discounted that the power of the show comes from its feeding off of, and contributing to, a myth of democratic process. Seen from that perspective, the show’s ending is weak.
At the end of this tale of the American civic religion, we get the saintly genius Jed Bartlett, who as well as being the nerdiest president since Jefferson nearly became a priest, handing over to the saintly Matt Santos, the everyday dad and fighter pilot, like Thomas Aquinas handing over to the Archangel Michael. It’s a changing of the guard at left-wing fantasy central, not a meaningful, orderly changeover of power. And that’s the great victory of civic politics: handing over power to people, to an organisation, you might hate, who you fought for months and years, but ultimately recognise as patriots, and retreating into loyal opposition yourself. That sourness of loss, that heartbreak, that recognition of the worth of the system, even though balance has tipped for a moment – that is democracy’s catharsis. I know Hollywood doesn’t like tragedies, but Americans of all people should know that a peaceful change of power is really a triumph. Enoch Powell said that all political lives end in failure, but on the West Wing they all have a fairy tale ending. Even Arnie Vinick (R, California) gets to become Secretary of State.
The Supremes is probably my favourite episode. It’s an episode which was setup by the story arc, without being heavily reliant on it. The Chief Justice is fictional – conservatives have held that position for some time – but the situation is recognizable, so it is not a trite allegory. Details like the fading Chief Justice writing judgements in Alexandrine hexameter and the insufferable intern have set it up earlier in the season. Yet it unfolds like a good science fiction short story, exploring an idea. A series of justices second as avatars of judicial philosophies, but it’s also funny, with a drunken hurrah. It’s an episode that puts forward an argument, that promotes debate as being at the heart of good government. The West Wing ever combined a wonkish political hyper-literacy with a fairy tale idealism. These irreconcilable opposites pulled at and fought with each other in every episode, and it was exciting, intelligent, funny television. And then sometimes the wonk and the fairy princess stopped fighting and danced a waltz.