Thursday, 25 December 2008

The West Wing - Seven Years of Alternative History

After November 4th, 2008, the entire series of "The West Wing", running between 1999 and 2006 and created by Aaron Sorkin ("The American President", "Charlie Wilson's War"), seems to have changed its meaning. In a way, this alternative history of the United States specifically and world events in general seems like something in the future now: with a new President potentially unlike the former ones. When the "West Wing" started in 1999, nobody could foresee the consequences of having a Republican President in office in the aftermath of 9/11. The imaginary eight year presidency of Nobel prize winner (for economy) Jed Bartlet felt like a negative image of the horrors of the actual eight years that happened: a left-wing reimagination of what might have happened if somebody with a vague understanding of the workings of the world and an idealistic staff of smart nerds had actually been in office for all those years.
Above all, "The West Wing" is exceptional because it gives an insight into the complicated process of politics in the White House. It is essentially a show about the political process: how is policy made? How does the balance of power between the White House and Capitol Hill work? In what way can and do lobbying groups influence politics? To what extent do individuals decide the ideologic direction of an administration?
In the case of the eight years of Jed Barlet (Martin Sheen), the ever-changing staff of the West Wing was in the foreground of the observation. The Chief of Staff (until the sixth season Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer who died in 2005, then later former Press Secretary CJ Cregg, played by Allison Janney, one of the strongest female characters of the past few years of television) turns out to be far more influential that the ever-so-shady Vice President that, rather than being loyal, is always following his own agenda (mostly consisting of running for President after four years). The idealistic Deputy Chief of Staff, genius and eternally over-worked Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitfield), is so busy that it actually takes seven years until the fantastic Lois & Clarkesque relationship with his assistant Donna Moss (fantastically potrayed by the sadly underemployed Janel Moloney) finally really evolves. The pessimistic director of communications Toby Ziegler ends up betraying all his friends for his own idealistic idea about democracy and transparancy.
It only takes one or two episodes to understand why "The West Wing" is such an exceptional piece of television. First of, it's incredibly funny and entertaining, despite the fact that it deals with nuclear treat, terrorism, Israelis and Palestinians, whether or not the health of the President has to be disclosed to the public, campaigning, health and education reform etc. It balances the political process with the private lives of its protagonist: a group of people who evolve remarkably during the seven seasons (best example: CJ Cregg and Donna Moss, who both seek to evolve and grow into their positions). Above all, the Bartlet administration is an idealistic, left-wing reimagination of the same period of time we have just seen under a Bush-administration: but instead of following a neo-liberal ideology or something shady like the Bush-doctrine, this administration seeks to tackle the real problems of its time: health and education, climate change, those seemingly unsolvable conflicts that are right now, more than ever, far from being solved. When 9/11 happened, the producers of the show decided to put out a stunning piece of television called "Isaac and Ishmael" - 45 minutes that suffice to explain the difficulty of fighting terrorism without giving up the basic principles of democracy and a free society. The episode seems even more remarkable in the face of Guantanamo, water-boarding and rendition flights - nothing seems more absurd than to watch "The West Wing" and then right away Michael Winterbottom's shocking "The Road to Guantanamo", which reveals what happens when executive power lies in the wrong hands. In that episode, one of the most relevant quotes for these difficult times is employed: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." (Benjamin Franklin)
Of course, "The West Wing" was at its best when the limits of a presidency were presented. In the face of terrorism, not even Bartlet escapes the shady world of secret assassination and foreign policy dictated by military and CIA. In the most difficult situation, the press, a herd of anxious reporters barely kept under control by CJ Cregg (and later, not at all by her sucessors thrown into the job by chance and quite unwillingly), turn into the enemy. As bitter as it may sound, but not even the administration of liberal, nobel prize winning Bartlet escapes the dark side entirely (although some of the situations the president finds himself in are slightly over-dramatisized, like the kidnapping of his youngest daughter Zoey).
In the last two seasons, the show divides its attention between the workings of the White House and the campaign for a new Presidency: and the Democratic candidate that starts from nothing and becomes the figure of hope for an entire nation is, more than anything, a figure vaguely resembling Barack Obama. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits, recently deployed as Dexter's "best friend" in "Dexter") becomes the first realistic Latino candidate and runs on the idea that a campaign does not have to be fought dirty and that you can actually talk about ideas, rather than superficial image. And this was in 2005, two years before anyone heard about America's recent President-elect.
"The West Wing" --- is in many ways the attempt of a goup of people to save American ideals from a world that seems to have lost them. Essentially, these are overworked but GOOD people who try to make the world a better place and more often than not fail because the process is more difficult and involves a lot more people than an unknowing obverver might suspect, most of who are governed by self-interest. "The West Wing" even goes as far as imagining the existence of good Republicans who, for the sake of the country, give up their partisanship and dedicate their intelligence to the making of a better country (or, as one might put it a bit simpler, the only good Republican is one working for the administration of a Democratic President). And that is a good thing, since it is a democracy, not an absolutist state. "The West Wing" is a seven-season long television show about this vague idea that the US has a promise yet unfilled, a calling that requires idealism to achieve and that might just be an ideal state of being that will never happen, but always has to be remembered.

"The West Wing", 1999-2006, Idee: Aaron Sorkin, mit Stockard Channing, Dulé Hill, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney, Martin Sheen, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Joshua Malina, Jimmy Smits, Alan Alda, Nicole Robinson, Melissa Fitzgerald, Mary McCormack, Renée Estevez, Kristin Chenoweth, Lily Tomlyn, Timothy Busfield, Elisabeth Moss, Mary-Louise Parker, Gary Cole, Ron Silver, Janeane Garofalo, Jorja Fox, Tim Matheson, Teri Polo, Marlee Matlin, Kathleen York, Emily Procter, Christian Slater, Patricia Richardson, Annabeth Gish, Jesse Bradford, Danica McKellar, Lisa Edelstein, Matthew Perry.

No comments: