Part 2A: Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing Fantasy
Sorkin has always been considered one of the premier writers of television: the man who invented the walk-and-talk, who created funny dramas and dramatic comedies, and who made political dramas possible. The first two are correct, and while the third is technically true, I believe sincerely — even before 9–11 — The West Wing took place in a political world that even then was out of date.
Going forward, I should say that Sports Night, the incredible series that ran on ABC from 1998–2000 was one of the greatest series I’ve ever seen. It pioneered the idea of the ‘dramedy’ something that I’m not surprised network television in that era was unequipped to deal with. It introduced the world to actors who would dominate the Golden Age of television — Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Joshua Malina and the now controversial Felicity Huffman have among the best bodies of work of any TV actors. And it had some truly magnificent moments — ‘The Quality of Mercy at 29K’ is one of the great accomplishments in TV history. More than twenty years later, I’m still bitter at ABC for cancelling it (The ratings went up that season; what more did you want?!)
The West Wing was an extraordinary series while Sorkin was writing it. The dialogue was some of the wittiest and most erudite that we have ever heard in the history of television. The characters and actors who played them have become icons throughout the world of television and movies and deservedly so. And I have no doubt it inspired millions of viewers about politics. The thing is, even when it was on the air originally, I have a feeling that many of those millions of viewers were utterly misled by everything that they were seeing. I’m well aware that Sorkin had several major real life political advisers on the show — Patrick Caddell, Dee Dee Meyers, Peggy Noonan all worked there briefly and hell, Lawrence O’Donnell even had a cameo as Jed Bartlett’s father. But for all the real life advice, The West Wing was, especially in the Sorkin era, a political fantasy. Not because it was a political series with almost no partisanship, but because it was a political series with almost no politicians.
Think I’m exaggerating? The Vice President was on the series barely a dozen times in Sorkin’s era. There were almost no cabinet meetings and we barely saw any Secretaries. We occasionally saw the National Security Adviser and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but only occasionally. And that dwarfs the number of senators and Congressman we ended up seeing over the four years Sorkin was writing it. You’d think considering how many times the President needed help passing legislation, he’d have inviting the minority leader or the whip to the House, but I never remember seeing them. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)
So who was it that Rob Lowe and Bradley Whitford were meeting with all those years? Staff. Lots and lots of staff. And I imagine quite a lot of bureaucrats as well. Honestly, if talking to these people really managed to get our government to work, I’m kind of shocked none of the viewers asked: “Why do we need to elect these people in the first place?” Even more amazingly, the staff and bureaucrats didn’t seem to have political points of view either, kind of remarkable considering that most of them were legislative aides in the first place.
That actually gets me to what was by far one of the biggest stretches in the show: It was established fairly early in the series’ run that President Bartlet was a Democrat elected with a Republican Congress, which remained a constant throughout the series. Yet for some reason, every time he had to get legislation passed Democrats were standing in his way more often then Republicans. Gun-control legislation, a missile treaty, passing foreign aid — hell, when it came to making sure a veto on the estate tax was upheld; Toby and Josh had more trouble with those pesky Democrats then the Republicans. Hell, during the four seasons Sorkin was in charge, the Republicans were so damn reasonable compared to the Democrats. To take the most prominent example, when there were hearings before Congress about the President’s lying about his MS (which I will get back to, believe me) Leo McGarrey is about to be raked over the coal by Congress for being drunk at a debate. During a recess, a Republican lawyer from Oversight admonishes the Congressman for doing something so horrendous that has nothing to do with the hearings, and tells leadership to call a recess for the holidays, rather than do this. Leadership listens to the lawyer and calls the recess. And after that, the Republicans make an agreement with the President that he take a censure rather than have any more testimony.
Let’s aside the world we live in today — in the political world of televised hearings, is this even remotely plausible? The lawyer would be dismissed, and the hearings would continue. But the fact that in Sorkin’s Republicans are actually one of the smaller problems with The West Wing. I could relate a dozen examples, but I’ll deal with the most glaring. During a stint in Season 1, it is revealed that Leo spent time in a rehab facility for alcohol and Valium addiction. Setting aside that this story all managed to play out with Leo keeping his job, the arc ends with Sam finding out that an intern learned these truths and leaked it to the media. Sam fired her. The episode ends with Leo rehiring her. Put it like this: Sorkin received three letters from former White House Staffers saying essentially: “That girl’s ass stays fired.” Not even John Spencer’s explanation: “Leo’s a man who’s been given a second chance himself’ is remotely plausible.
To be clear, even before 2001 it was clear that The West Wing took place in a fantasy world. After 9–11, things got worse. It is generally agreed even by devotees of the series that there was a major drop in the quality of the writing after Season 2. (Some admonish Sorkin’s script ‘Isaac and Ishmael’, a story he wrote immediately after 9–11 as part of the problem. Awkwardly written and ham-handed as it was, I do appreciate the fact that he at least tried to deal with the issues.) The bigger problem was that the show became more obsessed with arcs that were more problematic and gave little reward. The MS storyline never worked well at all, and seemed to have a limp conclusion. The reelection saga which took up all of Season 3 and a good chunk of Season 4 was always dull, because on a network series back then, it was always a given that Bartlet was going to win. The fact that Sorkin took this period to focus so intensely on the failings of a Republican candidate we almost never saw really hurt the series more.
But by far the worst part of the post 9–11 West Wing was the obsession with Qumar, a mythical Middle East country clearly based on Saudi Arabia or Iran. Near the end of Season 3, it became clear that one of the high ups in their government had plotted to blow of the Golden Gate Bridge. Three agonizing episodes were spent decided how to deal with him, that arrest was possible, and that assassination was the only course, and then convincing the President to do it. The series focused so much on Bartlet’s agony of ordering a man killed, which given everything we know about the modern presidency is laughably trite.
It actually got worse in Season 4 as the aftermath of the assassination basically formed the backbone of the entire season. Every potential consequence of what had happened was agonizingly and in too much detail laid out for every possible consequence. All of this was bad enough. What made it far worse was when it was finally dealt with in the climax of Season 4. During the final episodes Zoey, the President’s youngest daughter is abducted by terrorists. (This very scenario is one Sorkin laid out in the first season and one that he said he wanted to explore. Little hint, Aaron, just because you write about something doesn’t mean you have to do it.) The President, fearing his was emotionally compromised, invoked the 25th Amendment and the Speaker of the House (who’d we never seen before now) became President. (The Vice President had resigned just two episodes earlier in a scandal that from beginning to end took twenty-four hours to unfold. Let that go.) In the premiere of the fifth season, the story came out and the Speaker basically dealt with in three questions. Kind of makes you wonder what the entire point of all this anguish over the last season was for. (Granted Sorkin didn’t write that episode, but still…)
Like I said, The West Wing was a great series superbly written, directed and acting. (That said, I feel its Emmys for Best Drama in 2002 and 2003 were big mistakes; either 24 or Six Feet Under should have won both years.) But The West Wing was always a captivating series despite the political backdrop, not because of it. Sorkin was barely equipped to handle the political situation in the pre- 9/11 world; he was completely unequipped to deal with in the post-one. This became increasingly clear in both series that came afterwards. In the conclusion to this piece, I will discuss how deeply flawed Studio 60 and The Newsroom were, and the overarching problem when it comes to Sorkin, politics and Peak TV in general.