We’ve been glued to the TV for weeks. Watching election coverage, campaign speeches, debates, pundit analysis of debates. Anything we can soak up. We’ve been so consumed by Election 2012, we started wondering if maybe we were political operatives in another life. Then we realized, “Nahhhhh, we would be terrible at it. We don’t have the stomach or the thick skin for operative-ating.” For us, it’s more of a spectator sport.
Then we started wondering something else: “Were we this interested in politics before The West Wing?” And it occurred to us: Probably not. That’s right: it took a TV drama to get us interested in actual politics (which could be considered another kind of TV drama).
We both started watching Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece in 2001, during the show’s 3rd season, and immediately became Wing-Nuts. We quickly got up to speed, borrowing videotapes for seasons 1 and 2, and religiously watched every episode together until the show went off the air in 2006.
We bought the DVDs. We followed the message boards. We memorized lines of dialogue. In short, we drank the West Wing Kool-Aid (a term we didn’t even know until Sorkin used it in “Manchester, Part 2”).
During our time observing the presidency of Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen), we’ve seen a lot of crazy stuff: shootings, scandals, health scares, one kidnapping, and many international incidents that we only vaguely understood; two chiefs of staff, three Supreme Court justices, two vice-presidents, and three presidents; births, a wedding, a divorce, and many, many deaths—of both beloved characters and even a beloved actor (John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry).
Even now, six years after the show went off the air, we still believe there will never be another show this good again. (We tried to get into Sorkin’s recent HBO show, Newsroom, but it just didn’t light the same fires.)
Why did we love West Wing so much? Hard to pinpoint one thing. Of course, we loved the story-lines, and not just the multi-episode arcs, such as the campaign episodes of Seasons 6 and 7, or the MS-related storylines from Seasons 2 and 3 (which include classic episodes such as “17 People” and “Two Cathedrals” and “Bartlet for America”). We loved the minor sub-plots as well, such as the storyline that had Bartlet calling up the Butterball hotline in his quest to learn whether or not one should cook stuffing inside a turkey.
We loved the dialogue and the famous “walk-and-talk” scenes. We loved the fact that after watching the show, we learned something—about everything from “how a bill becomes a law” to “why we should consider abolishing the penny.”
But most of all, we loved the characters—so witty and flawed and, most of all, committed to public service. “I serve at the pleasure of the president,” the characters were fond of saying—and serve they did, even at the cost of their personal lives. (Exhibit A: the heart-breaking scene in Season 1, when Leo’s then-wife says that his job is not more important than his marriage, and he says matter-of-factly, “Yes, it is.”)
Fueled by their sense of civic duty, these characters worked tirelessly. Just watch some episodes and see how many scenes take place at night. Even after midnight, the Bartlet White House is still brimming with activity. When did these people ever sleep?
And they did it for practically nothing. According to a Season 2 episode, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) previously made $400,000 working at a major New York law firm. He literally dropped all of that, on a whim, to join the Bartlet campaign. (And in Season 7, he did the same thing— only this time, he left a California law firm to work for the new president, Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits).
Janney’s C.J. Cregg made a similar sacrifice, when Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) went to recruit her to join the Bartlet team:
C.J. So how much does it pay?
Toby: What were you making before?
C.J. Five hundred fifty thousand a year.
Toby: This pays six hundred dollars a week.
C.J.: So this is less.
It was less, all right, for a lot more work. But she did it. And so do all of her “real world’ counterparts. And that’s what truly amazes us.
We hate it when people say “as a nation,” but here goes: as a nation, we’ve become so cynical about the people who go into politics. The characters on the West Wing reminded us that for every power hungry, soulless, greedy politician, there are still plenty of dedicated public servants out there who have our best interests at heart.
Are we so naïve that we think all “real” politicians are as noble and idealistic as the West Wing folks? Of course not. But if even some of them have a fraction of the intelligence and heart and dedication of these characters, it gives us hope. These people are looking out for us. And so, we can look into the future and say, with confidence, “What’s next?”