First Impressions: On Watching The West Wing for the First Time

Because some of our good friends are longtime fans, my wife and I decided to give Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing a try. (Yes, I know we are 15 years late to the party.) We got the first DVD from Netflix and we’re watching the series straight through, starting with the pilot. I’m guessing, at the rate we’re going, with frequent breaks, we’ll finish the series in about another decade. So far, we’ve been loving it. We’re not very far in, so if I say anything that does not hold true through the entire series, I apologize.


My wife describes The West Wing as that show “my grandma and my aunt used to watch.” Other friends repeatedly tell me, “Oh yeah, my parents watched that.” It was something our elders watched. One friend confessed that whenever he watches it, he finds himself feeling incredibly nostalgic. I’d put it differently: how can a show made in 2000 feel so dated, already? The show is an artifact of a bygone era, the good old days, when a president could quote Cicero without having to apologize for reading dead white guys, when men could still be men, and women could still be second wave feminists, when geopolitics were simpler, kinder and gentler.


Wait, when was this? What kind of alternate Disney history of the United States is this? At times the brush strokes are so broad I feel like Sorkin is using a street sweeper to do Japanese landscape paintings. I can’t handle it. I can’t handle all the buddy-buddy warm fuzzies between the cast. I can’t handle Toby’s college sophomore idealism. I can’t handle the vaguely Copland-esque woodwind swells whenever someone gets all touchy feely about the American political system. (When was the last time you did that?)


And of course there is the agenda of the show. On the plus side, props to Sorkin for actually having something to say. That already puts him way ahead of 90% of television entertainment. On the negative side, his left-leaningness often comes across as, well, snooty. I’m all for a good leftist argument, but the self-back-patting gets kind of old. At times the show seems to be saying, “We Democrats are so much sexier than those sour, prune-faced Republicans. And we are absolved of the sins of our excesses because we are not afraid to beat ourselves up about all of the sins of America’s past.” I’d be the last person to stand for Mike Huckabee’s barks and bellows, but the auto-eroticism and self-flagellation of American liberal political identity strikes me as a bit silly. Sometimes the best comedy is unintentional: the aura of saintliness the show lovingly paints around 1999 Democrat values makes me giggle, just a little.


And yet I can’t stop watching. I can’t stop watching because of the writing. Good gravy, the writing! I love the way that Sorkin takes on more themes than he has room for. The effect is that themes flash in and out of our view, colliding with each other, creating unexpected connections, resonances, contradictions. An episode that is mainly about retaliatory military strikes also tackles racial equality in the workplace, gendered understandings of ethics, and the ambiguous political heritage of the Roman Empire. Some of the connections between plot and subplot can be a bit heavy-handed, but often the connections are subtle and enriching. Each episode introduces a slew of new themes, enlarging the show’s scope. Any given next scene could hypothetically be “about” anything. After a while, the cumulative effect is a feeling of encyclopedic grandeur. The show is open to the world in all of its abundance of meaning. Like the greatest Italian fiction from Dante through Calvino and Eco, it seems like the show wants to be “about” everything. It’s a blast.


I used to hate Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. (I once fell asleep during A Few Good Men as an act of protest.) It is impossibly witty. It can be so contrived that it feels like a thin sheet of plastic wrap draped over real content. No one could ever think, let alone talk that fast. This time around, however, I decided to embrace the Sorkin dialogue autobahn for what it was. I needed to stop asking Sorkin for something other than he was offering. He is not attempting anything close to realism. The dialogue is not meant to emulate “the way people really talk.” He’s doing something different with language, something more compressed, more structured. Underneath all of the freewheeling wisecracks and one-liners, there is a rigorous formalism at play. In this way there is something Shakespearean about his dialogue. He starts with a foundation of highly formalized dialogue, but upon that foundation he spins an endless web of wordplay that is dizzying in its fecundity. Once I got past the thought that everything everyone was saying was completely ridiculous, I was able to sit back and watch the verbal fireworks. What a show.


I think, though, that the heart of the show is not any of this. It’s not the thematic density, it’s not the shimmering dialogue. It’s the characters. Somehow, the characters are just so… lovable. It’s the show’s secret sauce, because I don’t think it’s something that can be analyzed. Underneath the ideology of the show (and it is a thick layer of ideology), there’s a great group of people. Even when they deliver their improbable tear-jerker backstories, you buy it, because you want to. The true heart of the show seems to be a love for other human beings. Sure, this might all be emotional manipulation. The whole show could be engineered to manufacture impossibly likable people. But if the end result is that the viewer is more likely to see the people around her with a newfound love for their particularity, then I think the show is worth watching.


But I still have questions. Will Josh ever stop bouncing? Will Sam ever stop reminding me of Rob Bell? Is Danny the reporter supposed to be that creepy? Will Leo’s jaw ever come unhinged? (It looks stuck. He might want to get that checked out.) Will America ever have a president as lovable as Jed Bartlet again?