If Bartlet isn't in fact the most powerful man in America, for one hour a week we enjoy pretending he is. As ER fades into an (ironically) slow and drawn-out death, The West Wing has emerged to take its place as NBC's latest champion. It has become, in just two years, a consistent top-ten performer—bona fide Must See TV.
The secret of its success? Aaron Sorkin, also the creator of ER, has his golden fingerprints all over The West Wing: witty (if cute) repartee, beautiful actors with just enough flaws and facial creases to keep us watching, close and relatively neurosis-free relationships between characters, a riveting dramatic backdrop (the White House! America!), all melded into story lines that thoughtfully interpret the country's moral condition without meddling too much with the sunny, progressive pole of our national disposition. Not as painful to watch as, say, the late great Homicide: Life on the Street, but not as sugary as the Providence variety of (what passes for) TV drama: Sorkin is clearly at the top of his game. It is fun to watch his work.
The show bears all of the marks of its birth at the end of the Clinton years. Not only does it play to our progressive instincts, as Clinton did so well, but it also amplifies and extends the better side of the Clinton persona itself, the generous, noble, warm, and fun Bill, the guy we, sometimes against our better judgment, liked having around.
While Martin Sheen's Bartlet harks back to an older Democratic type, the manly Cold War liberal, the more cavalier yuppie staffers swagger with Ivy League intelligence and 1960s idealism. Sorkin, one suspects, is trying hard to make sure we understand that liberal idealism, centered on the ongoing fight for liberty, equality, and justice, is what makes America great—even when the live versions of that idealism disappoint.
This underlying liberal didacticism helps to account for the folklorish, mythical quality of The West Wing, its Camelot-the-TV-Show feel.
As the Waltons-esque theme music cuts in, we see flags waving alongside black-and-white photos of the show's cast. These are not celebrities—these are heroes.
Unless we're jaded cynics or self-absorbed fools, we all long to pay homage to rulers who wed virtue to power, and Sorkin taps into our longing with impressive skill.
But of course in Sorkin's world it's not the Right that deserves our honor and allegiance: it's the Left, the liberals. Conservatives, in his Washington, tend to be the ones who need monitoring; they are the ones who, when left to their own devices, threaten the very idea of America. "You're the good guys—you should act like it," we hear one character (a prostitute, ironically) tell two of the President's deputies as they, against their better judgment, seek blackmail information on a few particularly malign Republican congressmen. Later, chief of staff Leo McGary (played superbly by John Spencer), reinforces the liberal self-image in a stern but fatherly rebuke to the wayward duo: "It's not what we do!"
To be sure, the show is not simply a campaign ad paid for by the Democratic Party. In its quest for audience share, The West Wing plays to the middle as well as any politician. Bartlet's policy positions are, accordingly, not always predictably Democratic. True to their political generation, both he and his chief of staff McGary seem more hawkish than the younger post-McGovern liberals around them, who tend toward more peaceably pious and unctuous postures.
As if to keep his best and brightest on their toes, Bartlet even invites a Republican attorney, one Ainsley Hayes (played by Emily Proctor), to work in his White House. Sharp and attractive, she brings standard GOP stances to bear on policy debates with charming flair, no doubt keeping a fair share of Republican viewers from tuning the show out in disgust.
But perhaps more than anything it is Bartlet's quiet, authentic Catholic Christianity that distinguishes him from his more self-consciously secular inner circle. Bartlet, a graduate of Notre Dame, had at one time been preparing for the priesthood, we learn, and Sheen is at his best in portraying Bartlet's religiously sensitive spirit. When Chinese evangelicals (whom the deputy chief of staff amusingly tags "Christian evangelicals"—as if there were "Hindu evangelicals") seek asylum in the United States, for instance, Bartlet displays his biblical prowess by testing theirs with the famous shibboleth passage from the Book of Judges. When they pass his test he movingly conveys brotherly embrace in one powerful visual exchange.
Bartlet is a believer. The GOP, we're made to see, is not God's Own Party after all. Score one—heck, two, or three—for the Democrats.
What Sort of God?
But not so fast. By cashing in on Bartlet's religious devotion, Sorkin and the other creators of The West Wing find themselves in a curious but familiar American political dilemma: what to do with God now that they've invited him in? Bartlet convincingly invokes Christianity and the Christian God. And yet this God has no power to interrupt the liberal, mostly secular metanarrative that frames the entire show, and that gives the other key characters their distinctive shapes. The God of West Wing Democrats wields no actual lawgiving authority—an awkward position for a God to be in. Especially this God.
Sorkin's Democrats, though, do not seem to be particularly aware of this ontological incongruity, a species of blindness that we, alas, have come to expect from self-appointed children of light. Sorkin's smug rendering of the holier-than-thou Democrats is surely the show's most serious, bedeviling flaw.
Among other things, it makes for bad art: the specially blessed, whether on TV or at church, always have trouble laughing at themselves (think of Jimmy Swaggart—or Hillary Clinton, for that matter), and The West Wing is filled with dedicated folk who are a little too earnest, people whose smarmy wittiness is just one expression of deeply seated messianic sensibilities. This posture fails to lead to the sort of deep and searching self-judgment that can free a soul, or a TV show, from the sort of shallow self-seriousness that in the end makes anyone seem less believably human, and so less worthy of admiration.
When Bartlet calls God a "feckless thug," we see a man who is understandably and believably angry, reeling at both the (seemingly) senseless death of a longtime friend and a personal crisis that threatens his presidency.
As Bartlet rages at God, though, it becomes disappointingly clear that he sees himself as something like a heavenly power broker: he had, he reminds God, created jobs, fed the hungry, and even managed to get a good liberal on the bench.
"I was your servant here on Earth," he spiels—in Latin, to boot. "And I spread your Word and I did your work. To hell with your punishments. To hell with you."
God, of course, offers no reply to Josiah Bartlet—at least none that viewers detect. So far so good. What will happen next remains a mystery until The West Wing's fall season begins on September 19, though we should hardly expect to witness anything like a lightning strike. But Sorkin does leave hope for a deepening of the story line. The West Wing has been at its best on the rare occasion when it has allowed its characters (and its overall narrative) to enter the mysterious, deep waters of true moral, philosophical, and religious encounter—for to go there is to begin to approach the heart of what it means to be human. More often, though, the show tends to satisfy itself with a sentimentality that only reinforces our collective tendency toward barren, self-congratulating sincerity.
Which route will Sorkin take with Bartlet? One can only hope he'll choose the deeper path. Perhaps he'll even see fit to remind Bartlet of a few things the character no doubt learned in seminary: that the curse is still in effect, that the law is too, and that salvation belongs to the Lord—not to any political party. Even The West Wing is east of Eden.
Eric Miller is assistant professor of American history at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
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For more articles and commentary on West Wing, see Yahoo full coverage.
On Beliefnet.com, David Waters said the season finale treated "people of faith like beings with both brains and souls."
PBS Online NewsHour has an interview with Aaron Sorkin on the line between fantasy and reality.
See Christianity Today for more on television and Christianity.
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