A week ago, on Sunday, Martin Sheen, our favorite fake president, soared into the sunset aboard Air Force One, his face lit beatifically by the warm glow of an amber sky. Then, on Monday, less than 24 hours later, Jack Bauer resumed his season-long campaign to topple the sitting president, a puffy, reptilian, and increasingly Nixonian Charles Logan (played expertly by Greg Itzin). Sandwiched between the two events, George W. Bush, he of the 31 percent approval rating, gave a televised speech. As president, he can’t be encouraged by current trends on prime time.
If you hadn’t tuned in to The West Wing for a while, you might have been struck by the quaintness of the finale. One scene—in which the former press secretary, while strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, is stopped by a gee-willikers tourist who exclaims, “It must be something to work at the White House”—felt like it tumbled out of a time capsule. The last episode, with its rat-a-tat drumrolls and newbie officials standing with their mouths agape in an empty, sun-streaked White House, was a reminder of the patriotism and nostalgia that had fueled the show since its debut in 1999, starting with its main piston, Martin Sheen. President Bartlet was the wise, indulgent papa watching over a brood of squabbling kids; he was the country’s fantasy daddy. He was also the country’s fantasy Clinton—which is to say, a neutered one.
Government officials aren’t regarded quite so tenderly on TV anymore. On Prison Break, the tendrils of conspiracy stretch back to the gorgonlike Vice-President Reynolds (Patricia Wettig), a woman so transparently venal you wonder how she got on the ticket rather than having a stake driven through her shriveled heart. And 24’s President Logan is a masterful creation: spineless, incompetent, and malicious. (He offered up the Russian president to terrorists, with his own wife thrown in as a bonus.) Sure, Geena Davis tried to put a loving face on the office in Commander in Chief, but she was quickly impeached in the ratings. We don’t want to love the president right now.
It’s telling that Logan is more Nixon than Dubya—as though we’re just as nostalgic for a grand villain as for a scrubbed-up champion. Dubya’s always lent himself more to parody than villainy, but he’s difficult to fictionalize: His mishaps are too serious to laugh at, yet his tics are too ridiculous to inspire dread. Still, the current regime is clearly making us uneasy. Many seventies films—Marathon Man, Network, Taxi Driver—can be seen as souvenirs of that era’s anti-Establishment paranoia. If TV’s small sample size is to be trusted, we once again have a strong sense that something’s rotten, and we think we know who’s to blame.