Like a lawyer show or cop show or doctor show, it begins to create an entertainment distortion field that not only changes the way we view reality (people now regularly show up in emergency rooms instructing nurses and doctors on how they ought to be doing things), but changes the behavior, affect, and self-image of the people who work in these jobs. We will soon be looking for West Wing traits in real candidates -- Sam Seaborn is the face of can-do.
Because it has appeared at just the moment when politics as we know it is in the act of some weird Velvet Revolution type of self-destruction, The West Wing could well earn a historic place in the reinvention of political culture -- even though it is, quite clearly, not about politics at all.
Politics is about impersonal stuff -- it's about the needs and the annoyances of large numbers of people (Medicare, Social Security, prescription drugs -- by all appearances, politics is increasingly about large numbers of annoying old people). Even the personal (abortion, health, morality) becomes impersonal when it becomes political.
And in the media age, the face of politics has become ever more distant, practiced, phony. No one has to be told that it's all P.R.
Politics has become -- perhaps it has always been -- about behaving properly in public. It's ritualistic behavior. It's about maintaining an illusion that is less and less consequential to anyone but politicians (this was the root of the great impeachment schism).
The world changed -- social relationships, behavior, interpersonal sophistication, emotional self-awareness, the general vibe, what people talk about with each other changed. But politics stayed the same -- disconnected, uptight, repressed. Part of the present mess results, no doubt, from the desperately unfortunate circumstance of having two candidates who are both at the extremes of the impersonal, each man with a phony family and religion and personal history, each stunted in his ability to make plausible eye contact.
The West Wing, on the other hand, is about what television is about: quickly formed relationships, hurried intimacy, sharp language, everyday dysfunctions, tense, emotional negotiating, juicy human failings and foibles (virtually everybody on The West Wing has personal issues that would exclude them from a career in politics) -- everything they teach in screenwriting class.
In effect, The West Wing offers a new version of the smoke-filled backroom: characters far from their real and boring lives (of course, most of The West Wing's characters don't have a life outside the office, including the president, whose wife is always away), in a hothouse setting, with the blooming of all variety of soap-opera loves and hates. This not only works as compressed drama and supplies any number of simultaneous narratives, it is what large numbers of Americans experience -- or wish they'd experience -- in their own office situations. We all work in hermetic environments, filled with fraught relationships, far from our so-called real lives. This is family.
When I speak to Aaron Sorkin, the 39-year-old screenwriter from Scarsdale who created The West Wing -- his first major hit -- he certainly doesn't want to engage in a political discussion. He admits to not being qualified -- nor does he seem all that interested.
The West Wing isn't a political drama, he notes; in screenwriter, Hollywood-television-meeting talk, it's a workplace drama. Indeed, it is a sly and effective change of emphasis from his initial, more modest foray into politics, the movie The American President, which is a romantic comedy.
This is how it happened: After his series Sports Night became a critical if not a ratings success, Sorkin was lucky enough to get a lunch with John Wells, the ER producer, whom you had to be very lucky to get a lunch with. So Sorkin pitched Wells, as anyone obviously would, an ER-type show: a drama about senior staffers in the White House. Now, whereas most people would think b-o-r-i-n-g -- like, Why not do a show about the thing that is the most irritating and the least interesting to the greatest number of Americans? -- Wells saw the thing he was most looking for, a possible new sort of emergency room.
Crisis. Proximity. High purpose. Personal angst. Beguiling young people. Nothing, in other words, that has anything to do with politics.
Indeed, few of The West Wing's various producers want to talk about politics. This is part of the reality mix-up: Like the ER people called upon to talk about health care, they protest that they really don't know anything about politics. On the other hand, if you start to think about it, if you really were staging a new kind of coup, a media coup, a kind of reverse Wag the Dog, not the government creating a fake film, but the film community creating a fake government, you probably wouldn't want to talk about it either.
Sorkin tries to deflect my question about the present mess and the relationship of The West Wing to the mess's potential outcome (what if it's a Republican administration?) with some screenwriter blah-blah about Aristotle's Poetics (screenwriters talk this way). He does, though, allow that the general political climate has certainly been good for the show -- that the time "is just ripe for the cavalry to come riding in."
But then he can't resist. He rewrites the present mess, removing all the chaos, the bloated language, and the media mirroring and reduces it to pure story: It's Fail Safe. The first act has to do with the infallibility of the networks and the existing polling system. Then, in the second act, after the world and all our assumptions about it come undone, Katherine Harris, the villain, will, against all truth to the contrary, certify the inconclusive, premature vote -- giving Bush the presidency. But, because evil never wholly subverts the will of good people, the counting goes on, spontaneously, rebelliously, into the night. By the morning, Gore comes into the lead. He's now leading in the electoral as well as the popular vote. At which point the decision falls to the Electoral College, and a few good men with the courage . . . etc.