I started watching The West Wing as part of a trade. I agreed to watch the show, one of my wife’s favorites, as long as we would alternate with episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of mine. And while the pairing seems odd on the surface, the shows have a surprising amount in common. Both center around a clear leader, supported by a cadre of his most trusted advisors, each with their own relevant backgrounds and specialized roles. In both series, a typical episode features the team facing what amounts to a crisis of the week, buoyed by loose arcs and character development, using these stories to comment on politics and society.
I grew to truly enjoy The West Wing, but it also hit some of the same speed bumps that its space-bound counterpart did. While I suspect that I will always be more partial to Star Trek: The Next Generation, as it’s buoyed by the affection and nostalgia of youth, the show is not beyond criticism. One of the series’s most glaring flaws was mandated by the father of Star Trek himself, Gene Roddenberry. In Next Generation’s early years, Roddenberry forbid the show’s writers from having the main characters meaningfully disagree or genuinely argue with each other. Sure, there could be the occasional spirited debate, but it was all conducted with an undercurrent of collegiality and mutual respect. All real conflicts and threats were required to be external. That dictate was part of Roddenberry’s central vision for his “wagon train to the stars” universe. He wanted to present an optimistic view of the future, where mankind had evolved beyond such trivialities as money or prejudice or petty disagreements.
And then, Gene Roddenberry passed away, and the rules that he had laid down began to be relaxed. The bridge officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise, while still cordial, began to butt heads from time to time and have legitimate issues with one another. The subsequent series in the Star Trek franchise, Deep Space Nine, went even further, with internal conflicts providing a more pronounced basis for the show’s storylines.1 The result was deeper, richer shows that built on the character work and world building done previously, and which allowed the shows’ creators to tell more compelling and personal stories in a fantastic setting.
Like Star Trek: The Next Generation, The West Wing explores a world that is still fairly fantastical to most of us, and it presents an inherently optimistic take on conviction, decision-making, and how good governance and strong leadership can make the world a better place. And like its intergalactic predecessor, The West Wing depicts a group of decision-makers who are all largely on the same page. The senior White House officials who circumnavigate the Oval Office in The West Wing certainly jaw at each other from time to time; they even have friendly jousting sessions over opposing views that are expressed with varying degrees of good-natured ribbing and adorable grumpiness. But at base, no matter the course plotted or the advice accepted or rejected, the Bartlet White House would remain one big happy family.
And yet, in the shadow of the departure of The West Wing’s own visionary, Aaron Sorkin, his replacement, John Wells, turned that status quo on its ear in the show’s fifth season.
The infighting the show depicted among the senior staff, the characters the show’s fans had come to know and love over four seasons, was so jarring and off-putting that it soured many on Season 5 of The West Wing, and I can understand why. For a good portion of the show’s fifth season, all these usually friendly faces were just so miserable with each other. President Bartlet keeps having arguments with C.J. Leo is upset with Josh. Josh mistrusts Toby. Abbey Bartlet is mad at the President. Toby’s mad at Will Bailey. Leo seems mad at pretty much everyone there for a while. Everybody is just angry.
That level of discord in a previously harmonious show is a lot to take in all at once. But that shift was reinvigorating for the series as a whole and, frankly, long overdue. I’m no stranger to defending controversial seasons of television shows where fans are put off by the main characters turning on each other. But I liked the shift. I liked the realism of it. I liked the characters crashing into each other in tension-filled moments rather than simply bouncing off harmlessly. I liked the genuine interpersonal tension that went beyond accusations of “Uncle Fluffy.” I liked these men and women of principle taking principled stands against each other and walking away a bit shaken from the experience.
And I loved when they were allowed to stumble in the process. I love C.J. going too far in a press briefing and having to issue an apology under her own name. I love Josh’s grandstanding getting him “taken out to the woodshed” and nearly superseded by a newcomer, only able to pull his iron out of the fire at the last minute. I love Toby being Toby, laying himself out for an issue like social security that he truly believes in, and having it come this close to blowing up in his face because he tried to take on too much on his own.
These stumbles were not arbitrary or motivated by factors beyond the characters’ control.2 They were motivated by who the characters are. C.J. is sharp and opinionated. Josh thinks he can maneuver his way out of anything. Toby believes in the purity and truth of his convictions. And each of these things, noble though they might be, gets them into trouble. The problems come from something internal, not external, and I cannot tell you how refreshing that is for this show.3
Why do these stumbles and disagreements matter? Well, for one thing they’re more realistic. Even best friends find themselves at odds from time to time, especially those who have to face crisis after crisis in a pressure-cooker of a working environment. But realism is not a virtue in and of itself, and a show like Parks and Recreation, which offers a comedic but often no less trenchant view of governance at the local level, has shown that a television show, albeit a comedy, can tackle these issues with a sense of community rather than antagonism among its principals.4
But even if realism is not an inherent virtue, internal conflict and the concomitant setbacks and bits of personal growth that result are an interesting avenue of storytelling and character development that were only lightly explored under Sorkin’s reign. Infighting in the Oval Office may not be as much fun or as heartwarming as our beloved champions humming along in perfect harmony, but setting these well-developed characters in real, meaningful opposition to each other proved powerful. In replacement showrunner John Wells’s efforts to both carry the torch of his predecessor and chart new territory, that kind of internal tension proved fertile, unspoiled ground in which to start sowing seeds.
That’s not to say there was nothing missing from the show in Aaron Sorkin’s absence. While his departure took away some of the Hollywood gloss that smoothed over the rougher edges of party politics, it also took away much of the trademark spark that he added to the show’s dialogue. Sorkin’s style is easily and often mocked by imitation, but the rhythms that he imbues into his characters’ colloquies are undeniably compelling, and while the show as a whole may go on, individual scenes are lesser for the absence of his ability to craft cinema-quality dialogue.
But then again, it’s worth thinking about who has the chance to speak in the post-Sorkin era of the show. I caught plenty of flak from my wife in response to my disdain for the early seasons’ incarnation of fan favorite Donna Moss, who seemed to exist only to ask questions that are a slight exaggeration past, “But Josh, what if people like being bombed?” At which point, someone smarter and wiser could cure her, and the audience, of such wrongheaded naivete. But in Season 5, Donna is portrayed as competent, wise in the ways of the levers and pulleys of the administration, and capable of far more than the purview in which she’s boxed in by her boss.5
Beyond Donna, Angela Blake presents a credible alternative to Josh Lyman, and sees the value of measured capitulation over stubbornly barreling forward.6 C.J. Cregg seems more apt to speak her mind to both Leo and the President. And Lily Tomlin’s portrayal of the President’s secretary, Deborah Fiderer, is as irascible as ever.7 There’s more force coming from the female members of the White House in the series’s fifth season than all the impromptu ladies-only cocktail parties and declarations of “these women” the show could muster in the preceding four.
Season 5 also introduces new Vice President “Bingo” Bob Russell, another outsider who the Bartlet diehards feel is not serious enough and not principled enough to be a part of their administration, but rather someone whose only virtue is being just bland enough to be palatable to the opposition. Yet, instead of being an inert figurehead that Toby and Leo can compartmentalize, Russell proves valuable in figuring out a tense nuclear situation, offers an outsider’s perspective to the otherwise monolithic Bartlet braintrust, and stirs up enough trouble to be both challenging and interesting.8
Even more impressively for The West Wing, Season 5 includes a legitimate conservative opposition that is framed as a worthy, not entirely unreasonable set of adversaries, a facet of the show that was sorely lacking in the early seasons beyond an all-too-fleeting run by Ainsley Hayes and a brief story centered on a Log Cabin Republican.
Instead of a “Crime…boy, I don’t know” George W. Bush straw man for President Bartlet to pontificate to, the show has John Goodman’s turn as emergency President Glen Walken, who makes an impression that transcends mere caricature. Walken is framed at the end of Season 4 as a potential bully ready to bulldoze all that Bartlet’s team has accomplished.
But instead of taking that leftover bait, Wells and his colleagues humanized the temporary president in his conversation with a visibly uneasy Deborah Fiderer, and he returned in “The Stormy Present” as the conservative voice on one side of Bartlet juxtaposed with James Cromwell’s liberal voice on the other. Walken is not treated as some abstract and largely unseen force for destruction, but rather a dissenting voice of conflicting principle, just as firmly felt. Even Haffley, the clearest Republican villain of the first half of Season 5 is not treated as simply an obstacle that the administration needs to will itself past, but rather a formidable opponent who has the upper hand on the President for quite a while.9
The same is true for Matthew Perry’s Joe Quincy, who accedes to Toby’s wishes to talk the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court into retiring, but not before defending the importance of separation of powers and casting legitimate doubt on the propriety of the Bartlet administration’s overtures to the Court. That principle is reinforced in the season’s second Supreme Court-focused episode, which shines a spotlight on a principled liberal Supreme Court nominee that the staff is enamored with, as well as a strident conservative nominee that prompts the President to bellow out a virulent “Nooooo!” through the halls of the White House. That episode, “The Supremes”, ultimately stands for the idea of virtue in a balanced, full-throated debate with strong advocates for both sides of the political divide represented, a fairly novel message for a show that can be unyielding in its perspective. Even Toby, the most pointed ideologue of the show admits to the President, in reference to his judicial bête noire, “I hate him, but he’s brilliant and the two of [the nominees] together fighting like cats and dogs…it works.”
Never in the show’s history has the opposition to the ethos of the Bartlet Administration been so thoroughly explored and humanized. From lesser heard voices within the administration, to liberal voices beyond the White House, to conservative voices who are portrayed as just as earnest, the show is never more balanced or robust than it is in Season 5. And as a result, the Bartlet Administration’s cause feels all the more honorable and worthwhile when tempered in that flame.
These changes in the show’s scope came together in “Talking Points”, a late-season episode. In the episode, Josh helps close an international trade agreement that, unbeknownst to him, paved the way for a significant technology company to move thousands, and eventually millions of jobs overseas. Josh is aghast at the revelation, especially when the agreement he brokered has the unmitigated support of House Republicans.10 He goes on a one-man crusade to prevent the deal from taking effect and laments the injustice inherent in the members of the Bartlet Administration breaking a campaign promise to the communication workers’ union that helped ensure their election. In seasons past, Josh might have worked some magic and said his piece to the man in charge, who would then devote himself to the issue, give a stirring speech, and set everything right again.
Instead, Josh is rebuked by Leo, who Josh is surprised to learn knew about the planned outsourcing when he enlisted Josh in the first place. Leo’s pragmatism is not unprecedented, but the show goes a step further when, to Josh’s dismay, he is further rebuked by the President. President Bartlet brings up his economic credentials and throws out words like “creative destruction” over Josh’s objections. But what’s more striking about the scene is Bartlet’s honest confession that while he ultimately regrets breaking the campaign promise to the communication workers’ union and is sorry for the harm they will suffer, he sees it as a necessary evil to help the economy as a whole. He’s not happy, but it’s his best available alternative, and both Josh and the President have to accept that, however unpalatable it may be, as the best they can do. It’s not blind optimism; it’s real, painful compromise.
A lesser show would have ended the episode on that point. Instead, a shell-shocked Josh returns to face the union representatives the administration betrayed, who have been squatting in his office, and he owns up to the administration’s actions. He is clearly hurt by his complicity in a broken promise that will harm the people who have come to confront him, but he faces them nonetheless, and takes his medicine with the hope that eventually, the pain will be worth it. In the end, it emboldens him to stay in the fight.11
That kind of middle ground is sorely lacking in the core of most political dramas. Somewhere between the heart-on-your-sleeve idealism of the early seasons of The West Wing and the soapy, conniving cynicism of House of Cards, there’s a show about well-intentioned people in government having to make real, hard choices and work within a system that demands tradeoffs, in the hopes of an uncertain, greater good.12 Season 5 of The West Wing is unquestionably different from what preceded it, and the vision of governance it presents is certainly a departure from the one shepherded by Aaron Sorkin, but it’s no less potent, no less sharp, and more robust in both the conflicts and difficulties it brings to the fore and the voices it brings into the conversation.
Truth in Television
Those legitimate conflicts, the existence of true challenges both internal and external, bolstered this new incarnation of The West Wing under the auspices John Wells. People love the early seasons of The West Wing for the same reasons that I often found them exhausting when viewing them en masse — because it’s a fantasy. Sorkin’s West Wing is often a story about a group of best friend geniuses changing the world with little more than their pluck and their principles. Sure, there were some serious obstacles–assassination attempts, revelations of secret illnesses, and kidnappings–but these are each the kind of major threats that reek of Hollywood sheen, each so very big and dramatic, that they feel designed only to set up the big moment and the big monologue.13
But infighting in the administration? Dissension in the party? Disagreements between Congressional Democrats and the President? Presidential hopefuls needling the incumbent? Hardball legislative opposition? These problems may not be nearly as sexy, but they’re a step beyond Hollywood. They’re real politics.
There’s assuredly a certain uplifting, feel-good sense to the earlier seasons of The West Wing. So many people of my generation were inspired by the show to care more about the world of politics or even to devote their lives to making our country better through government. It’s not difficult to admire the Sam Seaborns, the C.J. Creggs, the Josh Lymans, and the President Bartlets, who see a problem, and have the choice of a half-baked but politically tolerable compromise and say, “No, by God, this is important.”
And what’s more, art need not be a reflection of real life. Art can be idealistic and fantastical and bold and aspirational and life-affirming in ways that rarely find purchase amidst the harsh realities of modern politics. But too much or too far and it starts to wear in the same way cynicism can, especially if you don’t share the same conception of the utopia that the artist is trying to construct.
It also starts to wear when a show continually has its characters aim high, only for them to seem to nearly and merely will their achievements into existence. A grand bit of oratory, a powerful gesture, a moment of personal strength, and all of a sudden, the gummed up works of politics start to function with unprecedented ease. It can grow cloying. Even my wife, who is an unabashed fan of the series, admits that the early seasons’ solution to more than a handful of intractable beltway problems is “just liberal harder.” Washington D.C. is a city of contentious, often agonizingly slow changes, and few victories there, legislative or otherwise, come so easily.
Like Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek, Sorkin had a vision for The West Wing as a shining city on a hill. The show was a symbol for what politics and true leadership could be, not necessarily what they were at the time or have become now. And that’s a valid choice. But for someone cynical about politics, especially someone who does not share wholeheartedly, or at least not as stridently, in Sorkin’s worldview, that depiction does not just ring false; it becomes dull and facile. Which is why I come back again and again to one particular line in Season 5 that stands for the whole. In a difficult moment, Leo McGarry says to the President, “This isn’t Never-Neverland, sir. Believing is not enough.”
In Season 5 of The West Wing, the Bartlet Administration and its heroes face real challenges to their position and their agenda and have to make some difficult choices. Those challenges come from within, from without, and from across the aisle in meaningful, plausible ways. Some of those problems stick, and some of them are overcome, but that journey–the story of the sacrifices and stumbles and stress required to reach those good outcomes, and the humility shown in the moments where the characters genuinely question whether they have it all wrong–makes those eventual triumphs worth more than any hollow victory over an unseen, easily dispatched foe. Season 5 of The West Wing explores those kinds of challenges with a depth and a commitment unmatched in the series’s prior four seasons, and that makes it not merely a worthy successor to Sorkin’s work, but a space where the show was allowed to evolve and flourish from the groundwork laid before it, and become something more.
- Ronald D. Moore, a writer for both Next Generation and Deep Space 9, went on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, one of my favorite and most frustrating series, that dealt part and parcel with the challenges of leadership and governance with a keen eye to how individuals and conflicting personalities affect how those principles are brought to bear.↵
- Unlike, if I’m being pointed, a secret service member boyfriend being killed by a convenience store robber right after he’s admitted his affections.↵
- Even Amy gets pushed back for charging forward on principle and damning the consequences.↵
- That said, Parks and Recreation has had to deal with, at a minimum, the perception of a lack of forward momentum in some of its later seasons, and it reintroduced a more direct conflict between its leads in the show’s final season.↵
- While my wife was a fan of Donna from the beginning, she did greatly appreciate the character’s development over the course of the series.↵
- Although I did have the compulsion to yell, “Look out, Leo! It’s Brianna Barksdale!”↵
- In my heart, Tomlin is and forever shall be, first and foremost, Miss Frizzle.↵
- The other new character introduced in Season 5 who bears mention is Josh’s intern, Ryan Pierce. The character was largely superfluous beyond creating an annoying presence in most of the episodes he appeared in, and for providing Josh with an “I learned it from watching you!” moment toward the end of the season.↵
- Though I’ll admit, as nice as it was to see Josh use his political gamesmanship to turn the tide, that budget battle storyline had as much of a “just stand firm on what you believe in and the rest will work itself out” ending as anything in the Sorkin years.↵
- That meeting with the House Republicans did give Josh a bit too heavy-handed of an “I’m a monster!” moment.↵
- Too often, there is a great divide when it comes to these types of decisions in drama. Either a character is a pure moral absolutist, ruled by iron-bound principles that make any weighing of harms and benefits a craven depravity, or they’re a pure heartless utilitarian, standing as an unabashed pragmatist who makes the tough calls and waves away any suffering as acceptable losses. Too rarely is there a character who accepts that, overall, a choice may be the right one, but still recognizes the hardships and human sacrifices of those who are forced to pay the costs.↵
- And again, if that show isn’t the back half of The West Wing, then there’s a fair argument that it’s Parks and Recreation. And while The Wire is a deeply cynical show, it often presents well-meaning individuals doing their best in a broken system.↵
- I realize these storylines were inspired by Reagan and FDR, but their presentation in The West Wing felt more artificial and tailored to meet the needs of a weekly television show that required “big events” to garner attention and ratings and less organic to the kinds of challenges an administration would typically face.↵