"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

The West Wing

Kellymundo succeeded in getting me to watch a few consecutive episodes of The West Wing on DVD the other day, and as someone who's been steeped in politics over the past five years, it leaves an interesting impression. If 24 is the Dark Side of the contemporary political debate, The West Wing represents something of the sunny side.

The stuff I've seen is from Season two, which is something of a historical time-capsule, having been made prior to both the onset of the Bush Administration, and of course 9/11. It's totally enjoyable, but also strikes me as anachronistically sanguine, a grown-up Schoolhouse Rock but with the benefit of excellent production values. The cast is strong, and the writing is excellent from a literary standpoint. On substance, though, I think the text reflects all too well the hazy miasma that surrounds our allegedly elite political discourse.

Two quick examples from the three or four episodes I've seen:

  • In an episode concerning a jungle hostage situation in Columbia, the presidents strangely Rumsfeldian chief of staff delivers a strong appeal not to attempt any kind of invasion: "Mr. President, I fought a jungle war... and if I could have been there when our ships were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin I would have said, 'Don't do it.'" It's a soft play on the consensus opinion that Vietnam Was Bad, but it ignored the widely-held belief (more or less proven in 2005) that the "Gulf of Tonkin Incident" was as fake as the Maine.
  • In an episode concerning the dangers (or lack thereof) of marijuana, the specific phrase, "doesn't display the addictive properties of cocaine or LSD" was used more than once. LSD is among the most un-addictive drugs yet uncovered from both a physical and psychological standpoint. Ironically, the crux of the show revolved around the statements of the Surgeon general and "the duty of a doctor to tell the truth."

Now, I'm not entirely sure whether these are nudge-nudge/wink-wink inside jokes for those in the know, or simply the natural result of having Peggy Noonan on as a consultant. The overall awe-shucks tone of the show suggests the latter.

This makes it a bit harder to suspend my disbelief and really inhabit the world of the show, but in a sort of Brechtian sense it heightens my appreciation for just how confused and unconsciously hypocritical our political discourse remains. The _Verfremdungseffekt_ is strong. Also, as it is something of a time-capsule, it's interesting to see how mainstream pop-culture re-defines and re-digests the political process.


I think that sums up what I've felt about The West Wing... The inaccuracy I'll always remember the West Wing for, of course, is Josiah Bartlet having a farm in Manchester, NH. Last I looked out my window, there aren't any farms left in Manchester. If they wanted a recognizable New Hampshire location name, they would have done better to say he was from Concord. At least there are farms in Concord!