Television shows based around politics have become a staple of American television – from dramas such as The West Wing, House of Cards, and Madame Secretary to comedies such as Parks and Recreation and Veep. They differ in their approach to representing politics and the people involved with it – from the idealistic and optimistic approach taken by shows such as The West Wing and Parks and Recreation, to the more pessimistic and supposedly realistic approach of shows such as House of Cards and Veep. However, they share a commitment to representing on screen the inner workings of government, giving an insight – with differing levels of authenticity – into what is commonly viewed as an extremely shrouded process.
The West Wing, while certainly not the first television show to focus on politics, is one of those most often discussed in the context of reflecting a particular political climate. The show focuses on the inner workings of a fictional West Wing of the White House, with main characters including President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen), Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) Press Secretary CJ Cregg (Alison Janney) and Communications Directors Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe). The show focused both on the day to day political and national security decision making process while also devoting time to the personal lives of the fictional West Wing staffers. It ran from 1999 – 2006, beginning in the late years of the Clinton administration and continuing on into George W Bush’s second term.
The West Wing was certainly fictional, but it took inspiration from real life events and some of the people most closely connected to them. President Bartlett was inspired, at least in part by President Clinton; CJ Cregg is often viewed as an almost note perfect recreation of Dee Dee Myers Clinton’s first Press Secretary; Matt Santos who – spoiler – succeeds Bartlett as President is clearly inspired directly by President Obama. It also touches on real life events – such the season four special episode ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ being written entirely as a response to the events of 9/11 and conflicts such as that between Israel and Palestine.
The show began in the last years of Clinton’s second presidency, crucially after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, in the time when it was becoming increasingly evident that it was going to affect the 2001 Presidential election, which eventually resulted in George W. Bush’s defeat over Al Gore. Many viewers of a liberal persuasion who found Bush’s presidency dismaying have spoken of how, when ‘things were really bad’ it was refreshing to be able to watch The West Wing and pretend at least for that period of time that ‘Martin Sheen was president’. It appears that there was definitely a sense among Democratic voters, at the time The West Wing aired, that it was providing a sense of escapism – showing a world in which the ‘right’ people were in power. Bradley Whitford, who played the Deputy Chief of Staff on the show, has even been quoted as saying about Obama becoming president that they no longer have to do the show because ‘we don’t have to pretend anymore, we have a smart guy in office now’.
It certainly seems as if part of the reasons behind the show’s popularity was that, at a time when many were uncomfortable with the direction politics on both sides of the aisle were taking, The West Wing showed a world where those in power were earnest and hardworking and where collaboration despite political differences was possible. While the show has been criticised for its liberal bias, it has also been praised for accurately depicting the views and attitudes of Republican politicians and voters, showing that characters on the show disagreed with their positions without demonising them. This is an idea that is just as, if not more, relevant today. It is something that may go a long way to explaining the show’s continued popularity over a decade since it left the air. Indeed, I was only three years old when the show first aired and ten when it finished, but I have seen the show in its entirety at least three times. Its continued relevance and popularity speaks to a desire, among the American and global public, for the idealistic and optimistic form of politics that characterises The West Wing.
This idea is supported by a recent drop in popularity for highly dramatic political shows such as Scandal and House of Cards. Both of these shows depict a Machiavellian vision of politics characterised by scandal which, at a time when viewers both in the US and the UK are being inundated by political drama and scandal on the nightly news, seems to be affecting the kind of television that is popular. The president of ABC, the network responsible for Scandal, has even explicitly stated that the network is having to question its programming philosophy due to the events of the Trump administration, feeling as if what they commission in the future and choose to keep on air in the future must represent the new political reality. Stars of politics shows have also suggested that this is a factor at work, with Julia Louise Dreyfus, who stars in Veep, saying that the programme has had to evolve since Trump took office, saying that ‘it feels as if he’s doing a better episode of the show than we are’.
It appears as if there is certainly a correlation between political climate and the kind of political television that the audience demands. At times when, no matter your political persuasion, it cannot be denied there is a great deal of political drama in the real work, it seems that the audience suffers from fatigue, and finds it hard to stomach this kind of drama in the fictional world. The West Wing flourished during a time of political scandal and upheaval, and it seems as if the approach it took to representing politics as being full of genuine hard-working public servants may have been at least partially responsible for it. I would argue that this ‘West Wing effect’ is what is ensuring the popularity of shows such as Madame Secretary which seem to come from the same mould – albeit with slightly smaller phones. It will be interesting to see if this trend develops as the Trump administration continues.
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