Why The West Wing Will Never Get the Credit It Deserves
Who are the main protagonists on TV drama in recent years, more specifically critically acclaimed TV drama? Walter White, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, Tony Soprano, Omar Little, Nancy Botwin – three drug dealers, a mob boss, a serial killer, and, in the best case, a serial adulterer who drinks too much and stole a dead man’s identity.
In other words, bad guys.
TV in the late nineties and early 2000’s went through a strange transition, kickstarted by the critical juggernaut of The Sopranos in 1999, in which the worse, on paper, the person was, the more interesting they were. No matter how proud, violent, bloodthirsty, angry, selfish, and cruel the character was, as long as the viewer could sympathize with them for at least a minute, you were good as gold. This isn’t a bad thing either; this trend created masterpieces. However, it leaves me, a long time TV fanatic, one simple question.
What about the West Wing?
The West Wing was about good people doing good things. It was about patriotism and civic duty and loyalty and love and doing what’s right over what is easy. It very often dipped into sentimentality, canonized the U.S. government, waxed poetic about anything and everything, and more often than not pushed an aggressively liberal view of how America should be run. It was also incredibly written, beautifully acted – the cast is one of the strongest ensembles casts I can think of– and, at its best, was achingly beautiful and well characterized. (At its worst, it could be schmaltzy and self indulgent, but hey, Mad Men had an episode where Don kills a woman in a dream for no apparent reason, so no ones perfect.)
The West Wing will never be heralded the way Breaking Bad or The Wire ever were. Sure, it was an Emmy darling, but in the discussion of great TV, I’ve almost never heard it brought up, and it’s generally considered to be a show for “New York liberals” to borrow a phrase for Toby Ziegler; an old relic, similar to Hill Street Blues or Cheers – good for its time, but nothing life changing. Which is a damn shame.
Logic would dictate that a show that makes evil characters likable and sympathetic is more masterfully crafted than a show about good people. However, Aaron Sorkin did what seemed obvious in 1999, and what now seems like a miracle. He took kind, loyal, intelligent, model citizens, and made them incredibly interesting and complex. Sure, they had their flaws – mainly arrogance, naivety, and stubbornness – but for the most part, Sorkin took characters that would’ve either bored one to tears, or been utterly insufferable, and made them not just sympathetic, but downright lovable. The best characters on this show, including Bradley Whitford playing Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and the near perfect Allison Janney playing Press Secretary CJ Cregg, had moments so tenderly acted and written they could make you burst into tears. No guns, no drugs, no murder, no adultery– just strong acting and strong writing.
TL;DR: The West Wing is and will remain a criminally underrated drama because of its timing in an era of bad guys and its belief that people are more good than bad.