The dream dies on TV too…

So, NBC cancelled The West Wing this past weekend.

I can’t say that I’m surprised. Viewership was declining and since Aaron Sorkin left the show the writing has suffered. Still, I’ll miss it quite a bit. I was a late-comer to the show. When it was first announced I scoffed and predicted it would bow out before it had been on for half a season. I figured that no one could make a believable and compelling TV drama based in the White House. It seemed to me at the time that if you made it realistic the show would be unwatchable, what with all the corruption, the backroom deal-making, the cronyism and whatnot that goes on in every Administration. It also seemed that if you made it a fantasy that people would just laugh it off the air. I was wrong on both counts.

The producers of The West Wing went out of their way to portray the Executive Branch of our government realistically. The sets are so close to the real thing I’m almost surprised the Secret Service didn’t object. And the types of drama that go on in the show ring very true to what we know about the White House from history. At the same time the creators of The West Wing knew that no one wanted to watch an hour-long wonk-fest, so they injected a streak of idealism into the show that’s what roped me in. If we ever had a President as wise and strong who led our nation the way Jed Bartlet does we’d be carving his face into Mt. Rushmore within a couple of months of his taking office.

Not only that, but the supporting cast is filled with idealists too, from the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lyman, with his rumpled and wrinkled shirts and jaunty backpack slung over one shoulder to the hyper-moral Toby Ziegler, who just this season was fired from his job as White House Spokesperson and Press Secretary for leaking information to the press about a secret military space shuttle because to do otherwise would have meant seeing lives lost. And in the midst of these folks who make you cheer for what really hope the White House could be there’s the late John Spencer, who died only a couple of weeks ago due to heart failure (ironic since his character suffered a massive heart attack on the show a couple seasons back), portraying White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, whose purpose on the show for most of its run was to remind everyone that ideals are a fine thing, but the real world isn’t going to wait and must be dealt with and taken seriously.

The West Wing was also packed with stronger women characters than practically any other show on network TV and this too is part of the realism of the show. The women who work in the White House today ARE the equals of the men they work with. They’re tough, smart, quick-witted and as capable and talented as any of their male contemporaries. On any other TV drama the female characters are still constantly getting rescued by the men. Not so on The West Wing. In fact, it usually works the other way around. This is the reason, I’m convinced, that Allison Janney has won three Emmy’s for her portrayal of C.J. Cregg, who began the show as White House Spokesperson and Press Secretary and then was promoted to Chief of Staff when the McGarry character departed briefly after his heart attack. Real women in positions of authority do not wait for the men around them to save their bacon. If they did they wouldn’t be in positions of authority. Janney consistently portrays someone real, who is able to go toe to toe with anyone on any subject, but has a heart and a conscience that she battles with when she’s alone.

Again, I’m not surprised that they’ll be wrapping The West Wing at the end of this season. There are two obvious reasons: In the story line that began the middle of last season Jed Bartlett is about to be termed out of the White House. And as I mentioned above, John Spencer, whose character had been tapped as the Democratic nominee for Vice President, died a couple of weeks ago. Spencer would be, realistically, impossible to replace.

The election story line that’s pitted a moderate conservative Republican, played by Alan Alda, against a traditional liberal Democrat, played by Jimmy Smits, has been a lot of fun. I’ve said to many people that if these two characters were real candidates for the Presidency the country couldn’t go wrong by electing either of them. Alda’s Arnold Vinick is a pragmatist and a thoughtful statesman who isn’t afraid to alienate wingnuts and religious fanatics in his party to do the right thing. Smits’ Matt Santos is a man of the people and someone with a strong moral center and a genuine vision. Throughout this narrative I’ve been shaking my head and saying repeatedly, “so, this is what it would look like if our choice for President was a choice of the best of two champions instead of a contest between the lesser of two evils.”

That’s the magic of the show. When Vinick and Santos decided to have a REAL debate, where they actually challenge each other instead of doing the dueling soundbite dance we get in real world Presidential elections, it was inspiring and depressing at the same time. I found myself revved up and wanting to go work for the government to do my part, until I realized how horribly far from this idealized vision our real government has come. As Russell Shaw points out to continue past the election storyline and into a new administration with either a Santos or a Vinick Presidency would tax the writing of the show well past the breaking point. If you want to hang on to the realism that does exist in the show you’d either end up with recurring storylines about Vinick’s moderation being constantly tested by the unsavory characters who run the GOP these days and be forced to watch him either try to reign in the majority Republican congress the show has been saddled with for much of it’s narrative run, thus alienating his own party, or compromising his own values and ideals by sucking it up and toeing the party line. Either prospect would make for, as Shaw says, unwatchable TV. And a Santos Administration would be no better from a dramatic viewpoint. Again you’d have a GOP-controlled Congress, packed with ideologues who disliked the moderate liberalism of Jed Bartlett and who would despise President Santos and his overtly liberal agenda. So what’s the narrative there? Congressional gridlock and a Santos Administration that cannot push forward any of its agenda. Once again, unwatchable TV. Or if with either character running the fictional US if you dump reality out the window you’d have such an abject fantasy world that people would find it harder to identify with than Stargate SG-1. The end result in either case is no one watching, and since networks are in business to make money you knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Yeah, I’m really going to miss The West Wing. Its vision of what could be made me happy and, oddly enough, gave me hope. Maybe there’s some kid out there who’s watched every week for the past seven years who wants to grow up to be a real-life Jed Bartlett. And every now and then I wonder if the folks in Washington watch the show. I know that real cops like to watch NYPD Blue, Law & Order and other cop shows. In my hope of hopes I’ve dreamed that enough people in Washington watched the debate episode of the West Wing and realized that a real debate by the candidates is the least the American people deserve from anyone who wants to be President.

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