Television’s New Politics
The West Wing presented an idealized version of politics. It illustrated what politics should be, what it could be if only we, as Americans, galvanized ourselves around notions of virtue Aaron Sorkin seemed to be pulling out from the Classical Greeks. Looking back at the series, there was never a truly bad character. Sure a character might do something unsavory or devious, but they only ever did so because they thought it was the right thing to do. In The West Wing world people might be misguided, but they were always well intentioned.
Moreover, through Sorkin’s trademark pitter patter dialogue, everyone defended their political positions with the calm reasoning of a conversation between Plato and Socrates. The impetus for each character’s action was founded in the basic belief, quoted at various times by different characters, that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. The viewer was then meant to sympathize and somehow related to these moral crusaders in the way that each of the character’s unyielding determination to create a better world often came at the expense of their personal lives.
In the world of 1999 to 2003, when the show was at its best and truly a part of the social zeitgeist, people did seem to relate to the characters of The West Wing. Who couldn’t feel inspired by the likes of Josh and Donna, political operatives so selflessly dedicated to improving the lives of others that they themselves struggled to find happiness? Who wouldn’t want a Jeb Bartlet Presidency? Isn’t that what we should aspire toward?
So then why is it that in 2012, The Newsroom, another Sorkin creation and essentially a news media mirror image of The West Wing White House, is such a polarizing show?
To say that The Newsroom is a failure would be to go too far. Plenty of critics love it and it has enough of an audience to merit a renewal by HBO for a second season. However, The Newsroom is an oddity in that the critics of the show don’t just dislike it, they actively hate it. They argue against it, TV critics and TV viewers alike, and do so vociferously, as if The Newsroom was somehow an entertainment affront to their very being.
Their argument more or less boils down to the characters being too self righteous, leading to overly moralistic plot lines that treat the news media as so sacrosanct that the whole constructed universe these characters and stories inhabit is unforgivably unrealistic. But the same critique could justifiably be leveled at The West Wing. Why, then, was one lauded while the other is lampooned?
Another formerly unassailable paragon of television writing is in a similar predicament to Sorkin. Treme, has such a small audience and such an uneventful plotline that critics are doing what was once unthinkable, panning something that came from the pen of David Simon. After The Wire, roundly agreed by the television illiterati to be the penultimate piece of television, David Simon looked set for perennial success as an unassailable genius. The problem critics of Treme point too is that while The Wire was rich in plot, Treme is something of a character study where moments of action are few and far between.
But it’s possible that Treme’s problem is deeper than its slow, understated pace. The characters in Treme are all attempting to be righteous in spite of their downtrodden situations. As with The West Wing, none of the main characters in Treme are whole heartedly bad. Even the storyline involving the real estate developers makes room for remorse or allows for arguments about the greater good. The theme of Treme seems to be that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can rise from the ashes of one of America’s greatest tragedies. Sound familiar?
Conversely, The Wire was wrought with people behaving badly, accepting their fate inside a fundamentally flawed system. And the shows that find modern success seem to follow a similar formula.
Most notably Boss, on Starz, comes off as a contradiction to everything The West Wing embodied. In Boss the politics are corrupt as can be, every move is a power play, and every utterance a utilitarian piece of dialogue measured to meet a particular end at the expense one’s enemies. Boss presents politics as a grungy zero sum game. Each political player has their hand out for something they want, favors fly fast and furious, and morals might as well come with a concession speech.
It’s a dark picture to say the least, but Boss is currently currying favor with the fans and critics once so favorably attached to The West Wing and its sunny disposition. So what happened?
To quote James Carville, “It’s the economy stupid.” During The West Wing’s run from 1999 to 2007 the economy was doing well. During the first four seasons (1999 to 2003), when Sorkin was writing the bulk of the series, people felt particularly politically inclined following US history’s closest election in 2000. Furthermore, after September 11th it seems fair to say that people wanted to believe that the US government was operating (or at least could operate) with the best interest of the populace in mind and that those in elected or appointed offices acted honorably, guided by the pursuit of justice just like The West Wing implied.
Looking back it’s easy to see that the reality was, and is, something else. The West Wing was, after all, just a piece of fiction. At that time, however, The West Wing provided an hour long narrative to a story that people wanted to believe to be true. But when the economy collapsed and the people in charge where pointed out to be derelict in their duties, either because of corruption or incompetence, the sort of façade that The West Wing relied upon gave way to a cold hard realism.
The Wire was a fiction too, but it was a fiction viewers could imagine to be true (note that most people came into The Wire late so didn’t watch it until 2005 or later). They were able to make this assumption because it’s a cynical story and thereby fit with a more realist world view. Likewise, the fiction of Boss seems to be a fairly accurate interpretation of the political sausage making machinery because it exists in concert with an unfavorable view of politics.
Serious television drama is driven by people’s perception and what plot contrivances the viewer is willing to consent too as accurately representative of the real world. A decade ago people might’ve been able to conceive of a government of do-gooders, but after financial disasters, wars, and loss of credibility of the news media the idea of a The West Wing world comes off as completely naïve and The Newsroom is just pretentious pretending. In the new television landscape, the people angrily occupying Wall Street might as well be the ones holding the remote.