This paper takes a look at The West Wing which is a political drama that pushed the boundaries of storytelling on the television and has a strong cultural influence having inspired many television shows based in political settings of different varieties. The show was created by acclaimed writer, Aaron Sorkin who has gone on to establish himself as one of the prominent writers in Hollywood.
The West Wing (TWW) is a television program created by Aaron Sorkin which debuted in 1999. It became one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows in the United States, having grabbed 27 Emmys over the course of the show. The show comprised of an ensemble cast and aired weekly in a one-hour format. The show started the trend for television dramas with a political setting. It inspired political dramas like ‘Scandal’ and 'House of Cards’, and political comedies like ‘Veep’ and ‘Alpha House’. The show follows a fictional president of the United States and his staff as they solve their political and personal issues, ‘charting the ups and downs of a Democratic administration in an America that, although not quite in the same universe as reality, looks quite close to reality’ (Fahy, 2005). The show contains elements of Sorkin’s collection of works, in particular ‘A few Good Men’ and ‘The Newsroom’. There is a recurrent sense of strong morals through these works where the protagonist has been created as an idealised version of a ‘president’, ‘lawyer’ and ‘newsroom editor’.
The President is Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a liberal Democrat who hails from New Hampshire. Viewers may draw parallels between Bartlet and former president Bill Clinton. They share similar ideological values and sympathies, but ‘his stable family life saves him from the embarrassments of Bill Clinton’s personal baggage’ (Beavers, 2002). His senior staff members ‘share his principals’ and work determinedly to ‘achieve Bartlet’s progressive agenda’ (Beavers,2002). While the show follows the presidential administration, Sorkin had made it clear that the show did not want to focus on the most pressing issues facing the nation. The show was ‘centered more around character than policy’ (Holbert, 2006).
Sorkin’s strengths lie in this area as his ‘sharp’ ‘witty’ ‘fast paced’ dialogue compliment the engaging characters onscreen making ‘politics accessible and enjoyable for the audience’ (Beavers, 2002). TWW focuses more on entertainment than education. This can be seen with the use of non-diegetic music and ‘sophisticated camera-work’ (Beavers, 2002) which add heightened emotion to scenes. The show also makes use of the ‘walk and talk’ technique innovated by Sorkin himself to make the exposition of conversations more appealing to the viewer as it ‘creates an aura of urgency’ (Auciello, 2000). It also helps to maintain one of the show’s fundamental principles which is a tireless work ethic. By always walking around while engaging in discussion shows that the characters do not want to waste any time.
Patriotism is a major theme in TWW where ‘duty motivates and rewards the people in that universe’ (Fahy, 2005). Characters don’t mind the pressures that come with running the country as the ‘joy of public service outweighs the bane of the moment’s political storm’ (Fahy, 2005). This is done intentionally as Sorkin wanted the show to be ‘a valentine to public service’, as all the characters have set aside ‘more lucrative lives for public service’ (Sorkin, 2000). Although the pleasure of serving in office is demonstrated throughout the show’s run, it is best represented in season 1 (episode 19) ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet’. The president decides that speaking his mind is more important than re-election. Doing the right thing ‘does not merely serve a personal sense of comfort- it is the correct public action’ (Fahy, 2000). All these characters display the viewer’s ‘desired image of America’ (Auciello, 2000). Sorkin uses dialogue to instil a sense of nationalism and patriotism in his audience. He makes repeated reference to the constitution and the characters make strong statements like ‘I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States’.
Sorkin’s fantasy of liberal America has come under heavy criticism from many viewers. Despite the show’s progressive pretence, ‘the underlying values of the show promote nationalism, patriotism, and liberal racism’ (Auciello, 2000). The US government doesn’t support dictators, plan coupes, or wage wars based on oil. This idealised version of America that Sorkin portrays may actually serve to change the viewer’s perception of American history. Media has a strong influence on viewer’s perception of society and the way in which it functions, especially when television shows have the ability to imitate real life scenarios with a realism that captures human emotions. Sorkin holds the attention of his viewers through his detailed study of human complexity which has become a staple of his productions.
Overall, Sorkin achieves the vision that he had intended for the show through the use of smart writing and direction. His depiction of the democratic administration is not a true representation but a hopeful one. Sorkin had stopped working on the show after the fourth season had concluded due to personal issues but the tone he had set remained in his absence.