by Richard Hart
Everyone thinks that politics is a boring subject, don’t they? Stuffy, old men yelling and postulating, waving pieces of paper at each other and shouting “Shame, shame.” A quote from the West Wing says “Politics is like show business for the ugly”
But politics is far more, in reality, than the simple passing of bills and waving of pieces of paper. Politics is about getting your own way, it’s about policies and ideals, it’s about dirty tricks and old grudges. Anytime there are more than three people involved in a situation, there will be politics involved.
Think about shows like “The Wire” and “The Shield” where the politics, both electoral and more urbane drove the action, defined the desires and fuelled the drama of the show. Characters like Ervin Burrel or David Acievada both sought political power. Equally, in the rebooted “Battlestar Galatica” where the politics of the Colonial Fleet and President Roslyn were important to the motives and actions of so many people.
Politics is power and power is sexy. Therefore real politics can be sexy.
The West Wing is a very American show about politics. Whilst it doesn’t try to make politics “sexy”, The West Wing does have some attractive characters and it is easy on the eye, filmed in a movie standard and it’s lush sets and nice camera work evoke big movies like “All the President’s Men” or “The American President”.
The West Wing follows a fictional political time-line (known informally as the West-Wingiverse) which means you don’t need to know modern US electoral politics. Martin Sheen plays newly elected Democratic (liberal) President Josiah “Jed” Bartlett. He’s a liberal and a catholic and he’s not a popular President.
The cast are built around his staff; a bright, idealistic and often very witty bunch who form the principal characters of the series. Chief among these in the first season are John Spencer, who excels as the Whitehouse Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and Richard Schiff as the prickly moral conscience of the Whitehouse; Communications Director Toby Ziegler.
The show follows the characters dealing with various political and personal troubles for the administration, who often struggle to achieve their grand dreams and overcome the mean spirited nature of US politics. There are also lots of over-arcing plotlines and Sorkin’s writing weaves it all together.
Some critics in America and beyond have had some criticism for the show for its liberal bias. There is no question that the series is framed that the Democratic Party are the good guys but it often focuses on the cowardice and ineptitude of the Democrats, their unwillingness to stand by principles and their annoying fragility in the face of serious attacks from the Republican Party.
Equally the series also shows just how hard it is to get anything done in US politics. President Bartlett is ruling over a hostile congress, run by the opposition Party and often he finds he has to compromise to get anything done at all. The theme of the first season is “compromise Vs principle”.
The staff are exciting people and when we’re not focusing on their various personal disasters, they frame the arguments, often in a high minded and verbose fashion. The show is famous for its “walk and talks” where characters walk the halls, talking out some major issue.
The staff struggle too in balancing their ideological desires against the spectre of reelection and rising political resistance. The pilot episode has the staff trying to fix a political gaffe where, as one character puts it, they have committed the ultimate Washington mistake; “They got caught telling the truth”
The characters that drive the show, are some of the most complex and multi layered seen on Television. Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford, is an arrogant, witty, lovable neurotic mess who is often the one to think about the pure political perspective. He’s weighed down by serious baggage, family issues and a disastrous love life.
John Spencer’s Leo McGarry is married to his job as well as his wife and is also a recovering alcoholic. This plays in sharp relief to his effortless excellence as the Chief of Staff, something that the actor took very seriously.
But the most complex character is the President himself. A very intelligent and cerebral man whose catholic upbringing and liberal leanings often stand in sharp contrast to the current political landscape. Jed Bartlett desperately wants to be liked and this often leads him to abandon his own instincts, a cardinal sin in politics.
At the heart of the first four seasons is the superb writing of Aaron Sorkin, one of the best screen-writers of the modern age. Sorkin’s writing would later be even better received with works like “The Social Network” or the superb “Charley Wilsons War”.
Sorkin writes superb dialogue, often with his trademark quips and overlaps and his actors took to it beautifully. There are some great speeches too, though often these distract from the shows internal realism.
The show does have its weaknesses: there aren’t as many strong female characters in the first season as there are later on, the series finale is a blatant attempt at grabbing ratings for season two and at times the show can feel schmaltzy and manipulative.
But all of that pales next to a show that at its heart is smart, savvy, well written and well acted. Watching these people try to change things for the better is inspiring, watching them struggle is frustrating and watching them on the edge of achieving these changes is exciting.
So it turns out that politics isn’t boring after all. But don’t take my word for it, go and watch it for yourself.