America isn’t supposed to have dynasties. That was kind of the point of the country. Yet a second Clinton and third Bush are gearing up to fight for the White House. If only there was a young Bartlet to vote for.
First and foremost, watching The West Wing is a useful civics lesson ahead of the US election. Who holds the casting vote in the Senate? Who is third in line to the Oval Office? Which State votes first in the primaries? Forget House of Cards: this classic political drama is the motherlode of political trivia.
But more than that, The West Wing is the forefather of a golden age of TV. In 1999, it was a revolution. Not only is it famously high-minded for a mainstream show — creator Aaron Sorkin’s trademark “smart people talking quickly” style is still as potent as ever, with everyone wisecracking like a 1930s screwball comedy — but it dares to suggest politicians aren’t all conniving cynics.
The Nobel-winning President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is a loveable but unapologetic genius, while his staff of thrusting politicos never lose their high-minded ideals even as they work the system. Many quality dramas have followed in its wake — The Wire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones — but the West Wing was the last optimistic quality drama.
The Clinton/Bush comeback suggests America is pining for its turn-of-the-century heyday. Indeed, the Bartlet premiership was designed as an alternate version of Bill Clinton’s White House. Impeachment, 9/11 and the rise of Dubya’s right wing left it looking increasingly like a liberal fantasyland, and the departure of Sorkin at the end of season four saw storylines get more absurd.
Nevertheless, it remains uplifting — a declaration that TV doesn’t have to be depressing to be worth your time.