All the President's Men

When the second season of NBC's West Wing premiered in October, with nine Emmys on the mantel and the lives of many key presidential staffers dangling in the balance thanks to last season's cliff-hanger assassination attempt, a stunning 25.1 million viewers tuned in to survey the damage. True, a bigger audience--about 50 million--watched the real presidential debate the night before, but that show tied up most of the major networks, and others carried it on tape delay. You practically had to turn the TV off to avoid it. Meanwhile, back in fantasyland a few weeks later, the Miss America 2000 pageant drew only 12.6 million viewers, just about half of The West Wing's total. And there we were, suddenly, at the dawn of a new century--a nation that seemed to find less comfort in comparing women's breasts than in watching staffers in a fictional White House debate international tariffs and campaign finance reform.

How is this possible? Lots of reasons, really. The dialogue on this show is sharp and witty in a way that television has never seen before; the cast is strong; and as president, Martin Sheen seems everything we ever wanted our leaders to be: principled, definitive, moral, and somebody with a good personality. He and his crack staff are determined to do the right thing, a fact acknowledged in one recent episode even by the lone Republican invited to join the administration. But after watching the show evolve over the last season, I've concluded that there's a simpler explanation for its appeal. Essentially, The West Wing is the television version of a classic American entertainment, what I'll call the platoon film--the kind of war movie they used to make back when men were men, communists were evil, and everyone who wasn't American was clearly wrong. Only instead of offering us a squadron of fresh-faced, courageous American boys ready to die for buddy and country, The West Wing offers a staff of fresh-faced, courageous American policy wonks. Led by Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the administration's steady chief of staff, President Josiah Bartlet's inner circle includes a trio of rising stars, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and one woman, Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney). Like the characters in the platoon film, they are fighting against evil--in this case, the evils of poverty, racism, hypocrisy. And as with any good "bad guys/good guys" story, we're not really tuning in to see if the good guys will win; we know they will. We watch because we draw satisfaction from the smaller picture--the loyalty our guys show for one another along the way.

I was first struck by this parallel as I watched this season's premiere. As Josh, the deputy chief of staff, was undergoing surgery to save him from the assassin's bullet he took in last season's finale, the show flashed back to when the president's staff was first assembled. We learned that the president himself had offered to miss a victory speech in order to accompany Josh to his father's funeral--a moment that foreshadowed much of what was to come for these characters, such as the crisis last season when Leo's career was threatened by the disclosure that he was once addicted to pills and alcohol. He offered to resign to save the administration and no one would hear of it. They were all willing to go down before they would let Leo do it for them. Similarly, we've seen Sam stand up for Josh, and the president go out on a limb for Toby. At these moments, The West Wing grabs us and makes us not simply want these people to run our country; it makes us want to be one of them.

What is so appealing to a young woman--you might ask me, if you knew I was a 31-year-old female--about watching a bunch of guys, who only awkwardly and rarely express much emotion, as they watch each other's backs? I suspect it's that The West Wing is aware of itself in a way those old war movies never were. The verbal sparring--"Sam's getting his ass kicked by a girl," Josh calls triumphantly while watching Sam debate on a news show--is still cover for the platoon's mutual protectiveness. In that same episode, C.J. chooses not to seek badly needed advice from Sam because doing so could leave him open to a subpoena. But what's more interesting here is that C.J. is a woman, still the only woman in the president's inner circle, and for months we've been watching her evolution from odd-woman-out to part-buddy, a transformation that's also let us see a gradual change in the nature of the buddy-bonding itself. This season, when Sam saved C.J.'s life by knocking her out of the way of the gunfire, both his reaction (not to tell her he had done so) and hers (embarrassment along with gratitude) suggested a strange, new middle ground between a chivalrous act and a buddy moment. By saving her life and not claiming credit, Sam had allowed C.J. in a small way to be one of the guys, and when she protected him a few episodes later, it felt like progress.

There are other ensemble dramas on TV, of course, other shows in which buddies bond while struggling with the same sorts of ethical dilemmas that The West Wing does so well. But I can't think of another in which the watching out for one another is so much a group enterprise. Nor, and this may be the point, can I think of one in which the group is as unambiguously dedicated--just like the war movies platoon--to something as stirring and grand as making the world a better place. The doctors on ER may be saving lives every day and may be top-notch at it, but in the end they are not changing the status quo, or even trying to. The defense attorneys on The Practice are often, indeed, sorry for their successes. Is society really winning when we win? they have to ask themselves afterward.

The West Wing provides no such complications. Even when the show focuses on one man's life on death row, or one homeless veteran's funeral, what's at stake is always much bigger: Because this is the White House, what's at stake, in fact, is the fate of the free world. And even though, in their politics, this is a liberal bunch, their battles have the universal appeal of people fighting on the same team for something vastly larger than themselves. The conventions of the form are immutable and utterly satisfying: When Leo was under attack, the staff considered digging up dirt on his Republican critics, but Leo wouldn't let them because, after all, they are the good guys. While good guys might stray from what's right, they always come back to it.

Which is not to say that the show is simpleminded. On the contrary, with the president's staff pulled in so many directions in any given episode, and with so much quick dialogue, an inexperienced TV watcher risks missing something. But by the last half of the show, the choices seem to fall into line so that even decisions made for reasons of political expediency--like cutting deals with everyone from members of Congress to the leaders of small African nations in need of AIDS medication--seem to be the best possible under the circumstances, and made all the better by the sparring the platoon members have done along the way. By the end of the hour, they're back on the same page, and whatever is left to disturb us is the result of outside factors--the forces of evil, or ignorance, or complacency.

This does bring us back to what the critics (admittedly liberal ones) in general like about The West Wing--that it gives us government the way it should be. And they couldn't be the only ones, especially in this election year when so much attention has been focused on government as it shouldn't be. What makes The West Wing special is that it works on more than one level. The show's opening sequence, with its waving flag and "Hail to the Chief"-like theme song, actually gives me a lump in my throat. But this isn't just because of the subliminal feelings I have about America; it's because of the tangible feelings I have for the characters on this show, feelings they in turn have for one another. ยค