July 6, New York: Unlike most titles in this list, I’ve actually re-consumed The West Wing a number of times. I discovered the series late, long after its run on television. I watched it for the first time in the summer of 2010, when I took some time off to write a novel. Called Drain the Gulf!, this book was steeped in Washington politics and I needed some good background to inform the details of the story. I asked Alexis Madrigal, who was living in DC at the time, for an introduction to someone on the Hill. Instead he introduced me to the Bartlet White House.
It was a good solid binge, that first time through. I rented DVDs and tore through them in the evenings. Jill was away for the summer and I was alone and not working. My daily rhythm was wake up, write, run, lunch, write, West Wing, sleep. But if you chunked that into percentages, time spent on those last two items would have been roughly equal.
Very shortly after that, I introduced Jill to the series and she was hooked. I’ve never seen her so addicted to a show as she was to this one. We started to watch the whole damned thing again. But then a funny thing happened: I left home. I was working in DC for weeks at a stretch and Jill was alone in our SF apartment. So we developed a ritual: we would both rent an episode from the Itunes store and then open a video chat. We’d cue the episodes up to start at exactly the same moment, and then we would watch it together. Half the screen was the White House and half the screen was each other’s faces. We passed a long couple of months that way.
Re-watching this time was like reconnecting with an old friend whose tics and quirks you still remember vividly. Snappy writing, walking and talking, Martin Sheen (how amazing is Martin Sheen?). But also Aaron Sorkin and his ever-beleaguered ladies, who never shine quite as bright as our white male heroes. The show has its flaws, but it is incredible television.
In addition to providing me atmospheric source material for Drain the Gulf, The West Wing has also proven to be a fount of other cultural notes. West Wing Twitter is one of the most incredible phenomenon I’ve ever stumbled across. Fan-created character accounts who dwell and interact in a parallel universe in a Santos Administration. A community of anonymous individuals behind familiar faces who are so knowledgable about the inner workings of our government, one has to assume they are employed in it. I am fairly certain at least a few have worked in the Obama White House.
And then there’s the fascinating parallel between the Obama White House and the Bartlet White House. Two moderate Democrats of high intellect but incremental achievement. The smart, idealistic young brains who swept into the White House in 2008 were the core audience of The West Wing when it was on television. Hundreds of people convinced they were the next Sam Seaborn or Josh Lyman. And has the incrementalism of the Obama White House been a self-fulfilling prophecy? The Bartlet Administration was hemmed into only moderate action by the challenges of script-writing a parallel world: they couldn’t diverge too far from our existing world or else they’d lose the audience (no FDR “New Deals” from Jed Bartlet), so the show became about process. Did that process-focused view of holding power provide a roadmap to the bright young things of the Obama Administration?
This one you can actually just watch on the Netflix. (That’s right, the whole thing!)