Say Goodbye to Washington
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
When Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” first aired on September 22, 1999, its fictional president had just suffered a sprained ankle from riding a bicycle into a tree. From this comic conceit grew a series rich with ambition; as our country found itself with far more serious problems than its commander in chief’s clumsiness, the breakout hit series deepened alongside it. Seven seasons later – the rest of us have lived through a terrorist attack, two wars and two tight presidential campaigns – “The West Wing” dwells uncomfortably in the disconnect between its liberal idealism and the nation’s conservative reality. Perhaps, in the end, that’s why we no longer need “The West Wing” as a reference point; it seems silly to play out the absurd notion of a perfect President in today’s world.
And so “The West Wing” goes off the air this Sunday night, just when it should. Its president-elect, Matt Santos – a Houston congressman played with smug sincerity by Jimmy Smits – has just appointed his republican opponent, Arnie Vinick (Alan Alda) as Secretary of State, definitively establishing the “West Wing” as a television writer’s silly fantasy. While Mr. Sorkin’s White House had ingredients of realism, majesty, and grace, its current incarnation comes off as goofy and awkward. With President Bush at all-time popularity lows, the notion of an alternate-universe presidency might have served a valuable purpose and caught fire among audiences starved for illusion. But instead, “The West Wing” has descended into vapidity.
Who could imagine a less appealing (or likely) first lady than the one played by Teri Polo of “Meet The Fockers” fame? She treats the American presidency as a giant inconvenience to her lifestyle. And where did the fire and idealism of Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman disappear to? Now he’s just an overworked political hack. C.J. Cregg – the press secretary to President Bartlet once played with such gusto by Alison Janney – has been rendered meaningless by the shifting sands of power. And with the death of actor John Spencer (who played Bartlet’s crusty chief of staff, Leo McGarry) and the departure of Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler, the show lost muscle and added bulk. The performance of Martin Sheen as the president devolved into parody – in a recent episode, he was seen muttering statistics about the population of Germany as though anyone still marveled at his memory. He’s the human embodiment of the virtue of term limits.
Still, even the worst “West Wing” episode towered over the mess made of “Commander-in-Chief” by ABC. What began as a hit series last fall, with Geena Davis as the nation’s first female president, quickly disintegrated into a cartoon. Scenes of the statuesque Ms. Davis furrowing her brow over national security threats alternated with sequences of her cooking breakfast for her kids in the White House family quarters. How many times were we going to have to watch her apologize to her children for being too busy running the country to hang out at home? Ms. Davis made for a fine president, in some ways more grounded in humanity than Mr. Sheen, but her series never captured the tensions that must envelope the Oval Office in an hour of crisis. Her greatest adversaries weren’t foreign leaders, but Washington politicos like Donald Sutherland, who played the speaker of the house as an homage to Snidely Whiplash. Too bad the show got cancelled before he got the chance to mutter, “Curses … foiled again!” when Ms. Davis yet again saved the day.
What will America do now, without a fictional president to offer a fantasy alternative to President Bush? Perhaps it will liberate us from the notion that television exists to create an escapist parallel universe. One consistent weakness in the “West Wing” formula (and copied by “Commander-in-Chief”) was its obsession with phony crises in non-existent countries. After September 11, the show struggled with ways to address the real and enduring terrorist threat that enveloped the nation, and never really found its footing again – everything seemed to happen too late to matter.
But what truly made “The West Wing” so captivating and addictive when it began was its treatment of the White House as just another dysfunctional television family; Mr. Sorkin’s characters engaged us more than his stories. Alas, when our world demanded that we care about terrorism and war, it left little room for the goofy antics of Josh, C.J., and Toby, or even the engagingly intellectual prattle of President Bartlet. It’s no surprise that Mr. Sorkin has shifted his sights away from Washington; next season he returns to NBC as the creator of a new series set backstage at a late-night comedy show. It seems unlikely that world events will overtake his stories and render them irrelevant. If anything, Mr. Sorkin has correctly calculated that in times as trying as these, comedy ought to belong only to those paid to be funny for a living – and the government doesn’t need Hollywood to reimagine its mission. It’s hard enough already.
In last week’s column, I incorrectly referred to Mets play-by-play announcer Gary Cohen as “bespectacled.” While Mr. Cohen’s persona may suggest otherwise, he does not wear spectacles and has no need for glasses to do his job. The same cannot apparently be said of this critic.