The Importance of Ambitious Political Rhetoric: The West Wing, Season One - A Review
It is not often one is able to decipher why we are drawn to the things we are, but in cases like this, it is less important to consider why and more so to accept their relevance in the context of our present situations.
I was recently introduced to a show that premiered in 1999: The West Wing. A now seemingly ancient narrative, what with the incredible pace of both politics and television, I was struck by its poignance and startling relevance to the current political climate.
Established in the wake of George H W Bush’s oscillating government and at the onset of Clinton’s rocky presidency, this show emerges at an imperative time for American history. Following an ensemble of characters situated in (you guessed it) the west wing of the White House, the masterful writing of Aaron Sorkin’s democratic administration lifts weight off the real-world turbulent political climate – both then and now, gaining critical acclaim in its first year and sustaining its success for a further six seasons.
The show was criticised for being overly biased to the left - earning the nickname, The Left Wing, and for being unrealistically optimistic. It is difficult to consider the series relevant today without having watched it, but with a fast-approaching dystopian future, with this nature considered: does this season walk a carefully positioned line purposely constructed by Sorkin to evoke a more realistic and hopeful attitude to politics?
Without a doubt.
DVD Cover for Season 1 of TV Series The West Wing (Source: Wikipedia)
Not without its flaws, namely its outdated attitudes to women - what with most of its female characters being secretaries, the few that are in positions of power are highly sexualised, being introduced first as love interests and others earning pathetic secret service names like, “flamingo” where the male characters are coded with names like, “Princeton”. As well as the fleeting but prominent character of Joey Lucas; who, in my opinion, is the best example of this sexism - being judged not only by her deafness but also being constantly second-guessed by all of the male characters because of her sex, prevents her from having any sort of narrative significance until the last few minutes of the episode. Writing these attitudes off as a minor to the season and product of their time would be a gross misrepresentation of the series itself but I am assured that with the narrative changes in the following seasons, these flaws are somewhat repaired. And so, as of right now, I am unconcerned with them.
I would like to, instead, focus on its timeless political rhetoric. Sorkin pairs meticulously timed humour with both likeable, realistic characters and enduring political issues. His characters draw you into their work and personal lives with fast-paced dialogue filled with wit and optimism. Encompassing you in this intense political environment, entangling the viewer in every word, every sigh, every slight movement, forces the matters it tackles to become highly personal, thus making their rhetoric highly persuasive. Undertaking such relevant material like gun control, available health care, LGBT rights and racism makes this 90’s drama so immediately relevant. Sorkin’s skilful employment of such simple literary techniques immerse the viewer in the show’s intensity, elicit a deep sense of empathy, further allowing for its positive and ambitious dialogue to balance out the obvious left-wing idealism with today’s tumultuous leadership. It is, perhaps, slightly discerning that some of these social and political themes resonate so incredibly with today’s issues but, ultimately, with its ambitious fictional satire and its confidence and pride in presenting such themes, the viewer is left with a renewed sense of hope for the future.
And so, with Trump’s chaotic government, May’s redundant Brexit plan and all other burdensome issues of immanent political decline, Sorkin reassures is that:
“…this country is meant to be unfinished. We’re meant to keep doing better. We’re meant to keep discussing and debating…”
None of the thoughts I have presented in this article are particularly new or original, I am simply highlighting a saving grace before we need it as I, and evidently, Sorkin too, believe hope to be a necessity for change. It is a power that manifests transformation in its very conception. To be hopeful is to resist the darkening political environment in which we live and to embrace the changes to come.
And they will.