Oct 272010

On Being a Fan of “The West Wing”

by David Satterlee

My wife and I are both fans of the television series The West Wing. We discovered, after getting married, that we had both aggressively managed our schedules to avoid missing an episode. In our five years together, we have twice dedicated summer evenings to a private West Wing marathon, and are overdue for a repeat

For five years, the series entertained and taught us. The plots were articulate, witty, and filled with human pathos that spanned the range from individual to international. The sets were meticulous reproductions of White House architecture and furnishings. The writers and actors developed believable and empathetic characters.

The West Wing dramatically portrayed the constant stress of dedicated public servants sacrificing to achieve goals for the public good, while trying to maintain relationships with each other, associates, and sometimes, belatedly, their families. I especially enjoyed the voyeuristic sense of seeing the intimate reality of the meat grinder at work in the sausage making of government.

Each episode crafted a major theme of political change-making with several related subplots mirrored in the lives of the characters. It was masterfully done. Each episode also taught lessons in personal and political issues. For instance, after the Islamist attack on Manhattan’s twin towers (and other targets), a special timely episode named “Jacob and Esau ” was inserted into the schedule, highlighting the relationships between Christianity and Islam.

Curiously, the president was originally intended to be a largely off-stage character. However, Martin Sheen’s early performances were so powerful, and portrayed such a profound gravitas, that several episodes were reshot and reedited to include him as a major character. Sheen played an unlikely Democratic economics professor-cum-candidate who struggles to let his personal rectitude light the way for himself, his staff, and the nation. The writers regularly demonstrated their literary and political acumen by subtle insider references such as the use of “better angels” from the last line of a Lincoln speech, while a subordinate criticizes the President’s compromise on an issue.

Watching The West Wing is much more than standard boob-tube fare. It is a thought provoking study of civics and character; it is a privilege.

Copyright 2009 David Satterlee

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