West Wing made TV history notwithstanding its many weaknesses. It is still worth watching for C.J. and President Jed Bartlett, played by a very charismatic Martin Sheen. Sheen steals the show, which was supposed to be more about the staff than the President. Ironically, the greatest weakness of West Wing is the lack of political thinking across the board.
The American dream: West Wing is Aaron Sorkin’s crusade to make Americans believe in America by drowning viewers in syrup and causing a few heart attacks. The American dream is a multifaceted idea, which could be summarised simplistically as an individual effort in living up to a utopian society. It is based on the Puritan notion of the voluntary society. America thus becomes an idea, a country to be built, not inherited. Yet, this utopian faith is conveyed in a much stronger fashion when the show (once Sorkin has finally left it) presents the contrast between the dream and the reality of the country. It does so particularly well in a remark by a Chinese business on how they learnt the American dream of making money. Sorkin doesn’t understand that presenting a perfect reality (which anyway is only his particular conception of a just society) is only cringing propaganda. I’ve seen better propaganda films part of the war effort. What stirs people into action is the betrayal of the ideal. The sugary set up means that West Wing chickens out from the difficult issues such as immigration, unemployment, finance and economic and social inequalities. The President is supposedly a Nobel Prize winner in economics (whatever!), but this is completely absent in West Wing. Absent is also good policy thinking, which is reduced to throwing money at problems without reflecting on how things work. It becomes extremely repetitive and all above the romantic entanglements of the characters.
Gender: It’s a boys’ club and politics is like that in real life, but West Wing (like most TV shows) does its best to present most female characters as just young pretty women with impossibly long hair, who command no authority or respect. The exceptions are C.J., the First Lady and, to a lesser extent, Donna. The lack of appreciation for the female sex means their characters are largely stuck to be in relation to a man, rather than autonomous. ‘Feminist’ Amy is totally unsubstantial. Most importantly, she hasn’t got a clue about gender. At one point, she’s asked her line on ‘stay at home mothers’. After much (unfruitful) thinking, she comes out with ‘I don’t care who stays at home as long as it’s a choice’. Oh dear! One could write a whole essay on this so-called free choice being a construction of a liberalism that conceives of human beings as autonomous and independent only because they are enabled to be so by social hierarchies. These ‘free people’ are white middle-class men and can make free choices because the work is taken care by women. It is a central critique that has been levied at liberalism and which some liberal thinkers, notably Michael Walzer, have incorporated in their theories. More concretely, Amy should have known that most women haven’t got a choice, especially in the US where there is no parental leave, so you need to afford private childcare and to do so you really need two salaries to make ends meet, not to mention discrimination in the workplace against women for having children. It’s a major issue dismissed with a silly line. Without any appreciation of gender and social structures, the American dream is for white rich men.