The West Wing rushed in at the end of the 2oth Century when we were all worried about Y2K and our brand-new Internet crashing down around our ears. Helmed by Martin Sheen, Aaron Sorkin’s vision of the capitol city gave us a non-sexist image of a Democratic president, quick-witted and principled to the hilt, someone who would never receive, much less request, oral sex in the Oval Office from an intern. The biggest argument inside the Beltway was whether Ken Starr needed to spend $20 million of the taxpayers’ money to investigate the commander-in-chief’s sex life. We may not have thought of it as a simpler time, and it wasn’t all that long ago, but well, in retrospect popular culture was somewhat less complicated.
This is not a series that didn’t manage to hit the point of poor performance, often called “jumping the shark.” It did become somewhat preposterous, with a pretend coup of a pretend nation that could not possibly compare to the destruction of our national mental stability brought about by 9/11.
But many of us watched anyway, for the rapid fire dialogue, for Rob Lowe (until he left, of course), for the rich relationships among the senior advisers to the president (C.J.! Toby! Lyman!), and the ways in which smart people in Washington were portrayed. Intrigue on the domestic front was especially believable, First Family kidnappings aside. Audiences were willing to go along with a few half-baked story ideas because so much else about the series rang true. And when Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda ran for the highest office in the land, viewership rebounded.
Television has given us other series in some degree of trying to recapture The West Wing’s magic, and all of them have fallen flatter than a lead pancake. Commander in Chief couldn’t even break out of the gate before it resorted to a conspiracy against the Vice President taking office after the President’s death. Veep is funny but has relegated itself to using the Number 2’s office as a comedy motivator. Political Animals quickly descended into a better dressed version of Dallas. And Scandal, in its second season on ABC, has about as much resemblance to Washington’s machinery as an episode of Little House on the Prairie. Which is to say, none. Whereas it began obsessed with women’s sexual power in tension with men’s political power, the narrative is now caught up in an elaborate conspiracy theory much better enacted in The Manchurian Candidate.
So why do all of these shows fall so short?
It’s not that The West Wing was simply better, which yes, it was. But we as a country are perhaps too jaded for shows about our elected officials and their careers. The approval of Congress has never been lower–currently it’s around 12 percent–and on many issues, the populace has never been more divided. So much of our news cycle is dedicated to the actual infighting and name-calling in DC that it’s hard to give more attention to its fictional presence in series (or mini-series) form. We see re-tellings of presidential decisions in Zero Dark Thirty and Hollywood’s depiction of the Iraq war in The Hurt Locker, Green Zone, and Saving Jessica Lynch. Homeland gives us a narrative with feet in both camps of terrorist intrigue and Washington decision making, wrapped together in paranoid fantasy. In each of these stories there are clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and once in a while, the blurring of that line in the guise of the malevolence of power itself.
We can’t watch political shows and believe them anymore because these fictions fail to capture the intense awfulness of our reality, the depths to which we have descended to believe that our neighbors truly care about us. We don’t believe in our hearts that we’re all in this together anymore, and so the idealist hope of a show like The West Wing can’t exist in popular culture in the same way in 2013. Our most prevalent, hyped narratives–Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Homeland, Revenge, Damages–are all about individual failures, misdeeds, and betrayals. The idea that we could work together to further the common good is what’s become unbelievable.
Happy New Year.