I always felt that for all its other traits “The West Wing” was in secret an extended essay on the political experience. I know who work in the arena must have shared this notion, if only psychically, with one another. (I often wondered if other shows that took evident pride in their verisimilitude connected similarly with cops, doctors or lawyers.) So thinking about politics and trying to find something in the culture to attach it to, I used the release of the first three seasons for a discursive essay on politics, the political experience, and faith in public life. Some of the arguments I made earlier on this site about taste and aesthetics were first developed here.If the essay seems dated (it references the death of Ronald Reagan and the Kerry campaign in 2004), it was finished in 2005-2006. But the basic arguments to my mind remain valid.
The essay also allowed me to place “The West Wing” into the subgenre of political fiction — a limited pantheon that includes Allen Drury, Joe Klein, Robert Penn Warren and (most neglected of all), Ward Just. Just continues to write some of the most thoughtful and elegant books about human beings in politics than any other writer in American letters. I don’t know if “The West Wing” owes a direct debt to him, but the very often tragic arc of the show’s characters and the “dangerous friends” they encounter can trace their lineage back to Just’s fiction.
I argue that “The West Wing” — and all political fiction — only really “works” well when what we see or read carries a whiff of reality. What made “All the President’s Men” and “Primary Colors” so compelling was the sense that we had a privileged glimpse of men we thought we knew while pulling back the curtain a bit. The same was for “The West Wing”. The series only went off the rails when it wasn’t following closely political events in Washington and showing us how the Wizard manipulated or reacted to events. But when in the later seasons the show hit the road with the national campaign that eerily mirrored the Obama-McCain dynamic, we got that much more out of a tightly wound narrative.