TV Review – The West Wing Sucks Part 1

America is in considerable trouble right now. Yet, this problem didn’t begin recently; it’s been a roiling, bubbling pot of chaos that’s just now starting to overflow. In attempting to do a living autopsy of America’s rapidly dying corpse, multiple moments mark the downturn. Watergate undermined public confidence in pretty much the entire institute of government. The election of Ronald Reagan installed a seemingly permanent reactionary class in the halls of power. The 2000 election was stolen by George Bush when a feckless Al Gore rolled over in the name of “civility.”

It’s remarkably easy to point to the media that has warped the conservative mind in our modern era. It’s Fox News, and it’s many deformed, monstrous children (The Blaze, Daily Wire, OAN, Newsmax, etc.). My argument is that Aaron Sorkin is the liberal equivalent of Fox News. His work presents a shockingly distorted vision of how the world and power work in our system to the point that I think it has psychologically damaged almost as many people as Fox News et al. 

Sorkin was born into a pretty nice life. He was raised in the New York suburb of Scarsdale by a school teacher mother and a copyright lawyer father. While his siblings would pursue law, Sorkin was primarily interested in the arts & drama. He continued down this path at Syracuse College, where he struggled academically but got back on track to graduate in 1983. Life followed the expected path when he moved to New York City after graduating, having a series of service jobs to pay the bills while pursuing his dream. By 1989, Sorkin had just broken out with this script for the stage play A Few Good Men. Throughout the 1990s, the writer would either be getting his own writing produced or doing rewrites on other projects; the common thread was that almost everything was about American institutions. I first became aware of him when his ABC series Sports Night was airing in the late 1990s. 

Sorkin’s personal political philosophy is very much neoliberal in that he believes the best form of government is a very slow-moving, hands-off apparatus that allows the free market to do its “magic.” We’ll get into the details in the West Wing and how that presents itself in a moment. First, however, Sorkin appeared with Fareed Zakaria on CNN during the 2020 election cycle and kind of perfectly showcases the lack of belief in anything other than empty decorum and “civility”:

“I like Kamala Harris a lot. I like Joe Biden a lot. I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people, ok? I think that there’s a great opportunity here, now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non-stupid party . . . that it’s not just about transgender bathrooms. That’s a Republican talking point they’re trying to distract you with. That we haven’t forgotten about the economic anxiety of the middle class, but we’re going to be smart about this — we’re not going to be mean about it.”

The writer expresses a disdain for young people, often seen as more energetic and devoted to causes. He tries to say that supporting human rights is a losing strategy to win by bringing up the transgender bathroom issue. I’m not sure if he forgot in the moment, but the issue of transgender bathrooms stemmed from conservative state legislatures trying to make it illegal for trans people to use public toilets, not Leftists supporting anything, though we do support trans people using any public restroom. By bringing it up, he’s biting at the bait of the very Republican talking point he claims to be pushing back against. I also don’t honestly believe his concern about the economic anxiety of the middle class, as seen in his show. Sorkin acts as though you cannot support a broad platform of both economic and social issues. I would say supporting anything beyond their donors might be a good place for the Democratic Party to start.

The episodes I have chosen for this series are rated the 10 best episodes on IMDB. So I wanted to give The West Wing a fair shot by using its most beloved episodes to point out its flaws and the harmful effect it has had on reinforcing all the worst things about centrist and liberal ideology.

In Excelsis Deo (S01E10)
Original Air date: 15 Dec 1999
Written by Aaron Sorkin & Rick Cleveland
Directed by Alex Graves

This is the Christmas episode for the first season. Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is the Communications Director in the Bartlett White House. Toby gets a call from the D.C. police as a homeless man has been found dead in a nearby park. The man was wearing a coat of Toby’s that had been donated and a business card in the pocket. We learn that the man is a Korean war vet, which plucks a sentimental string in Toby’s heart. By the episode’s end, he drops the President’s name to get a military funeral for the man and seeks out his own only living relative. 

There are ongoing subplots about Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) having a story about his previous pill addiction leaked to the press. The President sneaks out to buy a vintage book as a Christmas gift. Some Christmas-related conversations between staff members. The one subplot I want to focus on reminds me of Sorkin’s more recent comments about transgender bathroom usage. 

C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney) is the White House Press Secretary. She becomes very concerned with a developing story out of the Midwest. A homosexual youth has been attacked, hospitalized, and eventually dies. Cregg sees this as a moment to push for hate crime legislation. She’s feeling a tremendous amount of outrage and empathy over what has happened. Massive pushback comes from McGarry, and they have a somewhat heated argument about it. Everywhere Cregg goes, she’s admonished by the straight white male members of the White House staff on how pie in the sky her thinking is. It culminates in two awful ways: McGarry and Cregg agree to talk more about it later. Even worse, reporter Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) uses this as an opportunity to secure a date with Cregg to “talk it over.” 

A common trope in Sorkin’s writing is that women in these institutions (you see similar treatment in The Newsroom) need to be reined in when they get too passionate about things by level-headed white men who understand the mechanisms of power better. Women in the Sorkin-verse always possess these attributes: they are “feisty,” their sexual/romantic relationship with a male character in the series is very important to his character arcs, women as objects of physical comedy are used to undercut their seriousness, women are always unreasonably angry, and the most essential things they seem to do is serve as an exposition delivery device. 

Celestial Navigation (S01E15)
Original Air date: 16 Feb 2000
Written by Dee Dee Myers & Lawrence O’Donnell Jr.
Directed by Christopher Misiano

Previously, President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) nominated Roberto Mendoza (guest star Edward James Olmos) for a seat on the Supreme Court. The episode begins with Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), the Deputy Chief Staff, attending a lecture series as one of the guests. He’s asked about day-to-day operations in the White House, which leads to about half the episode being made up of flashbacks. While he’s telling a lighter story about the White House dealing with a minor crisis, the rest of the team learns that Mendoza has been picked up for drunk driving in Connecticut. We’ll eventually learn that he refused the breathalyzer test because he believed, and rightly so, that he and his family were pulled over by racist police. 

Lyman’s story involves the House & Urban Development Secretary Deborah O’Leary (CCH Pounder) calling a Republican legislator a racist after he speaks racistly. The President even expresses disappointment in her, but the writers cleverly hide the inherent racism involved (she is played by a Black woman), and it’s said he thinks it’s so “cliche” to call the man a racist. O’Leary eventually has a meeting with McGarry, who orders her to apologize and has no interest in hearing her side of the story. While Sorkin did not directly write this episode, it reeks of all tropes. Here we have the High Ground vs. Political Reality argument, a call to decorum over truth. This entire argument is posited on the idea that Republicans are good faith in their publicly espoused views and not a political party entirely devoted to increasing the wealth of the already wealthy and “owning the libs.”

But the episode isn’t done chastising people of color for wanting to stand up for what they believe in. The Mendoza subplot has him eventually revealing that he refused to comply with the stop because he knew he was being targeted for being Hispanic. We ultimately learn that Mendoza was on his way back to D.C. because he was asked by the press about O’Leary’s apology, and he stood by her. Mendoza is confronted by Toby at the jail, and the white man proceeds to lecture the Hispanic man about the proper way to stand up for his community’s rights. He just needs to capitulate to the racists now, and once he’s on the Supreme Court, he can fix things. 

The implications of this talk are that, once again, non-white people and women are just too emotional, and they need level-headed white men to talk them down from the ledge. This also presents a warped message about how change comes about. I think pissed off BIPOC exercising tactics from civil disobedience to outright riotous violence have done a lot of good for progressing their causes. Those in power don’t move the line until they feel as if they are threatened in some manner, and so we need passionate, angry people speaking up and fighting. Within the world of Sorkin, passive compliance and some flowery speeches fix everything.

Also, C.J. has a root canal, so once again, one of the few female characters in the show is presented as an object of comedy rather than a serious member of the White House team. We’re just beginning this journey, and there are so many more embarrassingly terrible moments to go.


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