Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is a wonk-world of pure imagination. It’s compelling, intelligent, fast-paced, and seductive.
NBC’s new Wednesday night poli-drama has the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) up in arms in response to episode two, when fictional president Josiah Bartlet (played with ego-centered magnanimity by Martin Sheen) wants to bomb Syria off the map for downing an unarmed U.S. Air Force jet. Says ADC president Hala Maksoud, "By creating a fictional story that blames a real nation and people for such a heinous crime, NBC has slandered an entire nation in the most unfair manner possible."
This episode, titled "A Proportional Response," shows the impact of Just War theory in limiting the military response of the powerful. The president is finally talked down by his chief of staff (played brilliantly by John Spencer), who reminds Bartlet that a more reasoned response "is what our fathers taught us." While it is a far cry from active nonviolence (activist-celeb Sheen’s preferred mode), it is nonetheless a sharp new architecture in the exurbs of network TV.
Sorkin, the creator of another talk-box hit, Sports Night, is known for his frenetic literary dialogue, quick quips, and tight emotional maneuvering. Perhaps his swill of choice, Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink, gives him the edge.
Emmy-winning director Thomas Schlamme sparks the small screen with a rich visual field. The Oval Office (thanks to visual consultant Jon Hutman) looks like the real thing. When Air Force One isn’t really Air Force One (and it often is), it’s a very good Virgin Atlantic 747 imitation. The deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) totes Elizabeth Drew’s current Beltway bible The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why under his arm.
The West Wing wears New Politics proudly on its business-casual sleeve. President Bartlet’s administration is Democrat, and the pilot episode deftly pitched some Religious Right-wingers out on theiràears. However, the hawk is close at hand in the episode "Take This Sabbath Day," when the president does not commute the sentence of a federal prisoner, even with a priest (Karl Malden) at his side telling him that the Catholic Church believes the death penalty is wrong. The struggle is poignant, real. The follow-up absolution begged for and offered is devastatingly compelling. So far Sorkin is successfully walking the razor wire of political balance, rather than political correctness.
SORKIN’S BIGGEST SLIP to date was sticking too close to reality when his original cast had no characters of color. The six main roles are played by five white guys and press secretary C.J. Gregg (Alison Janney), a white woman. Unfortunately, it is one part of the show that is dead-on accurate. Clinton’s 1993 White House had exactly the same makeup.
The remedy is a controversial one. Deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman hires a shy African-American teen (Dule Hill of Bring In Da’ Noise and She’s All That) as a personal aide to the president. He’s the valet. He carries the president’s garment bag.
Not even this federal-sized faux pas has knocked Sorkin off balance. Hill’s character, Charlie Young, has more face time with the president than anyone else on the staff. Before hiring the new staffer, Josh stops in his boss’s office for a political correctness check, assuming that he should actually not hire Young for all the PC reasons. We can’t have a young black kid carrying the president’s jacket, right? It won’t look good. We’ll get slammed. Chief of staff McGarry simply asks Josh if he thinks Young can do the job and do it well. If the answer’s yes, then hire him.
The acting is so strong in these scenes that there doesn’t appear to be any loss of integrity to the characters. They convey the complexities of politics and decision-making in the real world where few things are black and white.
THE SHOW’S MOST genuine character is press secretary C.J. Gregg. Intelligent, lonely, brilliantly funny, no-nonsense, she’s surrounded by men who often feel they can do her job better than she can. (Sorkin lets all comers fall flat on their cans.) Her work is her life. At 6-foot tall, she stands out. It’s hard for her to get a date. The playful (and awkward) romance she develops with journalist Danny Concannon (thirtysomething’s Timothy Busfield) is as painful as it is sweet. She’s got former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers written all over her.
You don’t have to watch The West Wing on a weekly basis to follow the story line. Each episode has its own issue: domestic terrorism, divorce, gun control, Charitable Choice, "driving while Hispanic," flag burning, gay rights in the military, strip mining, alcoholism, and labor disputes are just a few of the topics laid out on the Executive desk. The intros brief you on the sub-stories so you know why Josh and C.J. aren’t speaking, that Charlie had his first kiss, and that the president’s daughter has been assigned a new Secret Service agent (ER’s Jorja Fox).
Critics complain that The West Wing is ridiculously optimistic, that the show needs a "goodness gap"—i.e. more dirt. They want more characters the likes of Dick Morris. They want it more like coverage of the Clinton White House or the George W. Bush campaign trail.
Sorkin’s West Wing scripts up more than a swelling soundtrack of optimism. He writes hope into his characters. If this is not how the White House actually is, it’s how it should be. Hard-working, woefully inadequate, idealistic women and men living out the democratic dream. It might even seduce America back into believing government can be good.
ROSE MARIE BERGER is assistant editor of Sojourners.
The West Wing. Berger, Rose Marie. NBC, 1/1/99.