Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

What The West Wing Cult Revival Says About 2018 Politics

The 1990s political drama was a sanctimonious 'Fantasy Island' made by boomers. So why are Millennials binging on it now?
west wing

As a film and TV critic, it is both amusing and interesting to watch the almost Star Trek-like, self-renewing popularity of Aaron Sorkin’s presidential prestige drama, The West Wing.

The show has become a totemic security blanket for people triggered by Trump-era life, with Twitter and Facebook accounts, podcasts like “The West Wing Weekly” (co-hosted by series co-star Josh Malina), write-ups in The Washington Post, rumors of a possible reboot or revival, and the very intentional titling of a new oral history on the Obama years as West Wingers.

But most tellingly, the show has also become something of a social media meme for Millennial leftists who “hate watch” it and practically make a drinking game out of its most offensive and dated moments.

The first thing to understand about The West Wing is that it was always a high-IQ Fantasy Island. The “elevator pitch” would probably have been “Clinton without the scandals.” President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) was Ivy-educated, smartest in the room, charismatic, socially tolerant, and economically centrist.** Instead of an open marriage, he was happily betrothed to a successful feminist doctor. When he was threatened with impeachment, it was for concealing a multiple sclerosis diagnosis, not for sleeping with an intern young enough to be his daughter.

When George W. Bush took over in real life during the show’s second season, it transmogrified into an alternate reality with a president who Believed in Science and Listened to Experts. It famously prefigured Obama (and McCain and Romney) by making its last season revolve around the race to succeed Bartlet, led by an older, socially liberal, corporate Republican (Alan Alda) and a youth-friendly and charismatic candidate of color (Jimmy Smits), who ultimately emerged victorious.

Whereas its near-contemporary X-Files said “Trust No One” and other shows like Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire propounded relentlessly cynical if not conspiratorial views of government institutions, The West Wing was a kind of reverse Gore Vidal novel. Staffers worked towards The Greater Good while peripherally pursuing their selfish and conspiracy-flirting agendas, instead of the other way around.

And compared to modern shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Transparent, Empire, and Scandal, The West Wing’s token attempts at “diversity” seem almost laughable. It was certainly no worse (and oftentimes better) than its contemporaries like CSI and ER, but for a show that wore its supposed progressivism on its sleeve, it failed the test. Unapologetically gay, trans, and Muslim characters and defiantly confrontational people of color were fodder for jokes and made examples of, as was the religious right—and that was when they were shown at all.

The program came from an era when network and cable TV—and NBC above all else—fetishized white, upper-middle to upper-class, urban professionals between the ages of 18 and 49, to the virtual exclusion and erasure of all others. Inkoo Kang noted this in her recent Hollywood Reporter article on ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia. “The revivals of RoseanneGilmore Girls and possibly Murphy Brown remind us how unprecedented those shows were during their original runs,” she writes, “but also how they envisioned women’s progress as white women’s domain.” It’s an accusation that could easily be hurled at any of The West Wing’s female power players. If the show were to be remade in today’s era of Hispanic revivals and Black Panther, it would need to make minority narratives the main course, instead of just spicy side dishes to prove the white characters’ “enlightenment” and “tolerance.” This is how much TV has changed in the short period of time since The West Wing originally aired.

Given all the reboots and revivals today, it’s no surprise that Aaron Sorkin himself has been thinking about resurrecting his most famous TV property. However, if The West Wing were rebooted to reflect today’s sensibility as well as it did the neoliberal (and at times neoconservative/interventionist) aesthetics of the Clinton and George W. eras, it would probably be as a live studio audience sitcom rather than a prestige drama

The way we are encouraged to think today about our political adversaries—cartoonish, one-dimensional, lacking in all nuance or subtlety, in atrocious bad taste—-is everything that The West Wing was not. While conservatives used to be accused of being morally simplistic, it is now the signature of the ascendant left to be as black-hat/white-hat as a Roy Rogers movie, pointing to political buzzphrases like “economic anxiety” and even “free speech” as codes for bigotry. Noted leftist journalist (and West Wing hater) David Klion named their tune: “It’s incredible how many years I wasted associating complexity and ambiguity with intelligence. Turns out the right answer is usually pretty simple, and complexity and ambiguity are how terrible people live with themselves.”

However, The West Wing does share something critical with today’s real-life political circus: a penchant for self-righteous speechifying. The killer deal-breaker is that the show’s blistering rhetorical takedowns were usually used in the pursuit of the Vital Center, in the service of Doing Something, of passing Signature Legislative Achievements and showing that Government Could Work. It was for an era when “gridlock” and “polarization” were seen as bugs, not features.

The Iraq war mortally wounded that kind of deal-making for the sake of deal-making, and the individual mandate unplugged the respirator. Today, government-distrusting conservatives and Resistance-minded leftists alike see the faces of Signature Policy Achievements as children in cages, people being punished for unaffordable insurance premiums, PTSD-riddled soldiers, bailed-out bankers and auto execs flaunting their bling, and Trump playing high-speed hopscotch with North Korea.

The West Wing glamorized the pushmi-pullyu of American politics. The shows that took up its mantle after the Great Recession, House of Cards and Scandal (not to mention the sitcom Veep), made political horse-trading look cynical and dark. Guess which approach was the future, and which decidedly a thing of the past?

In a world defined by Bernie’s glowering and finger-pointing, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s and Julia Salazar’s Yaaasss Queen!, social media hot takes, Antifa and the alt-right, and Donald Trump’s Twitter tantrums, there is simply no room for a President Josiah Bartlet or his almost-all-white and all-Ivy, 100 percent Boomer yuppie core crew.

For a show that defined “cutting edge” and “prestige TV” in its blinkered day, the irony of The West Wing is that it now serves the same purpose today that shows like Murder She Wrote, Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven, and Walker, Texas Ranger served at the time it first launched. It provides psychological escapism for now-aging neoliberal Boomers and “idealistic” (though not ideological) younger pseudo-hipsters.

The show’s real “series finale” wasn’t electing Barack Obama (or even Jimmy Smits’ President Matt Santos), but the election of Donald Trump. Boomer and older Xer idealists cling to The West Wing because it was political life as they wanted it to be. Snarky Millennials, their cynical and distrustful young Xer siblings, and people of color across generations see a world that never existed for them in the first place.

**Editor’s Note: the original publication of this story incorrectly described fictional character Josiah Bartlet as a Vietnam war veteran.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”