The West Wing used to be among my favorite guilty pleasures. A TV drama set primarily in the White House, it’s about a fictional President of the United States, one Josiah Bartlett, and his family and staff.
Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, is the kind of president you dream of: a man sincerely interested in the good of the American people, and motivated to always do the right thing.
He is genuinely enthusiastic for those things that always have, and still do, make America great – not just its Constitution and Bill of Rights, but its natural treasures, like the National Park System. “I’m a bit of a nut about the parks,” Bartlett says in the first season. He sometimes keeps exhausted staffers listening late into the night, as he goes on and on about Park trivia.
In any given episode, one or more of these staffers face moral and ethical dilemmas. Bright and idealistic, and totally committed, they usually do the right thing. But there are occasional lapses, for which they pay a price, and/or learn an important lesson about governance and/or themselves.
I’ve always recognized The West Wing as fantasy, and the characters as too squeaky clean to be believed. But I like the dialogue; provided you don’t take any of it seriously, it’s a harmless diversion. If only our real public servants were so committed!
But I can’t enjoy it like I used to. The current, real-life occupant of the White House makes it much less pleasurable, even as escapist claptrap. The contrast between TV and reality is so sharp, I cannot flip that brain-switch that allows me to suspend disbelief, and take The West Wing for the guilty pleasure it once was.
Oddly, some take the opposite position. As I prepared this blog post I came across an article that said some people are binging on The West Wing “to cope with the Trump presidency.” Someone named Kate actually said: “I’ve been watching West Wing on Netflix just to see a competent government.”
A competent government? Uh...it’s fictional.
Even House of Cards, a much darker, much grittier portrayal of American political life, has become hard for me to watch. Its protagonist is thoroughly, unambiguously corrupt, but it’s still a fantasy.