I do not speak lightly when I say Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” is one of the best television shows ever made. There is no work of art without flaw, but is that not what makes great art memorable? Yes, characters and plot lines often disappear into nothingness and the show has its smug moments, but “The West Wing’s” initial four seasons are a clear vision executed brilliantly. After Sorkin left, the show took a substantial hit in quality that brought it down to ‘great.’
We could learn a thing or two from “The West Wing.” And not just in terms of its politics, although I wouldn’t be opposed to living in a parallel reality where voters denounced unengaged politicians. It is a powerful counter-argument to what the current viewing public believes about episodic drama and TV in general.
Last month, I wrote about how dark modern TV has become (you should go check out that piece if you haven’t already). I believe our generation has shifted conversation from the water cooler to social media, and since we like talking about dark, meaty shows, networks have doubled down on finding their very own “Breaking Bad.” In the world of TV drama, you need to have a morally ambiguous protagonist if you want any hope of success.
On the other hand, “The West Wing” is not even in the same area code as moral ambiguity, and I’m positive this show would do gangbusters today.
You see, “The West Wing” is almost the antithesis of “House of Cards.” In “West Wing,” the employees of the titular office space are starry-eyed do-gooders working under President Jed Bartlet — an enormous nerd with a heavy moral compass and fire in his eyes. It is a show about optimism, compared to “House of Cards’” blue-toned schemes. Frank Underwood does it for the power, but Jed Bartlet does it because he wants to help.
It is also one of the rare shows that combines idealism with actual ideas. There are some weighty debates in “The West Wing,” and the concepts it deals with can get downright bleak. But — and this is of the utmost importance — the show never becomes dark, because the characters remain our emotional center.
For example, one particular season finale deals with one of the main characters ordering an assassination. That’s heavy stuff, and it could make for a very dismal “House of Cards” arc. But “The West Wing” treats it with a light touch, using humanity to keep the storyline from devolving into soap opera territory.
And that’s what most drama lacks these days. Humanity. You could argue “True Detective,” “Hannibal” or any of the other grim show on TV nowadays portrays humanity, albeit with a darker thesis. But there’s no humanity in the characters, so the drama is functionally inert. It is difficult to care about Rust Cohle when all he does is drink and mumble about how religion is the opiate of the masses. Thank you, Karl Marx. That really makes us care about your struggles.
There’s also very little genuine conflict in drama these days, especially when it comes to “House of Cards.” You don’t really care about Frank Underwood, and why should you? He’s not a very interesting character and he utterly crushes every foe in his way. But when you give characters a chance to smile or endear themselves to the audience, then you’ve got drama. It’s so much easier to cry through the laughs.
Of course, “The West Wing” is also one of the best written shows ever, with stellar performances and groundbreaking camera work, but that’s just a general lesson for creative types. “The West Wing” believes the world isn’t just filled with selfish jerks doing terrible things or selfish jerks doing less terrible things. And it’s okay to believe that, because sometimes good wins out. You can be hopeful, you can be idealistic and you don’t have to sacrifice your intelligence along the way.