My winter break was quiet, a blur of long walks and at-home COVID-19 tests. But what ended up defining it more than anything else were countless episodes of “The West Wing.” A political drama filmed mostly in the early 2000s, “The West Wing” follows the fictional administration of Democratic President Josiah Bartlet and his staffers as they navigate domestic and foreign crises, weather elections and seek to realize their policy agenda. Over a decade after its finale, it remains a critics’ darling and captivating to viewers. My occasional viewing quickly became a routine, then a fixation; I dove into the show’s history, its legacy and its influence on the genre. But I was surprised to discover that, amidst the praise of the acting, directing and writing of “The West Wing,” there was also a recurrent critique of the show and others of its kind: that in its naive idealism, it has become unrelatable and irrelevant in our current times. Still, there’s another possibility: “The West Wing” is political fiction that acts not as an escape from reality, but as an opportunity to reflect on the values we hold and what we expect from our leaders and institutions.
Politics has always made good television. “The West Wing” may have been one of the most well-known political dramas, but shows like “Madam Secretary,” “House of Cards” and “Scandal” continue to tap into the dramatic potential of an industry rife with secrets, arguments and unbelievably high stakes. These shows provide not just entertainment but commentary on their settings. Some, such as “House of Cards,” lean into tropes of government corruption to create a world of scheming politicians and foul play taken to their most extreme. Others, like “The West Wing,” take a more optimistic approach, highlighting values at the root of our political systems and imagining what it might look like if those principles were more consistently upheld.
“The West Wing” may be committed to realistically depicting Capitol Hill — the giant flip phones, scattered folders and heels clacking down marble hallways tug on my own fuzzy recollection of an early-aughts D.C. childhood with parents who worked in politics — but the show doesn’t shy away from fantasy in the integrity of its characters. The staffers of the Bartlet White House are principled, impassioned and extraordinarily competent. Bartlet himself is almost inhumanly eloquent, and his ability to maintain near-constant moral integrity as the president of the United States is nothing short of fantastical. But that’s the beauty of it. Free from the murky ethics and partisan gridlock of real-world politics, “West Wing” politicians could “hold positions that were untenable in real life,” as one Guardian reviewer notes. Watching those positions — policies and decisions that prioritize justice, freedom and equality — play out on screen is undeniably satisfying. I can’t help but find myself craving the fade to black that marks the end of an episode — another crisis resolved, another day of honest, democratic work completed.
If the politics of “The West Wing” were idealistic in 2000, they’re downright impossible in 2022. In the wake of the Trump presidency, with a bill to protect fundamental voting rights dead on the Senate floor and President Biden acknowledging a partisan stalemate that threatens the future of meaningful legislation, some argue that it’s irresponsible to escape into a fictional political world so blissfully functional. A 2020 reunion special of “The West Wing” brought this tension to light once again, forcing audiences to reckon with the present political climate. In his review of the special, Hank Sutever of The Washington Post characterized nostalgia for the show as “a privileged form of zoning out — a detached state of denial at the very worst time to be detaching.” It’s true that there’s danger in using any work of fiction as an escape from the problems of the current day. Fiction that seeks to imitate reality can be an especially tempting replacement. There is so much we want to hide from, particularly at this moment in history, that we cannot afford to — a pandemic, disillusionment with our government and a crisis of conspiracies and misinformation. It can seem downright irresponsible to find satisfaction in Bartlet’s speeches when there’s so much burning outside.
Yet there’s a crucial sense of nuance missing from this viewpoint. Engaging with fiction does not always translate to escape from real life. Television does more than simply remove viewers from their reality. Instead, political dramas have a dynamic relationship with real-world experiences; they can influence how we interpret events and clarify our hopes and fears. Works of dystopian fiction, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” are lauded for their ability to imagine the possibilities of present-day ideas and institutions carried to devastating extremes. Similarly, projects of political fantasy have the power to cause us to reflect on what we value and engage us in real-world politics. It’s a quantifiable effect. A Purdue University study on viewers of shows with female politicians like “Scandal” and “Madam Secretary” found that when viewers “felt connected to the shows’ characters … they paid more attention to politics and were more involved in political activities.”
“The West Wing” won’t cause every senator to build platforms and pass legislation based on principle. Television can’t remake our government or produce changes that require real effort and time. But our cultural relationship with political storytelling and the gap between what we see on screen versus in the news is still real and valuable. It’s in that space that I found myself this past month — curled up on the couch and trying to imagine something better.
Alissa Simon ’25 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this op-ed to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.