If Doctor Who, with its whip-smart dialogue, likeable characters, engaging portrayal of different kinds of relationships (friendships, romances, family dynamics etc.) and (mostly) well-written ponderings on various themes can serve as an antidote to villain pining, then surely the same can be said for The West Wing, which also contains these ingredients? Sadly not. However, that’s no reason not to watch and re-watch this excellent series. If you’re a villain-lover like me, just be sure to have something a little less high-minded to break off with now and again. The West Wing is strictly superego fare, and a villain-free zone.
In a way, I respect The West Wing for having made this choice. Many political dramas concentrate on cynicism and wheeler-dealing, but they are also rather crude. I never got properly into the original, British version of House of Cards, and nothing I’ve read about the American version has made me very keen to give it a go. The Ruthless Politician so often ends up as just a hate figure for morally minded writers to tut-tut over. There’s no depth to this trope – if you’re looking for a convincing depiction of ambition and power-hunger, something to make you think “Yeah, I’d have done that too, and that, and… whoa, maybe not that, but I can see how you could end up that way”, you’ll have to look elsewhere than political drama. Perhaps it’s because we tend to see our political opponents as either fools or knaves, rather than as people who want the best for their country and humanity at large as much as we do, even if they are totally wrong about everything. And knaves, even really shallow ones, make better television than fools.
The West Wing does occasionally belittle the heroes’ opponents, but at least they’re not portrayed as plotting the end of civilisation in dark cellars. Yes, the political arguments are often weighted in favour of the West Wing team, but at least the opposition gets a hearing and some clever lines. Intelligent, articulate and funny Republican characters such as Ainsley Hayes do a good job of balancing out the pro-Democrat bias. Those involved in the political game come across as well-meaning men and women who are doing their best to make sure the country is governed as well as possible according to their lights. I think this might be a great deal closer to the truth than, say, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (admittedly comedy rather than drama), enjoyable though they are.
Yes, there were times when The West Wing risked becoming a little too smug – the episode where Will recycled eat-the-rich arguments which had been comprehensively panned by Sam in the early days of the series was a memorable low point. But then it rallied with season six and seven, and the presidential race between Democrat candidate Matt Santos and Republican candidate Arnie Vinick.
Much has been said about Jed Bartlet as the idealised American President par excellence, and yes, he’s not bad. But Arnie, wow – he’s the great presidential candidate that never was in my book. Hats off to the series makers for pitting their own favourite Matt Santos – highly moral but still humorous, brainy and sympathetically played by Jimmy Smits – against such a strong contender from the opposite team. The respectable, decent, sensible Vinick avoids taking cheap pot-shots at his opponents, argues convincingly and passionately for his ideas and occasionally makes courageous political decisions in his campaign that make you gasp for awe. Oh, and did I mention he’s played by Alan Alda? Honestly, who wouldn’t vote for this guy?
Admittedly, the balance created by having strong presidential candidates for each party is partly illusory because they are both pretty near the middle of the American political spectrum (as far as I’m able to judge from my ignorant, European viewpoint). But personally, I have no problem with this. Also, it’s a great deal more even-handed than earlier election battles where Bartlet stood against a fairly slow-witted Republican whom he could easily defeat in any verbal slanging-match – while simultaneously sounding as if he was far above such things as verbal slanging matches.
Arnie has my vote – at least my superego’s. My id wouldn’t mind a bit more of a whiff from the dark cellar.