PopMatters - Television - Reviews - The West Wing

by Lesley Smith


Reigning Men

Leo admits his addictions, and loses his wife through love of politics. Josh follows rashness with rudeness and hands the VP another dagger for the President’s back. Toby trades stocks that just happen to hike after his chum speaks to Congress. But don’t worry. The boys in the backroom at Pennsylvania Avenue have each other. And that’s all that matters.

Which is a pity, as the sleekly professional cast of NBC’s The West Wing richly deserves its break from character-actor limbo, and the claustrophobic set reiterates the hothouse isolation of high office. Apart from a few lapses (a face half shadowed for no dramatic reason, bleached out skin tones on the endless corridor odysseys), the lighting effectively wraps the cast in a penumbra of crisis twilight. And the shooting shows unusual restraint: the gratuitous TV close-up, in which the lens lingers lovingly on a full-screen face emoting industriously, is mercifully absent, heightening the sense of voyeuristic eavesdropping and letting The West Wing escape the hyped-up visual melodrama (screaming “Look at Me!”) which always threatens to swamp the acid dialogue and inventive plotting of David E. Kelley’s productions.

cover art

The West Wing

Director: John Wells Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television
Creator: Warner Bros. Television
Cast: Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly


Review [16.Nov.2005]
Review [1.Nov.2004]
Review [1.Jan.1995]

The show pairs this look with an edgy array of headline-hot dilemmas, fencing in President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) with all the unmediated aggression of contemporary politics, where the nuclear dangers posed by Third World tensions are easier to stem than attacks from a suspicious Congress, a voracious Press, and seriously miffed supporters. Even Bartlet’s friends are liabilities. He harbors a hostile VP, already readying his own Presidential bid, plus a support team — Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and his Deputy, Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) — reluctantly discovering that winning elections has nothing to do with exercising power. The mixture should roil.

But all too often, motion masquerades as tension, and clipped conversation stands in for wit. Neither the crafting of dialogue nor the unfolding of storylines live up to the look and the premise. The show operates both as TV drama and as commentary on contemporary U.S. politics: as with the relationship between Dick Wolf’s long-running Law and Order and the U.S. legal system, part of The West Wing‘s potential appeal lies in its perceived “reality ratio” between the fictional and what audiences interpret as “real life.” Here the show splits schizophrenically on gender lines. Mustering a robust realism for its treatment of women lets the drama crackle and spit. In contrast, the plot lines for the male characters radiate a nostalgic romanticism. Expressed in the show’s uneasy oscillations between fifties’ plot conventions (the dominance of emotional over professional relationships between men and women, the inviolability of an existing status quo) and nineties’ issues (rogue states, racial profiling, homosexuality and recovery), this bifurcation saps energy from every twist of the plot.

Take the fate of the female characters. Walk-on women proliferate, as they have done in all media productions “representing” traditionally masculine worlds: the president’s business-like wife, a selection of spiky daughters, the odd (but respectably high-priced) hooker, and assorted office functionaries. They get to kiss the boys from time to time. In a nod to the twenty-first century, The West Wing infiltrates two women into the professional team surrounding the President. But it equally quickly undermines their importance, while maintaining their air time, reproducing the contemporary political sleight of hand that recognizes the need for visible female participation, but resists accompanying it with permanent power.

So, political strategist Madeline Hampton’s (Moira Kelly) primary role seems to be as Josh Lyman’s ex-girlfriend, existing only to provide him with periodical nanoseconds of emotional angst and to provoke the requisite rueful smile. (He does this well.) Press Secretary C.J. Gregg (Alison Janney) spins the White House view to the world, but has little role in deciding that view. She plays a mouthpiece, not a policy-maker, the voice constantly asking the male team surrounding the President, “What do I need to know?” Sure, the shows says, women have a place in the White House. But they serve the boys: they don’t initiate. The thinness of Kelly’s character further isolates C.J. as both the only major female character on the show, and the only woman within Bartlet’s kitchen cabinet. Her lack of females peers positions her as exceptional, an aberration from her sex, not its representative.

Of course, to the many vocal women, such as former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers (on whom C.J. is based, and who now consults for the show), who have worked — and complained about working — within the White House and on the Hill, this fictional analogue would appear all too familiar. And from the show’s point of view, the snap of reported reality makes dramatic sense, for C.J.‘s storyline offers the few moments of genuine passion to transcend the slick set and choreographed hyperactivity.

Her professional rather than personal relationships to her male colleagues displace her among the other women on the show, a segregation further emphasized by her six foot height, her somewhere-in-middle-age, and her low-key professional costuming. And she is further displaced among the professionals. As the White House prepares to respond to imminent war between India and Pakistan, C.J. is sent to brief the press on the wholly believable crisis. Struggling to maintain her credibility with a skeptical press corps, she confidently shoots down rumors of India’s invasion of Pakistani-held territory, unaware that the president and his (male) team not only already know that the invasion is taking place but have consciously decided not to tell her about it. The anguish of her betrayal, when she realizes that the boys didn’t trust her to lie and so have lied to her instead, is palpable, and a defining moment in the sexual and intellectual demarcations of the show.

Allison Janney adroitly plays C.J.‘s insecurity, her expressive eyes and slightly drooping shoulders microscopically registering the outsider’s pride, hope, and burning anger. She despises the weakness of longing to belong, yet cannot resist it. The outsider struggling for inclusion blossoms heroic. The outsider admitted has too much to lose to take a risk, inhabiting a tangled universe where the fusion of professional competence and caste marks of difference (sex, race, disability) make action and inaction equally fraught. The dramatic power of C.J.‘s vulnerability and loneliness hints at the richness the show might have drawn from riskier scripting and casting, or even from excavating the same insecurities from the male quintet at the head of the show. Or indeed, anything that might suggest a parallel between the leading men of the 9 p.m. slot and any breathing human being. C.J. has emotions, harbors ambitions, and works under constant threat. Alas, the boys have only universal love and mutual respect, commendable attributes that are rare in real life and deadening on the small screen.

The story of Leo McGarry’s outing as recovering addict to drugs and alcohol (added to his already rich backstory of a troubled marriage and an obsessive loyalty to both his President and his power) displays the show’s attachment idealized visions at the expense of good drama. When a mismanaged investigation into allegations of drug use among White House staffers explodes into a vindictive political and press expose of Leo’s dependent past, the show confronts head-on the hypocritical insistence on personal perfection in politicians and their cohorts that is currently distorting the democratic process in the U.S.A. The character’s travails should grab the audience by the throat.

But they don’t, because it rapidly transpires that nothing of value is at stake. Leo offers to resign. The President refuses to consider it. Pro forma response, except that he sticks to it. Episodes of intense (all male) tetes at tetes — between Leo and the President, between Leo and Josh, between Leo and Josh and Sam, between Sam and Josh — ensue, all ending in declarations of support for the beleaguered Chief of Staff. But didn’t anyone want his job? Where was the self-interested jockeying for position, the rivalry between the young ambitious heirs apparent, and the President’s serious search for a possible replacement just in case Leo went down?

A genuine sense of threat might have upped the dramatic stakes and revealed characters more robust than a propagandist’s fantasy. But these unlikely political operators are more concerned with expressing love than furthering their careers. The story concludes in a confessional culture star turn where, significantly, Leo tells his own story to the Press (rather than relaying it through C.J.) and then forgives the young woman who leaked his personnel file because (it seems) her father, too, was once an alcoholic. The show shifts from the logic of politics — betrayal and revenge — to a logic of romanticism, foregrounding an unlikely loyalty more usually evidenced at graveside eulogies and barroom wakes.

A nostalgia clouds these male mavens, turning drama into wish fulfillment and politicos into paragons. Not the glorified variety, of course, but the flawed males of post-war Hollywood, and especially of fifties’ westerns, who often did the right thing too late, but did it anyway, and never deserted a friend for too long. (Or perhaps more accurately, their kindlier, slighter TV counterparts who survived into the sixties.) Betrayed by women (Leo’s wife leaves him because he loves his job, Josh’s assistant causes him romantic humiliation on a trip to L.A.), they turn thankfully to the taciturn intimacy of their own sex, bolstered by its Masonic code of back patting, arms across shoulders and the occasional touch to the manly sleeve.

War stories are traded man to man, sometimes with a contemporary twist. When Leo, sitting on the President’s bed, confesses how hurt he was by Bartlet’s concealment for several years of his multiple sclerosis for several years, he also reminds the President of how he had shared all of his own humiliations, to the point that Bartlet once found Leo drunk, face down on the ground. Other masculine “sharing” moments are more conventional. When Bartlet needs to decide whether to pardon a death row inmate, he seeks guidance from his priest, while in the same episode Toby’s lecture on the morality of judicial murder comes from his (male) rabbi.

This death row episode displays the reflexive conservatism these characterizations impart to the show. Bartlet codes as morally good (and conscientious and caring) through his search for precedents to halt the execution. He codes as just through his refusal to postpone when precedent fails. In the tension between personal horror and public duty, he endorses a tradition that he has the power to change, abandoning personal responsibility and allowing precedent to decide for him. The episode closes in the locked Judeo-Christian triad of man, priest and God, matching a very nineties (but politically and socially ineffective) insistence on personal pain with a very fifties (and morally dubious) submission to “the way things are.” (Think of Alan Ladd as Shane and Robert Mitchum’s son in River of No Return pulling guns and killing bad men “because they had to.”)

Some characters in The West Wing initially offered meatier alternatives, but these were soon lost in the homogeneity of homosocial love. Josh Lyman’s acerbic hubris might be fun if it weren’t played as mere accessory to his charm. But at mid-season, he is already locked into the rite of passage route, making mistakes but never quite learning enough from them, perpetually on the road to manhood (lurking here in the craggy faces of McGarry and Bartlet) but never quite reaching it. The recent banal lurch into a “will they, won’t they” romance with California-based campaign manager Joey Lucas (Marlee Matlin) emphasizes the show’s bowing to the doubled conventions of genre and genealogy. Certainly, both tv dramas and sit-coms have lurched for the on-off romance as attention-grabbers over the last decade (the 1980s series, Moonlighting being the famous model), but here it means that Lucas’ feistiness and unavailability underscore that she is most valuable not as a woman or even as a female character, but as a proving ground of masculinity.

To the detriment of the drama, the ongoing delineation of male virtue remains the show’s main concern. In a January interview with the Washington Times, Rob Lowe claimed that Bill Clinton said of the show, “It’s renewing people’s faith in public service.” Such endorsement from the free world’s current alpha male isn’t surprising. The West Wing keeps most women closed behind the green baize door of domesticity, and slips halos, albeit slightly tarnished with designer fallibility, above the men’s heads. And faith is a provocative word, whether said or merely reported. By its very nature, faith requires no rational proof. It’s about wanting to believe, not about knowledge or reality. It’s about the irrational leap of the heart, not years of money-raising, promise-hedging, and deal-making. It’s about what the powerful don’t want to lose, not about what society might gain. In the end, it’s about the abrogation of responsibility. It makes good propaganda but weak drama.

More than twenty years after Watergate (not to mention a year after a presidential impeachment), that faith should be permanently lost. But we apparently wish it weren’t. Variety (28 February - 5 March) reported that The West Wing had poised NBC within striking distance of mid-week leader ABC, upping audience share by 23% over last season’s comedies in the same slot. In tandem with the 10 p.m. drama Law and Order, the show has won Wednesday nights for NBC in “adults 18-49 in four of the last five weeks in which it has aired original episodes of its dramas.”

It’s more than slightly disturbing that in an election year and in its political prime, this highly-prized demographic would rather nostalgically recall an era of apparent (but wholly spurious) male virtue than take the action necessary to change our system now.

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