Liberal America – down but not out. It is comforting that a people who twice elected the unspeakable George Bush, still watch in prime time numbers, an unfailingly superb series unashamed of its consistent, rational, liberal political idealism. With an administration driven by a blind neo-con political orthodoxy, feeding a history-free, belligerent, environmentally selfish world view, it is a relief that large numbers of Americans hear committed but even-handed arguments of the important issues of the day.
There is no serious political issue home or abroad, that The West Wing has not covered with admirable clarity and lack of cynicism. Its creator, Aaron Sorkin was often so prophetic in the issues he built into the structure of TWW that Rob Lowe accused him of secretly working for the CIA. By the time the upcoming 6th Season on Channel 4 has aired its full 22 weeks, Bush will be approaching his last 18 months in the White House. As Season 6 of TWW comes to a close, it has built up a powerful head of steam for the issue of how to unite the American people around the fundamental values they agree on in the face of an increasingly hostile climate of adversarial party attrition.
Across a number of absorbing and challenging story lines, TWW raises the issue of a critical challenge facing Western democracies in general and the slick, lobby-driven system in America in particular. First: how to ensure that the best qualified, most honourable men and women stand for office. And second, having done so, how to see that the standard of debate is such as to enable these qualities to be heard above the over-funded scream of self-interested, corporate, marketing hype, political ambition and hubris.
Considered as a work of popular art, TWW has never taken the easy road. Season 6 is a paradigm of how to develop organically, a long-running series with credibility and truthfulness to its deeply embedded values. New characters are carefully set up and established by their credible interaction with existing and known regulars. In Season 6, radical change occurs within that central group of characters and is as unsettling to our affection for the history of these roles as it is believably realistic. Impressively TWW is ‘moving on’ in much the same way as would its participants if indeed they were in the ‘real’ world of politics. With the two, fixed term limit to the American Presidency, there was always an enforced deadline to the Martin Sheen/Jed Bartlett heart of the TWW series. I thought the series must end with Bartlett. Indeed I rather hoped it would. But the organic development of the series achieved in Season 6 makes it feasible that TWW might continue with a new incumbent. As long as the quality of writing, performance and production values is sustained then I for one would like to see TWW carry on. Especially in a polarised actual political environment where a gutless media is failing to hold to account an administration wrapping itself in the flag with a disreputable, cynical, mis-used patriotism.
The most disturbing thing about the TWW phenomenon is that it displays all the qualities of moral and political principle, intelligence, perceptive compassion and bi-partisan realism one looks for but fails to see in the real world of politics. It is as if we have all gone through a Gestalt switch after which reality looks farcical, incredible and made up, while art has taken on all the qualities by which we used to judge reality – sanity, rationalism, morality, principle and yes, even pragmatism. Even Nixon in his dishonourable, venal way, was an only too credible product of the politics of personal ambition. No one could have invented George W Bush. He is as far beyond parody as he is politically incompetent. And dangerous.
Take just two examples of many from TWW: Bartlett’s re-election campaign and the ongoing story-line in Season 6 of the battle for the Party nominations for the race to take over the Presidency. The real Presidential debate had Bush fumbling and parroting his way through an endless stock of sound-bites and a Democratic candidate lacking the guts or the determination to stand on and by, his Democratic liberal beliefs. In TWW, affiliations reversed, the incumbent Democratic Bartlett demolished a hick cowboy Republican challenger who could at least read his sound bites properly. And a key story line in the lead-up to the fictional race had Bartlett being challenged not to try to be all things to men; not to be phoney folksy to con votes out of a gullible electorate. Not to deny either his intellect or his liberalism, but to argue for it with passion and commitment. Please note Mr Kerry.
So Marshall McLuan smiles knowingly from the grave - truly has the medium become the message. Currently, the only genuine substance and ‘reality’ true political principle has is in fiction, in art. It is said that Mr Bush, Mr Blair, and Mr Kerry are fans of TWW – it is a shame not one of them appears to have understood it. If ‘Jed Bartlett’ was put on the ballot of the next Presidential election – I suspect he’d get loads of votes. And rightly so – if that is the only available way to register belief in sincerity, integrity, and intellectually rigorous political competence.
TWW fans will inevitably watch. This is a yet another heads up to anyone who has still not got into this first class piece of work, to give it a go. It is intelligent, relevant, funny, stylish and at times challenging. How much other TV do you know that meets those standards?