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As a pseudo-New Yorker and an American of voting age, public television this Tuesday night should have been nothing less than exhilarating. The major networks broadcast the final presidential debate, a contest that ostensibly helps to decide public opinion about the candidates. On NBC, the Mariners battled from a game behind in the American League Championships to try to prevent the Yankees from reaching what would be the first Subway Series in 44 years. The prospect of seeing El Duque, David Justice, Vice Pesident Al Gore '69 and Texas Gov. George W. Bush strut their stuff all in one evening--well, it was an evening of vegging on the futon that was not to be missed.
Or was it? Let's be brutally honest: to begin with, I'm actually from New Jersey. That, in combination with my status as a diehard Mets fan, means I'm so happy that Piazza and the guys finally made it to the World Series that I couldn't care less whether they played the Yankees or some farm team from Iowa in the next seven games. In terms of the presidential town meeting, I've already voted via absentee ballot; nothing Bush or Gore said, however enlightening, was going to get that envelope back. No, the impetus behind both my prayers that the Yanks would pull from behind and my attention to the debate came from something wholly apart from where I live or the fact that I'm over 18. It was derived, instead, from my absolute obsession with the "West Wing."
Let me explain this rather incongruous statement. Had the Mariners been victorious, the series would have gone to game seven, and "West Wing" would have been unceremoniously bumped from the Wednesday lineup; hence, go Yanks. And the debates denied loyal viewers their season premiere follow-up last week; hence I was interested in this week's debates primarily to see whether or not
authentic politics was truly worth canceling the best hour of television in years.
On the latter case, the numbers agree with me that authentic politics don't stand a fighting chance: Last Thursday's vice presidential debate, broadcast during prime time, drew the exact same number of viewers (25 million) as the 'West Wing" first episode this year. Keep in mind that the figure for the debate was an aggregate of viewers watching four major broadcast channels and several cable stations.
For those who are totally out of the loop, "West Wing" is an hour-long drama that focuses on the trials and tribulations of fictional President Josiah Bartlet and his quirky, intense Oval Office staff. It premiered last year on NBC and--despite a slow start--proved to be a break-out hit for the network, snagging nine Emmys.
What's so great about an hour of political gobblety-gook (beside Rob Lowe's incredible good looks)? First and foremost, "West Wing" maintains an incredibly high level of substantive content. In the 40-some-odd minutes of actual airtime, one finds more quality political discussion than could be gleaned from four and a half uninterrupted hours of presidential contender sparring; and unlike Gush and Bore, "West Wing" characters tend not to rehash the same old generalizations week after week after week.
Instead, the staff delves into controversial topics--reparations for slavery, gay marriage, the death penalty--while at the same time wrestling with the intricacies of the executive bureaucracy, the external forces that shape policy decisions and the continuous power struggles between major political players. If nothing else, the show comes in fabulously handy as a sort of pop-culture visual aid to a Gov jock like myself in Government 1540 lecture. When I.B.M. Professor of Business and Government Roger B. Porter explained the difference between the communications director and the press secretary this past Tuesday, all I had to do jot down "think: Toby and C.J."
But the appeal of "West Wing" goes far beyond an exploration of the nitty-gritty details of White House life. For one thing, the dialogue--courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, who brought us A Few Good Men and the critically acclaimed but short-lived "Sports Night"--is witty, sharp and delivered at a pace so dizzyingly fast that the viewers ride the crest of an adrenaline high from the first strains of the opening music to when the credits roll. The lines are delivered by a superb ensemble cast, who interact with each other so flawlessly that one is reminded of the glory years of "ER." No detail is left unpolished; the sets are incredibly accurate, the guest stars are well-chosen and the Secret Service barks convincingly.
This is not to imply that everyone who has seen "West Wing" is so enamoured. The show has draw catcalls from conservative viewers, who point the thinly-veiled liberal Hollywood bias evident in everything from the fictional administration's rejection of school vouchers to their staunch gun control position. An even bigger criticism, oddly enough, is the flip side of one of the show's most charming aspects; it's unsinkable sanguinity. The episodes often end on an upbeat moment, a trend that naysayers find both unrealistic and nauseatingly touchy-feely. I have a good friend who refuses to watch the show, claiming it reminds him too much of "Full House."
In fact, it the show's optimistic bent that almost killed it in pre-production. Given the aura of scandal that clung to the White House in the wake of the Lewinsky debacle, producers at NBC were uncertain that the nation would swallow Martin Sheen's squeaky-clean President Barlet. All sorts of polls have shown that the average American's faith in government has slid steadily downward since Watergate. Was it possible that a public so disillusioned with its leaders could accept the portrait of a politician with a magnetic personality, a benevolent heart, and a philosophy of being "for the people" who is neither a stooge nor a swindler?
Luckily for the bean-counters, someone took a gamble on the idea. But it's interesting to consider why such a formula seems to work so well. Some have suggested that the idealism of "West Wing" constitutes some sort of wish-fulfillment for its viewers. In the modern world, zoning out in front of the television may indeed be tantamount to a 21st century version of dreaming; had Freud lived today, he might agree that when we switch into couch potato mode, we are unconsciously drawn to that which we desire most.
This theory seems to be supported both by the fact that in a recent Internet poll, President Barlet ranks way above any of the current presidential candidates, and also by a report from The New York Times that "Bartlet for President" bumper stickers have been spotted throughout Los Angeles.
As Tweedledee and Tweedledum battled it out on Tuesday, I did my best to remind myself that "West Wing" is a work of fiction; that my secret desire for Election 2000 to yield inspirational candidates could not be assuaged by watching Martin Sheen in all his carefully scripted glory.
That still didn't stop me from tuning in on Wednesday, or from being incredibly grateful that I can watch the Mets win next week on Fox--during commercial breaks from "West Wing," of course.
Alixandra E. Smith '02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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