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."
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