/They Can’t Get Enough of ‘The West Wing’ Right Now
They Can’t Get Enough of ‘The West Wing’ Right Now

They Can’t Get Enough of ‘The West Wing’ Right Now

President Bartlet doesn’t live in the White House, even on TV, anymore. But his fans find solace in streaming an old favorite.

Credit…Scott Garfield/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images

Sarah Lyall

Election night, 2017. Alarmed and unnerved by the state of politics in America, Josh Reinitz, a lawyer and Democrat in Fair Lawn, N.J., is running for borough council. But it is a stressful time.

As his campaign waits for the results at a local senior center, Mr. Reinitz slips away to a dark room to the side and powers up his iPhone. For the next 45 minutes, he sits by himself watching television — “Two Cathedrals,” to be specific, his favorite “West Wing” episode.

“Fortunately,” Mr. Reinitz recalled recently, “I was able to immerse myself in the episode to the point that I didn’t hear another sound until the room erupted in cheers as our victory was assured.”

“The West Wing,” a workplace drama set in the White House and dedicated to the notion that Washington is run by good people who are doing their best, was broadcast on NBC for seven seasons, from 1999 to 2006. Though its ratings declined over the years, at its peak it regularly drew more than 17 million viewers.

It is now streaming on Netflix. And to its many liberal and independent-leaning fans, in particular, it has become something more than just a nostalgic drama from a time when men’s suits with pleated pants are fashionable and Twitter does not yet exist. For many in the Trump era, the show is an idealistic alternative reality, an escape from the vitriol and ill-will that they see coursing like poison through contemporary politics.

Much as people may return to the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” to remind themselves that feeling worthless does not mean you have no worth, or to the children’s book “Goodnight Moon” to remember that bedtime once meant being enveloped in a cocoon of love, fans revisit “The West Wing” to recall an era — even a fictional one — when it seemed possible for the three branches of government to be populated by public servants of integrity, intellect and wit.

“When I feel the need for comfort from the circus in the White House, I watch the pilot,” said Terry Callanan Kempf of Glens Falls, N.Y., who belongs to the Facebook group “Fans of West Wing Weekly Podcast,” whose members share a passion for revisiting the show. “Seriously, almost every night before I go to sleep.”

“The West Wing” premiered two years into President Bill Clinton’s second term in office, but the bulk of it was broadcast during President George W. Bush’s administration. The partisan divide was bad then, but it was not nearly so awful — so personal, so vicious, so apocalyptic, so apparently beyond redemption — as it appears to many people now.

Bradley Whitford, the actor who played Josh Lyman, the deputy White House chief of staff, has called the show “liberal porn,” and that is true, in a way. Its president, Josiah Bartlet, is a progressive Democrat whose policies run firmly to the left. Erudite, articulate, empathetic, able to speak Latin and quote the Bible, inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, he seems almost painfully distant from many American presidents (some perhaps more than others).

But “The West Wing” also presents the opposition Republicans, for the most part, as equally honorable — as much as they may disagree with President Bartlet’s politics. For much of his administration, he battles a Congress led by Republicans, losing as often as he wins.

“The bulk of the mail we’d get would be from people who identified themselves as Republicans or said, ‘I don’t agree with the politics’ but nonetheless liked the way they felt when they watched the show,” Aaron Sorkin, who created the show and wrote nearly all of the episodes in the first four seasons, said in an email. “That continues today.”

Katherine Bell Butler, 43, a lifelong conservative from Sharpsburg, Ga., who describes herself as “not crazy over Trump,” said that she had the boxed set, and had watched every episode of “The West Wing” “multiple times.”

“I love the show,” she said in a Facebook message. “Even when I disagreed with something said, I honestly didn’t care.”

For Allison Picard, 61, a retired local government official from Martinez, Calif., the best episodes are those that show healthy bipartisan cooperation, as in Season 4 when President Bartlet, played by the actor Martin Sheen, steps aside after his daughter is kidnapped by terrorists, briefly ceding control of the country to the conservative Republican speaker of the house, played by the actor John Goodman. (The vice president has unfortunately resigned over a sex scandal, leaving a gap in the order of succession.)

Ms. Picard also loves the president’s decision to hire Ainsley Hayes, a fast-talking, fast-thinking Republican lawyer who vehemently disagrees with him. “It’s such a patriotic moment, that the president would want someone who was smart and who would challenge his perspective,” Ms. Picard said, sounding a little teary over the phone.

Netflix does not release viewing figures, so it is impossible to know how popular “The West Wing” reruns are. But for something that ended 13 years ago, the show continues to have a peculiar relevance to public life.

While a student at Harvard, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, ran for president of the Institute of Politics in part by proposing that students meet for “West Wing” viewing parties.

He has appeared on “The West Wing Weekly” podcast and seems to see himself as a “West Wing”-style politician. When he opened his presidential campaign office, Mr. Buttigieg posted a video of himself walking down the hall while interacting with his aides, one of the classic shots from the show. “Finally an office with room for a walk and talk,” he wrote on Twitter.

There is also a “What would Bartlet Do?” Facebook page, with nearly 4,200 members. At American University in Washington, students compare the show to real life in Gautham Rao’s “The West Wing as History” course. And on “The West Wing Weekly” podcast, the actor Joshua Malina, who played Will Bailey in the show, and Hrishikesh Hirway, a musician and superfan, have been hosting an episode-by-episode discussion of the program since March 2016.

They are currently up to the final season, which only has a few more episodes scheduled. Some 3,500 fans showed up in London for a live broadcast recently. (The podcast has its own Facebook page, with more than 56,000 followers. The fans’ Facebook group has 6,800 members.)

“It’s a particularly painful time to be watching the show,” Mr. Malina said. “We have an administration and a chief executive who ought to watch it for basic civics lessons about the Constitution and checks and balances and all the stuff the rest of us learned in fifth grade.”

Not everyone is into it, of course. People who don’t like “The West Wing” say, as they have all along, that the program presents an unrealistically idealistic view of government, that it moralizes, that it preaches, that it incorrectly suggests that minds can be swayed by grand gestures and eloquent speeches.

“I sense there are two kinds of people: people who like ‘The West Wing’ and people who find that shows like ‘Veep’ and ‘House of Cards’ are much more realistic portrayals of how politics happen in the real world,” said Christy Quirk, an American-born consultant who lives in Nice, France, and is also a member of the podcast fans’ page on Facebook.

She would put herself in the latter group.

“I watched the first season or so, but I found the speechifying, the high-minded earnestness — it was like fingernails on a blackboard,” she said. “The stakes are really high right now, and we have to have a very realistic view of what can happen if we don’t understand the real dynamics and motivations of people, that not everyone is in this for the right reasons.”

But it can be hard, sometimes, to follow politics in Washington and not indulge in wishful thinking, even when what you are wishing for comes from a television show.

After observing the impeachment proceedings unfold, Al Sibilo of Alberta, Canada, had a question: Why can’t the politicians in 2019 behave more like the politicians on “The West Wing”?

He is thinking of a particular time in Season 3 when the hostile Congress investigates President Bartlet after he fails to disclose his multiple sclerosis while running for office. But instead of impeaching him, the Republicans censure him.

“Censure may have been a great option for the Democrats and perhaps a more proportional response to many of the president’s wrongdoings and indiscretions,” Mr. Sibilo, 53, said of President Trump.

On the other hand, he said in an email, Mr. Trump is unique in his zest for flouting the norms of presidential behavior.

“As a concurrent resolution, they’d need President Trump to admit he was even just a little bit wrong — it will never happen,” Mr. Sibilo said.

Kim Elliott, 50, a teacher in Nashua, N.H., is a devoted viewer who spent much of Inauguration Day — Jan. 20, 2017 — watching not the inauguration, but “The West Wing.”

During her lunch hour, she sat alone in her classroom and watched the pilot episode. When she got home, she watched three more of her favorite episodes — two about the Supreme Court and the third a special episode in Season 3 featuring real-life presidents and staff members from both parties.

“I watched these episodes not to wallow, but to gear up,” Ms. Elliott said in an email. “Yes, I was avoiding the news coverage. But I wanted to remind myself of what ideas to keep front and center.”

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