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I’ve Kind Of Been Pretending “The West Wing” Is Real

Humanity is not lost, it’s just on Netflix.

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I didn’t need The West Wing on Netflix. I’d owned the entire series on DVD for years. I keep a $20 DVD player in my house solely for this 7-season set and I dust it with a Swiffer once a week. I’m certainly not disappointed in the button-push availability of Sorikinese, I’m just saying I’ve been a very big fan for awhile.

Nostalgia is no longer an amusement, it is a remedy. The 2016 election sent shockwaves through every aspect of American life, through to our ability to enjoy essentially anything. We’re “on” a lot more than we used to be, and that’s a good thing, but a moment’s relaxation makes me feel like a slacker who’s stopped resisting. Unless I’m watching The West Wing. I find that it affords me a guilt-free moment’s comfort, to see a White House running with dignity and capability. I just wish it wasn’t also entirely made up.

The West Wing hasn’t been on television in 11 years, but it has never felt more current, or more necessary. Escaping into a world of politics and human beings that don’t give me a rash is sometimes the only thing I have to keep from screaming into the abyss. So I’ve kind of been pretending The West Wing is real.

C.J. hates running…it takes time away from helping.” — Toby Ziegler

A word on people. The sense that the average American isn’t “enough” for public office is dying, more people are finding themselves called to serve their country by running for office, and by taking ownership of things they once felt out of their control. That’s badass.

If the current administration has shown us anything, it’s that each of us is enough. But there is still the notion that those who hold office should be role models. We are starved for people we can look up to, let alone trust. The characters on The West Wing were nothing if not admirable. Even Toby’s grumpy-old-man-on-a-porch approach to the world was charming and lovable.

I want to be able to admire the people running our country, but it’s so hard when they endorse pedophiles. C.J. slamming actions against women in foreign countries from behind a podium, Sam in a fight with a congressman about science, I love them because they’re people I’d want running the country, but there also people I’d want as friends. I’d rather sit in a dentist’s chair made of desert cactus than at a dinner table with anyone currently working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Please don’t say the word ‘erotic’ in the Oval Office.” — Dolores Landingham

A word on pride. I miss being proud. I miss being proud of the way our President and First Family represent our country around the world. Now we have a President whose mobility is limited to countries he hasn’t insulted yet. The reality of a Trump presidency is so shocking, and so disappointing that I have to watch total fiction to be proud again. I don’t apologize for my escapism, it helps. You’d rather I drink?

I think maybe it helps because it reminds me that things can be another way. I’m reminded that resistance isn’t futile, because the White House didn’t look this way before and it doesn’t have to look this way the next time around. If our President is going to lie to me I see nothing wrong with lying to myself for 45 minutes at a time. Don’t tell me our President can’t mop the debate floor with a Republican yokel, I’m watching Bartlet do it right now!

I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy, and I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph.” — Josh Lyman

A word on friendship. Does anyone in the current White House actually like anyone else there? It doesn’t feel, has never felt, like a team. It feels, ironically, like a season of The Apprentice, to see who can not-piss-off the boss the most, for the longest, and when they can’t they’re discarded like a stale cheese sandwich.

One of The West Wing’s greatest strengths was it’s ensemble, not just of talented writers and actors, but of the characters themselves constantly working better together than apart. They were friends and colleagues, respecting and needing each other at the same time. A solo walk-and-talk isn’t much to look at.

Most epic walk-and talk of all time. Video at end of essay because it’s my favorite.

Everyone has their favorite moments, most of them probably revolving around “Two Cathedrals,” but one of mine is the night President Bartlet won re-election, in an episode called “Process Stories.” Sam finds out he’s now committed to run for office (and thus leave his job in the West Wing), and he searches for Toby, Josh, and C.J. to discuss his conundrum. He finds them in C.J.’s office, which has been turned into the House of the Rising Sun, and the orchestral talent with which these three people take the piss out of Sam is the stuff of Beethoven.

Where is that? Where is that team? I need it to exist in more than just fiction but until it does, press play, I guess.

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“My car’s around the corner.” — Charlie Young

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A word on love. That quote, that moment right there, is a reminder that complete fiction has the ability to break your heart. And if that’s true, it also has the ability to mend it. We went from a First Couple who love and enjoy each other to two people who can barely be in the same room. The West Wing was never a love story. Most of its romantic plot lines were about wanting more than having. But there was love there. There were developing relationships and we had a front row seat. There were goldfish and buried bottles of champagne and a couple over the age of 50 who had sex. Love on The West Wing was more real than the fictional relationship we’re witnessing today. Put that on a golf tee and swing at it.

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Yes, Hoynes had us nervous with his admonishment of big oil and yes, the President was making us nervous too, but that’s for tomorrow, ’cause tonight I’ve seen a man with no legs stay standing, Dad, and a guy with no voice keep shouting, and if politics brings out the worst in people then maybe people bring out the best, ’cause I’m looking at the T.V. right now and damned if 28 U.S. Senators haven’t just walked onto the floor to help. I’ll catch the first plane out in the morning and if you wouldn’t mind not turning 70 until tomorrow that’d be great. In the meantime, I love you so much. Your daughter, Claudia.” — C.J. Cregg

(It’s from “The Stackhouse Filibuster”, if you’re wondering.)

A word on heroes. I don’t think it’s silly to imagine our government can accomplish great things. But these days I find it silly to think our government can accomplish even decent little things. I feel untethered when I lack optimism, and I think that’s part of what my reliance on The West Wing for a good mood is all about.

Yes, I can watch Saturday Night Live and Seth Meyers tear Trump apart and feel a moment’s gratification, but I’m still angry they have to do that in the first place. I miss when we were making fun of the President for being a total dad, rather than condemning him for being a racist.

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And I’m not entirely without heroes. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Tammy Duckworth, and Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I have heroes who are fighting the good fight like gladiators, but I’m still allowed to be angry at the battles our President is posing for them to fight. I’m also allowed to pretend these battles, these horrifying comments, these inhuman policies, aren’t happening for a moment, and find respect for humanity in a story written by a guy in Hollywood. You ride this presidential term out your way, I’ll ride it out mine.

The theory of everything? Is that extensive?” — C.J. Cregg

A word on humor. Honestly that quote was the hardest one to pick. I chose it because its from the Sorkin era of the show and “I’m Marion Coatsworth Hay!” is not.

I’m not a fan of dumb humor. Jokes that aren’t smart aren’t funny to me. The West Wing was fast and complex and a lot to take in and I loved that. It wasn’t dumbed down and it didn’t explain its jokes and it found a way to make a joke involving a giant yellow bird subtle and hilarious. That’s not comedy, it’s art.

The thing about a Trump presidency is that even in all its ridiculousness, none of it is funny. There is no humor in the clown behind the desk in the Oval Office and there is a sadness and a unique kind of horror in that. You can only make a joke about government when government is good. There’s nothing funny about kids without healthcare or families ripped apart by I.C.E., so I resort to watching Amy throw Josh’s flip phone in a pot of stew.

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Presented without commentary.

There’s no such thing as too smart.” — Leo McGarry

A word on intelligence. It’s difficult to turn on an actual television set without biased political word vomit or carefully manicured “reality” home makeovers and I’m equally repelled by both. It’s honestly a struggle to find entertainment that’s smart, which is maybe why so much of that consumption has moved to platforms like Netflix, where depth and complexity are welcome traits, rather than buzzkills.

There really is no such thing as too smart, because this show retains its audience more than a decade later. The cast still tweets show memories to each other. There’s a podcast called The West Wing Weekly and Josh Malina is one of its hosts. This isn’t a former fandom, it’s alive and well and as strong as it ever was. I wonder why.

What’s next.” — Josiah Bartlet

A word on tomorrow. I love the way this iconic Bartlet quote was always posed with such optimism. Asking “what’s next” within The West Wing meant you were looking forward to whatever it was, that you welcomed the next challenge and had confidence in yourself and your team to greet it.

In a news cycle that resembles children in a ball pit, I’m terrified of what’s next every day, because I don’t wonder if something insane and harmful will happen, I know it will.

In an era of political and humanitarian heartbreak, The West Wing’s warm humor, emotional maturity, and teamwork for good makes us feel like we’re never taking our eyes off the (rubber) ball. Fiction shouldn’t be the only place we find leadership with logic. But if I’m having trouble locating honesty, capability, and morality in the White House, I have a friend who’s been down in this hole before, and they know the way out.

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As promised, and please forgive that the theme song is still that terrible early version that sounds like it’s being played on a lute.

Written by

NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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