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Ode to an American Dream

Published: Monday, May 1, 2006

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 14:08

On Sunday, May 14, one of the finest television programs in a generation will air its final chapter. After seven seasons, 154 episodes and more than a hundred hours of content, NBC's "The West Wing" will come to an end.

Now is the right time to end the program, as President Josiah Bartlet finishes his second term and his successor is sworn in. The glory days of the program, marked by consistently superb scripts, lavish budgets and top ten rankings among the nation's viewship, have come and gone. After a headache-inducing fifth season that threatened to drown the proverbial horse in mid-stream, a heavy focus on the new presidential election as well as dramatic shake-ups amongst the White House staff revitalized the show, and its sixth and seventh seasons have done a respectable, and sometimes outstanding, job of wrapping up this twenty-first century epic.

The writers had originally planned to have the Republican nominee, Senator Arnold Vinick of California, win the 2006 election (see Wikipedia's "Timeline skew theories for The West Wing" article for two ingenious theories as to why such an election would take place this fall). This was the right choice, guaranteeing some meaty drama. But when John Spencer, the beloved actor who portrayed Chief of Staff-cum Vice Presidential Nominee Leo McGarry, died last December, it was decided that the Democratic Representative Matthew Santos of Texas would eke out a win this April 6.

This too was the right choice: in addition to avoiding a grim series denouement burdened with a primary character's sudden death and an electoral loss, "The West Wing" has now presented the first election of a Democratic President following a two-term Democratic Administration since Vice President Al Gore won Florida six years ago. We may never know whether Ohio sought to elect President Bush or Senator Kerry in 2004 due to significant and reprehensible voting anomalies.

Since those abberations occurred in spite of (and indeed in some cases because of) Republican leadership, it is fitting that President-Elect Santos will replace President Bartlet by this time next month. From the "Pilot" premiere to the finale, "Tomorrow," "The West Wing" has shown the past decade as it ought to have been.

Of course, the show's first allegiance has never been to strict realism. Series Creator Aaron Sorkin shied away from acknowledging historical events following the Truman Administration and avoided defining in what year the series began in order to maintain a sense of timelesness. (Josh Lyman mentioned President Johnson by the end in the first season, but never mind.) From the spectacular Hollywood soundstage that looks much better than the real-life West Wing to the conspicuous lack of corporate villainry to its generally positively portrayed Republican officials, "The West Wing" has always been a pleasant distortion of reality.

It is all too easy to wish that President Bush were anywhere as smart as any of "The West Wing"'s senior staff. In December 2002, after more than a year in office, Bush repeatedly insisted to California Representative Tom Lantos that Sweden, and not Switzerland, has a history of political neutrality and maintains no standing army. (To make matters worse, Lantos was born in Hungary and is the House's only Holocaust survivor, making him intimately familiar with European history.)

By contrast, Martin Sheen's President Bartlet stays up late and delights in immersing himself in complicated issues. The character was based in part on President Clinton, who had such a thorough understanding of policy that during a 1993 joint session address to Congress concerning his health care reform initiative, he recited from memory the speeches' first nine minutes while his aides scrambled to adjust the Teleprompters. And in the October 2000 episode "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," "The West Wing"'s National Security Advisor Nancy McNally worried about the uncertainty of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts more than eleven months before his 9/11 terrorist attacks. Her then-counterpart Condoleeza Rice, as we have since learned, was not nearly as concerned. A realized Gore Administration may well have prevented those catastrophic crimes, but I digress.

In his "Brokeback Mountain" review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote that "the more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone." In its early years, "The West Wing" often mirrored events from the Clinton Administration, most notably in its depiction of an impeachment attempt. Recent plotlines have similarly flirted with current events, focusing on the deployment of American soldiers without an exit strategy and an illegal leak of national security information. I, for one, am therefore confident that long after such vapid ratings powerhouses as "CSI" and "Survivor" are forgotten, "The West Wing," like the original "Star Trek," will endure as forward-thinking, high-quality programming of the art world's newest medium.

And because broadcast television is the most widely accessible (and thus democratic) artistic medium in the Union, Americans deserve quality works that dare to dissect and challenge the politics and events of our times - especially when the airwave' so-called "news" programming is as thin and soporific as today's. Once "The West Wing" has ended, what will take its place? (ABC's "Commander-in-Chief" put a woman in the White House last fall, but is not likely to keep her there due to abysmal ratings.)

I myself would suggest a half-hour-long dramatic series depicting the present Administration's two terms, timed to conclude when the real Bush Presidency finally ends. "The West Wing" has already shown that actors reciting scripted dialogue can be much more informative than talking heads droning into a camera lens. Perhaps if Americans saw honest re-creations of the President and his staff at work, they would be permanently disabused of the notion that this Administration truly has our best interests at heart.

Matthew Diamante is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.

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