TV TATTLE

Does The West Wing hold up in the Biden era?

  • Damon Linker decided to do a third rewatch of Aaron Sorkin's classic NBC drama to see how well it holds up now that Joe Biden is president. "Remember Bill Clinton's post-1994 State of the Union speeches that went on forever as the president rattled off dozens of initiatives so modest even many Republicans would politely applaud them?" he says. "The West Wing gives us a world in which that's all a Democratic president can ever do — and it treats this not as a necessary compromise with a temporary political reality but as something as unchangeable as the law of gravity and somehow also the highest calling of democratic politics as such. But if the show's policy stances now feel like they emanate from a bygone political era, its treatment of women comes off today like a dispatch from an entirely different, and thoroughly archaic, sociocultural epoch. This is a show that in nearly episode of its first six seasons matter-of-factly dramatizes the White House Deputy Chief of Staff (Josh Lyman played by Bradley Whitford) harassing, belittling, mocking, emotionally abusing, and fragrantly condescending to his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney). And that's far from all. Hardly an episode goes by in the show's first four Sorkin-dominated seasons without two or more of the male characters making gratuitous comments about the importance of 'speaking as men' or 'acting as men.' (One half expects them to punctuate these lines by butting heads and grunting.) And the most devastating put-down anyone in the Bartlet White House can utter is that someone has 'sounded like a girl.' Now, some caveats are in order. I'm a sharp critic of cancel culture. I don't think Sorkin should be cancelled or the show banished from television. The relationship between Josh and Donna is more complicated than my description when it is viewed in light of the totality of their characters and the overall arc of the show's seven seasons. The portrayal of the president's marriage to Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), an accomplished physician whose career takes a beating during her years in the White House, is complex and quite well done, with the first lady often putting her husband in his place during their frequent, heated arguments by calling him a 'jackass.' (We're usually inclined to agree.) And after Sorkin's departure, the character of C.J. really came alive, especially once she was promoted from press secretary to White House chief of staff in season six. Still, all that being said, the show's presumptions about gender roles and its treatment of relations between the sexes in the workplace is often stupefyingly inapt for 2021. More than anything else, this is what dates the show — and is likely to date it far more with each passing year. It won't be long before, in this respect at least, The West Wing will be seen to have more in common with The Honeymooners than it does with the world most of us inhabit in our work lives and families. But that doesn't make the show a relic in every respect, or even in the most decisive respects."

    TOPICS: The West Wing, Biden Presidency, Retro TV




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