The West Wing Thing Podcast Tears Down Sorkin’s Soapbox
After Trump won the 2016 election, I was one of the many who thought the world would end. Friends suggested I watch The West Wing, as it depicted a world where a sane Democrat still ran the nation.
“It worked for me during the George W Bush years,” they told me.
At first I resisted. I watched The Newsroom when it came out. Having worked in television news for six years, that show made me want to throw my remote through my TV. But during the brutal winter of 2016 I was desperate for escape, so I took a chance.
The West Wing turned out to be my wife’s greatest sleep aid. The moment John Spencer or Bradley Whitford started talking, she went out like a light. That left me to watch The West Wing by myself, which I did not appreciate. The show is a decent enough TV drama with tension in all the right places, but it had a sheen of smugness that bothered me. I needed my wife awake so we could make fun of it together. Without her, I quit halfway through the first season.
Now I can truly enjoy the show thanks to a new podcast called The West Wing Thing. The hosts, screenwriters Josh Olson (A History of Violence) and Dave Anthony (Deadly Class), gleefully tear apart each episode of the West Wing for its smugness and centrist politics and I’m all for it. And they don’t just troll the show either; they lay down a solid case for every criticism they lob. They know how show business works, they know their American history (Anthony also hosts the history podcast The Dollop, which I’ve written for) and they’re certain they know who’s to blame for all of the West Wing’s issues: West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin.
In Anthony’s words, Sorkin is “an elitist Ivy League Dickhead guy” and The West Wing is a manifestation of his arrogant views. It’s not new or uncommon for screenwriters to express their thoughts in their work, but Sorkin treats every West Wing character as his proxy. His protagonists are like him–powerful white males who are experts on everything–and he uses them and everyone else on the show to rant about whatever bothered him at the time.
It’s pretty easy to catch Sorkin “tellin’ like it is” on The West Wing. Characters deliver speeches in the first five episodes about violent Hollywood movies (episode 5) and the appropriate responses of military power (episode 3) that have nothing to do with the rest of the show. But Olson and Anthony, the ace screenwriters they are, find bits easily missed by your average viewer.
For example, in episode 3, Sorkin finally brings on a recurring black character. Even though Sorkin’s show is based on Bill Clinton’s administration and Clinton had a remarkably diverse staff, The West Wing’s first black protagonist is the president’s assistant. What does his assistant do? Well, carry his bags and grab him coffee, basically waiting on him hand and foot.
It’s clearly problematic.
According to Olson, Sorkin used the show to deflect the anticipated criticism, deploying “an old screenwriting trick” of having a character defend a creative decision through a bit of dialogue. Since it’s the West Wing, with Sorkin at the height of his powers, he hands the dirty work to the legendary John Amos. You might remember Amos from movies like Coming To America or as as the actor written off the show Good Times for demanding realistic portrayals of black families. On the West Wing, Sorkin has Amos, looking extra-official in an admiral’s uniform, justify the assistant and dismiss the optics with this brutal line: “I got some real, honest-to-god battles to fight, Leo. I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.”
It’s so clear Sorkin only wants to write about what he cares about, be it realistic or pure fantasy. He entertains the insane notion that a high-class escort would sleep with a man like Rob Lowe (or Sorkin) for free and turns it into a plot line that lasts several episodes. Yet he drops realistic storylines, like a boat full of refugees coming to the U.S., without ever resolving them.
You could write The West Wing off as a dated relic of a now-long-ago era, but it had a major impact on our actual country. Major players in the Obama administration credited the show with inspiring their entrance into politics. That’s probably why that administration embraced “pragmatic idealism,” Sorkin’s centrist idea of good politics. It’s the same political philosophy that Democratic leaders, desparately trying to tamp down the growing progressive movement, are touting. Sorkin himself, on CNN, ordered newly-elected progressives “to stop acting like young people.” You know, stop being idealistic and fighting for real change. (He later apologized for the comment.)
On The West Wing Thing, Olson and Anthony make a lot of salient points about the West Wing’s failures. But the comment that comes up the most is probably the most consequential: that the West Wing lacks imagination. Instead of creating a presidential administration that fights tooth-and-nail for important progressive causes and wins, Sorkin chose to celebrate mediocrity. The people in President Jed Bartlett’s administration actually cause a lot of the problems they deal with in the show. Yet since they went to Ivy League schools, can walk and talk fast, and have the right connections, they land in the most powerful positions in the country. Frankly, the only fantasy world that Sorkin successfully created is one where we need Ivy League pricks in government. Too bad so many people believed it.