The Worst Wing

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.

The West Wing Thing

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.

Kevin L. Jones

Kevin L. Jones is a freelance writer and audio producer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can see more of his work at kevinljones.com.

29 thoughts on “The Worst Wing

  • May 16, 2019 at 3:59 pm
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    Wow. I never realized how bitter a person could be until I read this article.

    Hint: It was a television show. People enjoyed it. You didn’t. Move on.

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    • May 16, 2019 at 4:38 pm
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      You missed the point. I was writing about a podcast that’s tearing apart the show. You should speak to the hosts of the podcasts if you want West Wing critics to move on.

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      • May 16, 2019 at 7:18 pm
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        This article has a sheen of smugness that bothers me.

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      • May 16, 2019 at 7:45 pm
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        Ah yes, write an article tearing apart the show while hiding behind a podcast tearing apart the show. Not a current show mind you, one from the late 90’s early 2000’s. Meanwhile making not very subtle jabs at the creator of the show for writing about “what he cares about at the time”. Could you be that idiotic all the time or are you just having a bad day?

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      • May 17, 2019 at 4:22 am
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        Mmm, most prickly piece I’ve read about The West Wing.

        Well, The West Wing remains my fave TV series. Powerful story arcs, some great quotations, many stories of compassion when faced with complexity – on both sides of the aisle.

        Lots of good episodes of the Santos-Vinnick campaign as well.

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  • May 16, 2019 at 5:12 pm
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    Pretty much the most ignorant article I have ever wasted my time reading.

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    • May 16, 2019 at 5:38 pm
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      What did I get wrong about the podcast? Because the story’s about the podcast.

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      • May 17, 2019 at 10:10 am
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        No, it really isn’t. It’s about you not liking The West Wing, and being bitter about it’s astonishing success.

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        • May 17, 2019 at 8:13 pm
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          Aaron Sorkin went to Syracuse, Jed Bartlett went to Notre Dame. Neither play football in the Ivy League.

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          • May 17, 2019 at 10:48 pm
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            Calling Sorkin an Icy League dickhead is Dave Anthony’s description (it’s why it’s in quotes). I also never said Bartlett was from Ivy League — just his administration. Josh Lyman — Harvard and Yale. Sam Seaborn — Princeton. Leo’s just rich and they don’t mention where Toby went to Law School. They don’t say where Mandy went to school, but there’s a whole scene talking about her having a PhD.

            All y’all need to improve your reading comprehension!

        • May 17, 2019 at 8:34 pm
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          Argh yes you got me! There’s nothing I hate more than other people being successful! What are you, a mirror?

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          • May 17, 2019 at 10:05 pm
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            You mention the evil 8 several times, aside from Bartlett and Sorkin not having gone to Ivy League schools, most of the other characters didn’t either. Harping on s detail that you got wrong instead of taking 30 seconds to Google strips you any credibility you may have had and just makes you look like a jaded hack

      • May 18, 2019 at 8:41 am
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        Your story is about how you feel about something in this moment, hidden in an article about a podcast. I’d hope the irony of doing exactly what you whine about Sorkin doing with his characters isn’t lost on you.

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    • May 17, 2019 at 9:58 am
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      My biggest complaint with The West Wing are the names selected for the characters. The names Josh and Toby make me cringe… CJ seems odd too but at least its a not so subtle variant on Dee Dee Myers (apparently the shows role model)

      Reply
  • May 16, 2019 at 9:46 pm
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    “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.” Guess you missed the part where the National Security Advisor was a black female and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was a black male. I’m pretty sure they did more than get the president his coffee.

    And why so anti Arron Sorkin? What, did he not hire you for a job you applied for or something? Take some anger management classes dude.

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    • May 16, 2019 at 10:33 pm
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      John Amos isn’t a protagonist, nor is the National Security Advisor. And if you read the article, I said why the article focuses on Sorkin — because the podcast does.

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      • May 17, 2019 at 10:12 am
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        He said that the National Security Advisor was a black female, not that John Amos was the NSA. Try easing the comment again.

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        • May 17, 2019 at 8:36 pm
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          I don’t even know where to start with the wrongness of this comment, so I’ll try this: “easing?”

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  • May 16, 2019 at 10:35 pm
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    Seems like you wouldn’t be a fan of the podcast.

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  • May 16, 2019 at 10:55 pm
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    Check out the IMDb pages for those hosts. They might as well have called the thing Sour Grapes with Two Bitter Wannabes. The West Wing, like any show, isn’t perfect (especially when viewed through the lens of a decade and a half later). But anyone who couldn’t make it through half a season of if forfeits making any kind of judgment on the entire series.

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  • May 17, 2019 at 7:01 am
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    Glad to see these comments. It’s a podcast hosted by two angry white guys (which, to use the author’s words, must be “clearly problematic”) attempting to cash in on the runaway success of The West Wing Weekly podcast by taking the contrary view. It’s good enough, but not worth recommending.

    The author asks in the comments above, “What did I get wrong about the podcast?”

    Well…first off, your review has little to do with the podcast; it’s just a proxy for you to vent your anger at…what? Successful writers? Aaron Sorkin? President Clinton? President Obama? Progressives? 1990? And pulling out the reverse-race card is lame, at best.

    But what did your review actually get wrong about the podcast?

    Well, you offer up that the hosts make “salient points” but don’t bother to mention any.

    You state up front that you like the podcast simply because it reflects your personal opinion of The West Wing. Exactly not the role of a (qualified) reviewer.

    You criticize the show for introducing a black character in episode three that you view as a stereotype. It’s almost like you wanted Charlie to have the sheen of smugness that you decry elsewhere. And you ignore the introduction of the first black character in episode two: an accomplished soldier, doctor and family man, because it doesn’t fit your agenda. And, as noted, you ignore all the other characters of colors that populate the show. Again, not the role of a reviewer to pick winners and losers.

    You complain about a lack of imagination but provide no examples. In fact, you provide at least one imaginative story line (that you simply don’t like) — “the insane notion that a high-class escort would sleep with a man like Rob Lowe…” (Then tell us it’s unbelievable because escorts can’t be human beings…just cash machines).

    You make comments about, and mix up the show with, Aaron Sorkin’s real life (thirty years later).

    Your Trumpiness comes shining through almost every sentence of your article. That would be fine (though disgusting and embarrassing for you) in an opinion piece, but you stand firm, holding this up as a simple review of a podcast. To the extent that you believe that (and I doubt many other people do), you’ve failed miserably.

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    • May 17, 2019 at 10:55 pm
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      Ahaha how long did you spend writing this? Your attempts to read my mind are laughable and you don’t even cite my points correctly. For example, I never called Charlie a stereotype — you came up with that all on your own. When you get the idea to write a comment the first thing in the morning, maybe you should wait a bit.

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  • May 17, 2019 at 2:27 pm
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    This article and this podcast makes me think of that episode of ‘Friends’ where Ross & Brad Pitt start the ‘I Hate Rachel Green’ fan club. Petty & pointless.

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  • May 17, 2019 at 3:04 pm
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    The obtuse responses to this article are priceless. Keep up the good work, Kevin.

    I’ve been listening to the podcast since I heard Dave mention it on a recent Dollop episode. It’s pretty good so far. They do a good job describing how some of the character choices don’t make sense. Or how something doesn’t work structurally. And they have a leftist perspective which is a breath of fresh air.

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    • May 17, 2019 at 10:55 pm
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      thanks man! I love “interaction!”

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  • May 17, 2019 at 6:18 pm
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    As the editor of this site, I approve of any article that gets this many responses.

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    • May 18, 2019 at 2:07 am
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      It gets responses, but if every one is negative do you think anyone who responds will ever click through to this site in the future? No, of course not, they’re all adjusting their feeds to “not show bookandfilmglobe.com again”.

      Reply
  • May 18, 2019 at 2:04 am
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    This article was just so transparently full of malice and ignorance. What a poor excuse for a podcast review. I love how there is already another podcast that tears apart the West Wing, but the author is so inept at research he fails to even mention it. His constant adolescent replies to comments reminds me of trump psychotically replying back to his haters on Twitter.

    Reply

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