I was watching a television program before, with a kind of roving moderator who spoke to a seated panel of young women who were having some sort of problem with their boyfriends – apparently, because the boyfriends had all slept with the girlfriends’ mothers. And they brought the boyfriends out, and they fought, right there on television. Toby, tell me: these people don’t vote, do they?
~ President Josiah Bartlet
Back in 1999, a new show written by Aaron Sorkin debuted on NBC. The West Wing, starring Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe and John Spencer was about the daily goings on of the staff in the executive offices of the White House. Being of the mind that I’d rather live life than watch it dramatized on TV, I didn’t watch the show. After the first episode, my sister was telling me that it was a great show and that I should tune in to it. “Not interested”, I told her. “I would rather live politics in the real world than watch someone’s unbelievable view of it.”
After the 3rd episode, her not so subtle “You NEED to watch this show” comments prompted me finally to sit down one night and watch an episode. After watching just this one episode, I was hooked. And now, was quite pissed I missed the first three shows.
I watched the shows as they aired. The dialog on the show was so fast paced, I sometimes needed to watch the tape to catch all I missed. Occasionally, I would read the actual scripts found on a web site.
The West Wing ended its run in 2006, although for me it ended much sooner, after John Wells fired Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme and took over the producing of the show. As he did with ER and Third Watch, Wells turned The West Wing into a soap opera drama. It became less about the West Wing and politics, and more about the individual stories of the characters. I struggled through season 5, and then gave up the show entirely at the beginning of season 6. Rob Lowe was gone, the brilliance of Sorkin was gone and the pressure to “de Liberalize” it made it just like any other broadcast show.
Lately, Bravo has been airing repeats of The West Wing. At 5am-7am, two episodes run back to back. Sometimes I’m awake to watch them, but mostly I Tivo them to watch later on. In watching these reruns it amazes me how much the world has changed, yet how many of the internal American issues remain the same. Arguments made in the halls and meeting rooms of the fictional White House are still unresolved today.
While it is exciting to watch them in real time, having the ability to fast forward through commercials is a sanity check. I don’t know who does the scheduling for Bravo, but I find it a little unnerving to be watching the well written, brilliantly crafted story telling of The West Wing, only to have it interrupted with commercials about “tonight’s episode” of The Real Housewives of Orange County and Top Chef.
I cringe at the juxtaposition of the “fictional” world of Josiah Barlett stating “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ they said, ‘that all men are created equal.’ Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in history that anyone had ever bothered to write that down. Decisions are made by those who show up.” and the “real” world of Vicki who said, “When we get drunk, it’s all about the boobs.”
Is it a coincidence that the genre of “Reality TV” hit its stride in the years after Clinton and before Obama? I don’t see the inauguration of the 44th president as an end to the Reality TV genre, but I sure hope it’s relegated to the wee hours.