The West Wing will always make me feel the patriotic feels


The West Wing went off the air in 2006, but the acclaimed NBC political drama lives on through streaming platforms and through people like me craving its fictional patriotic comfort in a chaotic political reality.

Rationally, I understand The West Wing isn’t real. It’s an idealistic, made-up TV drama that featured a romanticized Washington of integrity, and profound nuance, and staffers who somehow managed to never trip down the stairs while executing a flawless three-minute walk-and-talk. Also, its series finale aired more than 10 years ago.

But deep down,  part of me still needs to believe the smart, complex world Aaron Sorkin created is possible. Maybe not in its entirety. (The depiction of women throughout a lot of the show was problematic, for starters.) But the idea that the men and women who govern our country should do so with a deep-rooted sense of duty and an appreciation for their jobs’ gravity is one I think we could all use a lot more of right about now.

An alternative reality

It’s the reason why at least a few nights a week you’ll find me passing up the buzzy new series on my Must Watch list for the calming embrace of the Bartlet administration. Yes, looking back, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry giving the young staffer who leaked his rehab records a second chance seems far-fetched. Then again, the idea that our current president would tweet a WWE GIF from the Oval Office does, too.

So, is watching today an escape from the mayhem and animosity that’s boiling over in Washington? Partly. For me, though, it’s more a reminder that there is a carefully thought-out system of fairness and justice buried somewhere underneath the depressing headlines.

I’m not the only West Wing fan who’s discovered a good Bartlet burn or Toby reflection can soothe amidst today’s news cycle. Back in February, Motherboard tested the theory that people were looking to the show for comfort following the election using Google Trends. They found there seemed to be a spike in searches for the show following the election and the inauguration.

Bi-partisan fandom

Even though Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet was a Democrat, West Wing‘s appeal reached across both sides of the aisle. Of course, when Barack Obama made his unlikely real-life ascent to office, parallels were drawn between him and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), Bartlet’s Democratic successor on the show. Sorkin even wrote a scene in the New York Times that had Obama asking Bartlet for advice.

Part of what made the show, left-leaning as it was, so good was that it portrayed Republican characters (lawyer Ainsley Hayes, Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick) as noble, smart, and likable, too. This balanced approach created fans of the liberal and conservative variety. It was so inspiring, in some cases, that those fans were driven to enter the political arena themselves.

Maybe that’s why we’re facing the name-calling and fiercely partisan conditions we are now. The kids who watched Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn in awe haven’t had a chance to launch their congressional campaigns yet. If they were 12 when the show premiered in ’99, they’ve still got at least five years until they meet the presidential age requirement. Maybe when the West Wing generation is in power, things will cool down. Until then, any senators, or congressmen or women who want to borrow my Netflix password are more than welcome.

“What’s next?”

Cheesy as it sounds, I got hooked on West Wing when I was a 21-year-old newspaper intern living in D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Nearly every night that summer, my 10 housemates and I crowded around the TV in our common room and worked our way through all seven seasons. The actual Capitol building was just a few blocks away.

When I decided to move to D.C. permanently the following summer, I’m sure that sense of American pride the show had stirred in me was a big part of the reason. My second internship in the city even brought me to the White House to cover the annual Easter Egg Roll. You know the first thing I did when I walked into that press room was imagine I was C.J. Cregg giving a briefing. Or at least Danny Concannon getting a scoop.

Next: 13 superheroes that rock red, white, and blue costumes

There’s a good chance the virtuous Washington the show introduced me to never really existed. But as a wide-eyed 20-something, I believed it could. And as a significantly more jaded 30-something listening to the familiar rapping of the theme song’s drums on Netflix every night, I must admit I still do.