Call for Comments: Bartlet for America 2020?

From Hannah: Since the 2016 election, I’ve participated in (and noticed) a trend: turning to optimistic, liberal leaning television shows to escape the reality of our current political system. Shows like The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, and Madam Secretary allow us to imagine that the people running our government take the term public servant seriously. At the heart of these political shows lies a call for common decency and a belief that reform is possible. The West Wing ended in 2006 and Parks and Recreation concluded in 2015 — so why do we talk about these shows alongside, or even more often, than Madam Secretary? (Part of the answer is that people are rediscovering/discovering these shows on Netflix, but what I’m interested here is how the messages of these shows do or don’t line up with our current political climate.)

Last year, The Washington Post published an article that detailed the current West Wing obsession. Answers of why viewers, both in and out of government work, still care about this show vary: nostalgia, a need for optimism, a desire to be reminded public servants exist (or even sane politicians), etc. The same can be said for something like Parks and Recreation, even though Leslie Knope spends the majority of the series working in local government.

But even as I’ve found myself using the television to assure me that things will be okay (a perfectly healthy coping mechanism, I’m sure), I’ve wondered about the politics of these shows and their creators. Aaron Sorkin (who created The West Wing and is famous for his work on many other television series and films), after all, recently was critiqued for his comments on how the Democratic Party should center itself. Although we all may dream of a president that’s more like Bartlet or Santos than Trump (or Bush or Clinton, to name the presidents of West Wing‘s time), do these fictional presidents and their staff actually reflect our political values? Are we watching these shows critically at all or falling into a nostalgic trap? And, besides the demeanor of these fictional politicians, what do we find admirable about them to the point we spend hours binge-watching their shows to escape reality? Is there anything we can translate from these optimistic portrayals of the government into our own political lives?

From Mav: Interestingly enough, I could never get into West Wing. I tried a couple times and it never grabbed me enough at the time. But, I was a huge fan of Newsroom also from Aaron Sorkin (which may be coming back). Newsroom is a little different, since it’s not about people working FOR the government, but about reporters working outside of it and looking in. Maybe I should try West Wing again. I wonder if it rings even more important in the current political climate. Mostly for the reasons, Hannah said.

Do we perhaps use shows like this as a template to imagine the political world that we would LIKE to be in? I’m not a religious fan of Madam Secretary, but I do like it when I catch it. And what strikes me about it, as well as what I’ve seen of West Wing… and other political drama/comedy shows like Parks and Rec, Veep, or Designated Survivor is that there is a sort of an altruistic vision of politics… even within the drama and tension. Part of this is maybe because we mostly tend to think of protagonists as “the good guys” and good guys do good things. But I’m wondering how much it says about the liberal biases of Hollywood culture when even on shows like another of my favorites House of Cards, where the protagonist is at least nominally a villain, his political platforms are still presented as liberal and social focused. Frank Underwood’s signature legislation on that show was trying to get a jobs bill passed. What I guess I’,m saying is, how do we never have a political show which is focused on the “benefits” of repealing the estate tax, implementing trickle down economics, drilling more oil wells, maintaining marriage as a union between man and woman, cancelling welfare or bringing back the coal industry?

I don’t think I’m just missing out on the right-wing shows. I don’t think there really are any. In fact, there are so few that right wing critics actually have to jump through hoops to try and pretend that West Wing was actually a a show that basically predicted how awesome a Trump presidency would be. Obviously that’s the opinion of an insane person, but the fact that he feels the need to even try to make that argument, sort of shows you what I’m getting at. Newsroom did try to show “both sides” a little bit, since the trope of the show was that Will McAvoy was actually an old school conservative working on TV during the Obama administration. But the show definitely had him take a stance against any Tea Party initiative that Will saw as ridiculous that was creeping up. His morality always remained in tact… if anything he was more of an attempt to paint a picture of the dying morality of the Republican party as it moved on past the principles that those clinging to it old days liked to pretend it still espoused. If the show does indeed come back, I feel like they’re going to have to be some serious thought given to positioning Will in relation to what has become the Trump political party.

Yes, I realize that Hollywood is going to have something of a left bend to it… it’s why FoxNews demonizes it so much, but you’d think there’d be SOME show somewhere that at least tries to market itself towards the rather sizable portion of the population who actually does want these things. Is Hollywood really so biased as FoxNews likes to complain? Or is it just that we’re at a point where real life politicians have policies that are so ridiculous that we just don’t even want to deal with them in fiction because they’re not believable?


2 Replies to “Call for Comments: Bartlet for America 2020?”

  1. So… this is sort of a stretch, but X-Files. A majority of that show involves government conspiracies & cover-ups, and while it’s not necessarily a “feel good government” it does have a government that isn’t inept. It’s a government that you can go, “oh wow, they are up to some shady stuff with some black ooze.”

    If we had X-Files with today’s government (and they vaguely touch on it in the revival) Trump would be bragging on Twitter about how we have the best black ooze, better than Russia’s black ooze even, and how we have several human/alien hybrids embedded in various countries across the globe.

    Its humorous how many TV shows have to make up a President or Gov’t because the current regime flies in the face of what so many of those shows are about. Could you even imagine them trying to write Parks & Rec episodes in our modern era? Leslie goes to DC and meets Mike Pence instead of Joe Biden? Yikes!

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