I didn’t want to do this. I’m in the midst of the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, finally giving it a look after years of shrugging it off. I’d made a commitment. But then somebody on Facebook had to go and mention The West Wing. And then I had to go and watch some clips on YouTube. All of which has led to me now being in the midst of the first season of The West Wing and I almost feel like I’m cheating on Buffy.
I came late to the show the first time around. I jumped on board with “Isaac and Ishmael,” the post-9/11 episode that’s now generally viewed none too favorably. But as my first exposure to these characters, it worked, even if it was divorced from the show’s ongoing continuity. I liked the energy, the intelligence, the believable relationships between the characters. Some of the opinions were a little heavy-handed, but who really knew how to react to 9/11 in the perfect manner? Then the season proper got under way, and that was that. I had some catching up to do, catching up that wouldn’t happen for a few years until Bravo began airing re-runs, but it wasn’t hard to keep up even with gaps in the lore. And if you could see Aaron Sorkin sort of losing interest in the fourth season, and if the show got a bit lost in the woods in the fifth and sixth seasons, the seventh season came close to recapturing the magic, and ended on an incredibly satisfying note. As I bought the seasons on DVD, I rolled through them again, now able to get caught up in the show and indulge in the instant gratification of just one more episode. Then another. Then another. And now here I am again, inspired by the briefest of clips, the vaguest of comments, to dive back in again.
It’s not really the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a dream Democratic president that makes the show so compulsively appealing, although that doesn’t hurt. There’s a whole lot things said that you wish could actually be said, but probably never could. But it’s the optimistic air of competent people committed to their jobs out of a sense of higher purpose that I always find most inspiring. These people wield tremendous power not because they want that power, but because they feel a responsibility to use it for something greater than its own reward. That they’re Democrats is immaterial; in fact, when the last two seasons featured what amounted to a dream Republican candidate for president, I would have been just as happy to have seen him win and carry the show onward with the other party getting its moment in the sun. We want to believe there’s room for virtue on both sides of the aisle, as hard as current events try to prove otherwise.
And yet the show isn’t some dry airing of hopeful platitudes. It’s often downright hilarious. As capable as these people are, they’re vulnerable, fallible, and while the serious missteps are given the gravity they deserve, there are lighter blunders that don’t carry the fate of the republic. And these lead to an almost screwball sort of comedy, and the kind of good-natured ribbing that only takes place among co-workers who genuinely care about each other. The show wouldn’t leave anything close to the impression it does without that knowing balance of the profound and the silly.
The West Wing has always seemed like a wintry show to me. So many of its most memorable episodes seem to have snow on the ground or a chill in the air, everyone in jackets and overcoats. The music that opens and closes the show has that same feeling, all bright and sparkling. So maybe the coolness in the air has had a hand in me getting the itch to watch it again. But I think it’s due more to the idea expressed by the dialogue between Charlie Young and Josh Lyman in Charlie’s first appearance. Watching the president give an address to the nation, Charlie says in awe, “I’ve never felt like this before.” And Josh simply replies, “It doesn’t go away.” The West Wing doesn’t go away. It lingers there like an old friend, always waiting to take you back into its welcoming embrace. And it never fails to make you glad you found it again.