The West Wing, Then and Now

This past week Suanna and I have been catching up on a backlog of taped _West Wing_ episodes from this season while at the same time re-watching the first season on DVD. The juxtaposition is fascinating. In November I complimented the darker turn the show was taking, but the comparison makes clear just how much darker it really is. Even the music has changed subtly to register the shift in tone. So much of those early episodes was full of the camaraderie of the staff, Bartlett’s impassioned, partisan speeches, and, despite the hard political realities the show regularly dealt with, a prevailing mood of optimism.

Much of that has ebbed away. (And to the cheesy Bartlett speeches, good riddance.) Where once the staff was a intimate group of friends at frequent odds with the outside world (especially Republicans), now that they are full of disagreement, resentment, and inner turmoil. The relationship between Josh and Donna is an excellent example. In the early days they are a darn cute pair: the energetic political operative and his idealistic, longsuffering, omnicompetent assistant. As the years go by, intimations of romance develop, but of course nothing ever _happens_. And then, in last weeks’s episode, CJ, angry at Josh for letting it come to this, lays it out for Donna. “You should have grown out of that job three years ago,” she says, and goes on to explain that of course Josh would do everything he could to keep her, and that she knows that the reason Donna’s staying is that she loves him. But all the more, then, she needs to get out of there.

This is the point in your standard, early-season _West Wing_ show where, having been on the receiving end of an eloquent, pointed monologue, Donna would come back with her own, even _more_ eloquent and pointed monologue expressing the other point of view. But instead, Donna sputters. “I don’t want to be talking about this,” she says. It’s clear that CJ’s right about why Donna’s staying, but that doesn’t make it any easier on her.

Part of the show’s drift is due to the fact that it tries to mirror our current society, and so in the world of the _West Wing_, the economy is in the tank, Middle East strife is front and center, and partisan deadlock is as bad as it’s ever been. But even if the stock market was still booming today like it was in 1999, the show would still have had to have taken a darker turn, or at least a _different_ turn, in order to avoid stagnation. It’s a sad commentary on our society that the clear way for the show to remain relevant is to present a darker, more conflicted world where everything seems to be falling apart. At least it’s making for great television.