Manual The West Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama (Television and Popular Culture)

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No one wants to watch a show in which the characters are buffeted by implacable outside forces which constrict and often dictate their courses of action. Viewers want a show in which heroes overcome obstacles and triumph over circumstances. They do not want to see a president forced to stay in a failing war by institutional inertia or unable to pass an environmental bill because of industry clout.

And few would tune in week after week to watch the American president compromising on principles like gay marriage in the face of extreme Senate opposition, or sitting helplessly by as an oil spill wreaks havoc upon America's coastal shelf. The problem is that, contrary to the hopes of screenwriters and viewers everywhere, this is often how democratic politics actually works -- through uninspiring compromise and failure.

Politicians, no matter how magnetic or persuasive, are constrained by the views of their constituents and countless other factors beyond their control. Tellingly, the Council of Economic Advisors is all but absent from The West Wing , even as political scientists have shown that the strength of the economy largely tracks an incumbent president's reelection prospects, unlike their personality or speeches. But substituting personality for politics isn't the only thing The West Wing gets wrong. By dramatic necessity, the show reduces the complex bureaucracy of the executive branch into a few key character roles.

Thus, Communications Director Toby Ziegler and his deputy Sam Seaborn personally vet Supreme Court nominees, write the State of the Union address, negotiate with congressmen, and deal with representatives of key interest groups -- and that's just in the first few episodes. In the real West Wing, by contrast, these myriad tasks are performed by many different administration officials.

Obviously, it would be unrealistic -- not to mention bad storytelling -- to present all of these individuals and their responsibilities on screen. But the elision of these roles results in a subtle yet crucial flaw in the show'srepresentation of the workings of the federal government.

The beginning

It is precisely because that government is run by a labyrinthine network of bureaucrats -- as opposed to a handful of core players, as in The West Wing -- that it cannot speedily accomplish many of the things asked of it. There are turf wars between offices, communications breakdowns, and weak staff members who retard efficiency. One cannot simply put in a word to Josh Lyman the show's deputy chief of staff and expect him and his coterie to quickly put things right.

Building a democracy around The West Wing 's version of politics, then, is setting one's self up for disappointment. The show overstates the power of personalities to triumph over fundamental political realities. It exaggerates the import and impact of presidential rhetoric.

The American Presidency as Television Drama

When we begin to expect to be awed in this manner, just as excessive violence slowly raises our threshold, so too does this constant bombardment of drama. What will it take to grab and hold our attention in the future if our level excitement is constantly pushed to new heights? Few of us would like to live in a world where death, murder, and political corruption can occur every day, without notice or outcry.

This idea of desensitization is already evident in everyday life. Both of these trends are helping to desensitize the American public and increase apathy and cynicism towards politics, the media and the events themselves. The last of the concerns we can discern from "The West Wing" lie in the demands the show places on real-world politicians. Politicians live in a world filled with the threat of backlash from other policy makers; even your own party may choose to isolate you for your decisions Gongloff, Yet even on "The West Wing" we see these types of circumstances emerge.

While we are given an accurate picture about how policy is created on the show, we are deprived of one important issue regarding the formation of legislation. Every action has its concurrent consequences. Yet, after watching "The West Wing" for a brief amount of time, it is evident that neither the President nor his staff is afraid to ignore conventions and institute their own methods of conducting business.

It in these rogue, powerful moments that audiences are held most captive, but it is in these moments that the show strays from a genuine portrayal of how American politics is conducted. While these threats sound serious and intimidating, neither the President nor his staff are daunted. And for good reason- audiences are never exposed to these political repercussions.

We never watch the White House deal with the direct consequences of its impetuous actions and in most cases, we never hear about these threats again. The lack of follow through in these types of situations where political repercussions are imminent, allows audiences to develop deceptive interpretations of how policymaking occurs.

All real world politicians are constrained by their ability to gain majority support for their issues if they expect ratification of their bill. More often or not, the lack of consensus on political issues at the congressional level stalls legislation of all types, regardless of the altruistic goals of a determined President Levine, When we watch the show, we are caught up in its realism and the convictions of the characters, yet real politicians and real policy can rarely live up to the standards presented in the show.

Whether this is an indictment of our current policy arena or the authenticity of "The West Wing", we may never know. However, when audiences experience policymaking without the subsequent ramifications real politicians are faced, they are left with nothing but cynicism for the real system of policymaking.

Conclusions Without a doubt, "The West Wing" is one of the most decorated television shows on the air. The mantels of show creator Aaron Sorkin and the illustrious staff are heavy with Emmys and other prestigious awards. Being one of the only shows to have been awarded more than 20 Emmys, the success of the show and its popularity are undisputed Academy of Television, However the question lies in the ability of the show to retain its audiences in the era after creator Aaron Sorkin has left his West Wing.

What he has left behind however, is a unique, powerful and enticing show that is an important instrument for alleviating the cynical ideas the American public retains about politics.


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The show is a potent instrument to show audiences how democracy can work, possibly even how it should work. However, within this ideal picture of "West Wing" politics, the show also places extreme demands upon less-well scripted politicians who struggle though the trenches of real political debate.


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  • There are physical limits to what can and what cannot be accomplished in politics. Money, backstabbing, personal attacks and incompetence are rampant in our political world.

    While "The West Wing" may serve as an instrument to reveal a higher standard to the American public, this is a standard from which reality will always fall short. Additionally, the speed that Sorkin uses to capture the attention of the audience week after week slowly erodes the sensitivity of audiences to the full impacts of the issues discussed in the show.

    By speeding up the pace of "The West Wing" Americans expect more every week and eventually, there will be a limit to what can capture and awe audiences. This type of systematic desensitization not only creates issues for the future of the show, but also holds serious implications in our everyday lives. Like the citizens of London in World War II, we too will learn to meld our life around traumatic events without so much as a second glance.

    Opening up politics to this type of editorial evaluation is healthy. Regardless of the slight reality suspension audiences may have to engage, changing the way America sees politics is the only way we can institute change: it is the only way we can know the difference between what is and what could be. By cultivating the public to hold real politics to a higher standard, change can occur. While the demands West Wing places on real politics may be harsh, the show portrays a version of democracy we can live with. A version Americans wish was real.

    References Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Primetime Emmy Awards. All fiction, all clear. New York Times. Anderson, N. Spending bill in Congress might draw Bush veto. Los Angeles Times, pp. Carter, B. New York Times, A.

    The 17 Most Important Political TV Series of All Time (Photos)

    Casey, G. Beyond total immersion. American Journalism Review, 21 6 , Ezell, P. The sincere Sorkin White House. New York: Syracuse University Press. Frank, M. The politics of design. Architectural Digest, 59 5 , 78 4. Gongloff, M. Is it still the economy, stupid? Hunt, M.

    The West Wing: The American Presidency As Television Drama

    The story of psychology. New York: Anchor Books. Knowlton, S. Levine, M. Moll, D. Search for all books with this author and title. Customers who bought this item also bought. Stock Image. Published by Syracuse University Press New Paperback Quantity Available: Chiron Media Wallingford, United Kingdom. Seller Rating:. West Wing Peter C Rollins. New Quantity Available: 3. New Paperback Quantity Available: 1. Published by Syracuse University Press.


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