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I’m Watching a Political Drama from the 90s – and It’s Changing Me

When scrolling through the political dramas on Netflix, I discovered that I had very few choices.

I thought there would be more shows: with such a tumultuous climate, I was sure that there would be more screenwriters and studios inspired to churn out series that either analyze American politics or completely reimagine Washington DC’s increasingly toxic culture. Instead, when looking at “Titles in: Binge-worthy Political TV Dramas,” I found four thin rows of a questionable mix of political miniseries and young shows canceled after one of two seasons. Then, I saw it. The very first listed title, complete with seven, 22 episode seasons all about American politics.

It wasn’t House of Cards, the wildly popular Netflix drama that recently released its sixth and final season. This show, which began in 1999 and ended in 2006, has much more politics and a lot less sex. Netflix had introduced me to the show of my dreams… The West Wing.

It’s pretty easy to argue that American politics in the early 2000s was not nearly as concerning as it is today. Watching TWW took me back to a time before I was born, where politics were still just as complex but more peaceful.

The renounced political drama follows the lives of several senior White House executives through Democratic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet’s two terms in office. There’s a lot that can change in eight years, and screenwriter/playwright Aaron Sorkin and his team take 154 episodes to cover it all.

Still, TWW is not a completely accurate depiction of politics in the 90s. Television critics’ biggest criticism of the show was that it was too idealistic. The show’s distinct ensemble cast- Bartlet, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler, Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn and Press Secretary CJ Cregg – were all portrayed as law-abiding dreamers. They didn’t like to play dirty unless they were forced to.

In this alternate universe, those who play fair and put the good of the “little guys” above all are almost always rewarded. The Bartlet administration regularly made compromises with Republicans while winning battles in gay rights and school reform. Today, older viewers of the show have told me “the most unrealistic part of the show was the cooperative conservatives.”

However, as a liberal teenager who is trying to both navigate her role in America and find solace in today’s political climate, I see the show’s optimism and idealism as a refuge. There’s something comforting about seeing senior White House staffers so proud of doing the right thing. Even when they fail, there is a surety signature of TWW that they will stand up and fearlessly fight again. Their passion makes you tune into politics instead of tune out in fear. TWW glorified serving the nation by framing these staffers as America’s unsung protectors of the American people. It made once-mundane debates about tax brackets and the elimination of the penny cool.

Most of all, TWW shaped the new generation of politicians and political reporters, as well as their moral code. Most of them are young compared to the average government official, but it’s nice to think that their political values have been shaped by the show, which was sometimes criticized for preaching virtuosity a little too much. TWW shaped America’s young liberals, but its conservatives as well. Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias (the co-founders of Vox, a news website that often swings left) and Kurt Bardella (a long-time conservative strategist, now a liberal) all cite the series as a source of political inspiration.

As for me? From a professional perspective, watching TWW has helped me further cement my interest in political journalism. I don’t think one has truly watched the freedom of press in action until they witness a press briefing with CJ Cregg. From a personal perspective, TWW’s willingness to see the good in everyone on the Hill, regardless of political affiliation, has reversed my partisan attitude, which exponentially increased during the 2016 presidential election. Call it silly, but watching the way the show portrayed Republicans made me if anything, more bipartisan.

Sorkin’s characterization of Ainsley Hayes, a relatively large conservative character in season two, helped humanize “the other.” As Associate White House Counsel, she defended and advised the Bartlet administration as one of their top lawyers. Her compassionate and assertive outlook on not just politics but life got her hired as a lawyer to President Bartlet. The administration not only valued her differing opinions but placed her intelligence and potential over her political party. That being said, Ainsley is one of my favorite characters in the show.

In the end, if The West Wing taught me anything, it made me realize that we need to put respect for others above all. When we respect each other enough to be willing to compromise, our government can be highly efficient, much more than it is right now. In the end, we’re all Americans, Democrats and Republicans both. Even though our envisioned futures for the country don’t match, we all have the united goal to make our country the best it can be. We cannot forget that.

(Featured image source: NBC)

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Lauren Cho is a high school student based outside of New York City. She is passionate about current events, social justice, young people's role in government, and CJ Cregg from the West Wing. When she is not writing, she can be found teaching herself the ukulele or listening to Button Poetry.

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