Prime Time White House

Prime Time White House

The doctors of E.R., the lawyers of Ally McBeal, the teenagers of Dawson’s Creek. This year, as last, ensemble casts dominate television’s leading programs. The newest ensemble cast is, however, different from the others. It consists of a fictional president and his White House staff, and it sets the tone for the most talked-about show of the fall season, The West Wing, the creation of Aaron Sorkin, whose past work includes the sitcom Sports Night as well as the screenplay for Rob Reiner’s The American President.

Much harder to know is what to make of The West Wing, which in its Wednesday night premiere on NBC drew a whopping 16.9 million viewers. Political shows are scarce on prime time television. Benson, which ran on ABC from 1979 to 1986 and featured Robert Guillaume as the assistant to a state governor and finally as a lieutenant governor, defied the political odds during the Reagan years, but Benson rarely ventured beyond sitcom to take a serious position on any issue.

It is in film that politics have gotten their fullest attention in American pop culture. Yet here, too, the attention has usually lacked depth. Themes and moralizing have traditionally appeared in place of analysis. During the Great Depression Frank Capra in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Preston Sturges in The Great McGinty made corruption their big issue rather than take on the New Deal question of how to get the country back to work. By the sixties Hollywood was focused on the bomb, and in 1963-1964 it took center stage in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May and Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, which in combination offered audiences a new film genre—the nuclear thriller. Today, thanks to the Clinton scandals, sex has become the dominant political issue for Hollywood, and in Mike Nichols’s Primary Colors, Ivan Reitman’s Dave, and Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, the fate of the nation is inseparable from the president’s infidelity.

To its credit, The West Wing is far more complex than any of these Hollywood movies. If there is any film it resembles, it is Michael Ritchie’s 1972 The Candidate, in which Robert Redford, in an exceptional picture brilliantly scripted by Jeremy Larner, played an idealistic California lawyer who wins a Senate seat only to find himself trapped by electoral politics.

The other side of The West Wing is, however, its implicit conviction that today the art of politics consists of making rapid decisions on the basis of a gut decency that substitutes for hard-won political values or serious thought. With its numerous plots, its fast pace, and cast of a half-dozen characters, The West Wing presents a White House that is centerless. The president, Josiah Bartlet, an independent-minded former New Hampshire governor played by Martin Sheen, is ...

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