Americans are always yearning for the Good Old Days. Of course, exactly which days were good and what made them that way is always up for debate. For TV critics, both professional and armchair, this often translates to three little words: “The West Wing.” This week was the 15th anniversary of the series’ premiere, an occasion marked with some pomp and several commemorative Buzzfeed articles. But why are we still so obsessed with Aaron Sorkin’s Holy Grail of Political Dramas? Because nothing since can compare to it, no matter how hard we try.
“The West Wing” premiered in September 1999, and since then, American television audiences have sought to recapture the fast-paced, hyper-verbal magic of the Jed Bartlet administration. As evidenced by the insane attendance at last week’s Master’s Tea with Bradley Whitford (aka Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman), “West Wing” fever is far from over.
But nowhere is the legacy of “The West Wing” more evident than in countless reviews of other political dramas over the last decade. There’s “House of Cards” (“Kevin Spacey West Wing”), “Scandal” (“Sexy Murder West Wing”), and “Commander in Chief” (“Lady West Wing”), the last two of which have suffered mightily at the hands of critics (I was personally partial to “Commander in Chief” while it was on the air, though to be fair in 2005 I was also really into Shrinky Dinks and gaucho pants).
The latest show to attract near-constant “West Wing” comparisons is “Madam Secretary,” a new CBS drama starring Tea Leoni as a female secretary of state who definitely isn’t Hillary Clinton. The show has received mixed reviews, with Variety’s Brian Lowry calling it “a slightly simple-minded return to ‘The West Wing.’” Some critiques are less subtle in their worship of St. Sorkin. Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz echoed the sentiments of many television writers in a recent review of the show: “I’d rather have ‘The West Wing’ back, or some version of it.”
But “West Wing” comparisons are not reserved for bad knock-offs aiming to capitalize on Sorkin’s success. The Internet is full of articles about how “House of Cards” nods to “The West Wing” and blog posts with titles like “House of Cards Isn’t The West Wing’s Polar Opposite — It’s Its Younger Cousin.” But the two shows don’t need to be a package deal just because they apparently share an imaginary television series grandparent (probably “Grandpa Goes to Washington,” an actual show that really existed in the late 70s). Why do we insist on bringing up “The West Wing” in every review of every TV show set in D.C.? To invoke another overused TV trope, references to “The West Wing” are getting a little “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
Summoning “The West Wing” often seems like a good way to connect with TV-literate readers. It can be a useful reference point, but it doesn’t do much in the way of meaningful critique. Not every show is trying to recreate that brand of idealism and witty dialogue. Treating “The West Wing” as a metric for measuring the quality of a sillier, soapier show like “Scandal” doesn’t make much sense.
We don’t expect every big-budget superhero movie to rival “The Dark Knight,” so why do we compare every political drama to Sorkin’s best? I get it: “The West Wing” is an awesome show, one that I wish had more episodes. But these other shows are not attempting to recreate what Sorkin did so expertly. They represent wildly different visions of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. You don’t need to turn on your television every Wednesday at 9 p.m. to get your fix of early-2000s turtleneck sweaters and impassioned speeches about education policy. That’s what Netflix is for.
TV enthusiasts, I beseech you: WWJBD? (What Would Jed Bartlet Do?) In the absence of a verifiable answer, I am forced to do the work of a true politician and take his words out of context to make my own point. As President Bartlet once said, “When I ask what’s next it means I’m ready to move on to other things. So: What’s next?”