The Binge Diaries: How “The West Wing” Converted Me to The Church of Aaron Sorkin

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By Carrie Blazina (Guest Writer) 

I finally started binge-watching “The West Wing” this summer after years of putting it off, and I am so glad I caved. A little more than two seasons in, I have become so invested in all of the characters. The show has changed the way I read and edit political stories as a journalist, and the way I pay attention to anything White House-related as a citizen of the United States. It’s also just plain funny and clever.

Now, you might be wondering why I am 15 years late to the “West Wing” party. Well, I had tried other Aaron Sorkin shows and movies and disliked them. I watched one episode of “The Newsroom”and gave up when I realized the whole show was trying to tell journalists how to do their jobs better. I was so sure I would love “The Social Network,” but I had never felt more preached at and talked down to as an audience member. So it’s easy to see why I was hesitant to jump on this bandwagon.

To anyone out there feeling the same way: Please give this show a chance! It has managed to begin my conversion to The Church of Aaron Sorkin, and it might convert you, too.

Photo courtesy of MIT Open Documentary Lab

First of all, I can’t NOT watch a show with Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford (oh hi, Carmen’s dad from “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”!) and Martin Sheen. They’re all incredible here, and it is a true ensemble with chances for everyone to shine.

One of the things I love about “The West Wing” is that it reminds me of my all-time favorite show, “Friday Night Lights.” The characters on both are big, cobbled-together families that are flawed and make plenty of mistakes in trying to get where they’re going. But the getting there is so inspirational and fun that you almost don’t care about the outcome. It also has a dysfunctional workplace comedy feel to it. This show humanizes the White House staff in a terrific way by giving them equal amounts of rapid-fire speeches and realistic banter, dramatic political moments and quiet character study.

In the course of the show, you learn a lot about politics, something I would have never guessed I would find interesting. The show also has aknack for predicting political trends. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Lowe) says early in the first season that privacy is the biggest legal issue they’ll face for the next 20 years, which ended up being accurate. There are also plenty of references to the legalities of gay marriage and gun control, issues that were just becoming huge in the real world as well.

Now, you might be thinking, “This show sounds awfully liberal. ”One of the biggest criticisms of the show that I’ve read is that it’s “liberal wish fulfillment”and “pretentious.” On the contrary —I think the show is very balanced, especially as we get into season two. The administration followed on the show is liberal, but President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) faces plenty of opposition, and the show goes out of its way to make the Republican opposition realistic characters with common sense and emotions. And Bartlet isn’t some manic pixie dream president for liberals; he has lots of fascinating flaws as a person and kills several liberal initiatives as a politician. Also, the show’s characters call themselves out on being entitled and pretentious all the time, so at least the show knows it.

“The West Wing” isn’t perfect, but it sure is close —it has to be one of the best American dramas ever. For me, the reason this works and other Aaron Sorkin properties do not is that here, Sorkin has the chance to work with realistic drama and realistic characters without having to stick to real people and real situations. He’s allowed to have everyone do exactly what he wants because it’s fictional. There’s one episode from early in season three that takes on a real-world event, and for me, it flopped because it tried to explain stuff to the audience in a way that talked down to them. Sorkin is a master of dialogue and character, so when he’s allowed to go nuts with fictional (but realistic) material, the sky is the limit on how good it can be.

GIF courtesy of Tumblr

So, give this show a try. It balances heavy stuff such as deaths of major characters with the White House press secretary (Janney) lip-syncing an obscure 1970s R&B song. It’s endlessly entertaining on many levels, and it’s patriotic as hell. At the end of each episode, I find myself, like Bartlet, wondering “What’s next?”

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