Fake Realpolitik

The West WingAfter complaints and criticisms last season that it had lost touch with the times, the new creative team of NBC’s highly decorated series “The West Wing” seems prepared to play catch-up — and furiously — in its first outings without creator and former executive producer Aaron Sorkin at the helm. For those who don’t watch the show or who can’t be bothered by the dramatic meanderings of network television, it’s not worth recapping the details of tonight’s plot, but suffice it to say that a show that was once engineered specifically as a liberal fantasia has been rudely awoken to the new conservative reality; the president that sits in this fictitious Oval Office is now a member of the Grand Old Party.

Improving Drama vs. Improving Ratings

Below: John Goodman as the new POTUS stands as but one example of the producers’ desire to imbue “The West Wing” with qualities of films by the Cohen Brothers as well as the sitcom “Roseanne.”

So what’s at work here, dramatic rigor or concessions to popular opinion? That is, it’s hard to tell whether tonight’s jolt of conservatism was the result of a sharp critical reassessment of the show’s flagging performance, or simply a case of playing to the crowds. On the one hand, I have to admit, it made for excellent television, and I certainly applaud new executive producer John Wells for meeting the challenge of Sorkin’s legacy with tremendous skill. But on the other hand, given the climate of the dramatic shows that returned and made it on the air this season — markedly reverent and pious — I have to say this new creative vision owes at least something to the sickeningly dense conservatism polluting the air since 9/11.

John Goodman on “The West Wing𔄭

One thing puzzles me though, and that’s my inability to understand what the American public really wants. Fairly or unfairly, the same people who watch network television in 2003 are often characterized as among the most politically apathetic in the history of the republic, and yet the course-corrected “West Wing” and even shows like “K Street” suggest that, if anything, they want more real politics in their shows about politics. One might even say they’re looking for more reality, except for the fact that reality television — the reigning format of today’s broadcast television — bears virtually zero resemblance to the reality of most anyone’s lives.

A Theory to Explain Reality

If pressed to spout off a half-baked, ill-informed social theory to explain this disparity, the one I might come up with would go something like this: the American public is better educated than ever, and therefore more likely than ever to have either attended college or secured comfortable white collar jobs. That combination of education and an investment in the status quo has refined the criteria for dramatic entertainment, such that creators must now produce television shows that use ever sharper, ever more clever tools in order to elicit suspension of disbelief in viewers.

These tools must be capable of an uncanny level of savvy about the public’s cynicism, and therefore are, more and more, borrowed from the language of “reality”: handheld video, the popularization of non-professional actors, and intricate facsimiles of political spheres of influence are but a few examples. Here’s the tough part though; while creators are charged with using these tools to create more ‘realistic’ drama, they must still respect the fourth wall. That is, drama has gotten smarter, but it would be a mistake to think that its mission has changed at all; its main purpose is still to entertain, comfort and maintain the status quo. Whether it’s a show about an alternate political reality or one about getting stranded on an island with a makeover team, drama is meant to anesthetize us.