My favorite show of all time is The West Wing. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this multiple times before. Between the amazing writing, dynamic acting, high drama, and subtle humor, I can’t think of a show I’d rather watch 1000 times than this. Because it’s more than just entertainment, more than just something to fill the time. When I watch that show, I am challenged to new ways of thinking, inspired and filled with hope, and find myself wondering what could be.
Of course, there has been one criticism of the show that I have accepted over the years: it is a bit unrealistic in its optimism. Painting a world in which Republicans and Democrats occasionally work together (while still hating each other, of course), politicians admit their faults and change their minds, and idealistic people with big ideas and open hearts are running the government (and do a decent job of it!), the viewer can’t help but sit back and say, “Wait, that’s not how the government works.”
It’s true. In its own time (1999-2006) and again today, many have offered the idea that it serves primarily as an escape from the reality of our politics, an opportunity for people to hide from the present situation in live in a fantasy world we wish were real. I’ll admit that I fall into this category at times.
But I think there’s something more to it than that. The West Wing may paint the world a bit too optimistically, but I find it to be less of a work of escapism and more of a work of aspiration. The West Wing presents the world, not as it is, but as it could be. Nothing in the show is so otherworldly that it is completely unbelievable. There is no magic, no superpowers. The characters live and work in the real world and have proper human emotions and capabilities. Everything about them is believable and possible. The world that it presents does not exist, sure, but it is one that is just beyond our grasp. When we watch the characters struggle with the events before them and show enormous character in doing the right thing, we get an opportunity to see what would be possible if we all made a change.
This, to me, is a genius work of fiction, and the jumping off point for me and Br. Tito this week. How can art challenge us to be better by presenting stories that are admittedly unrealistic and overly optimistic?