The final episode of The West Wing has been screened in Australia.
Watching The West Wing was always a kind of guilty pleasure.
The guilt part came from recognising it as a fantasy of politicians behaving well, even altruistically, and the President of the US in “Father knows best” kind of role watching over his staff and, by extension, his country. The pleasure part came of trying to listen fast enough to pick up the witty dialougue: “I heard that one, I heard that one,” I'd start to say excitedly whenever I a) recognized what they were saying and b) knew something about that topic. Part (a) happened more often than part (b). These characters walked fast and talked fast as they made their way from one part of the White House to another part conducting mini-meetings on their way to important meetings which were also short because no one in their life-style has any time no matter how much time they spent there. Strangely, no matter how little sleep they got, they could still read, apparently; their eyes did not become bleary, and they were still mentally sharp, able to take in the information they were reading, able to hold coherent conversations with anyone who entered their office, able to shift mental gears from one idea to another with each new meeting.
It was a pleasure to pick up some idea of the complexity of each issue the characters had to address and to begin to realize why it is that pushing even a good idea through a political system takes so long and often comes to nothing. It was a pleasure to watch arguments that were not made of straw so that 'good guys' could win. Opposing ideas were given weight, and were not bad but, often, merely different.
It was a pleasure to listen for the wit in their fast talk, to hear a 'mere TV soap' actually enjoying words.
As everyone says farewell to The West Wing, though, it is nice to realise that this series was more than just another indulgence, another excuse to spend the evening on the couch. The fantasy offered us, as the best fantasies do, something real. The characters did their best to fight the good fight in a world of compromises, they were politicians who truly cared about the good of their country, and bureaucrats who honestly wished to make it work well for the people and not just for themselves. In a cynical age, when all we can know for sure is that we are being lied to, The West Wing showed politics being wielded by honest people, and so gave us an idea of what that might look like.