Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The West Wing

Some time ago I bought The West Wing on DVD, and recently I finished watching them all, all 7 seasons, over 150 episodes. And I liked it a lot. Not just because it is good TV, in fact the later seasons aren't quite as good than the earlier ones, they are getting to much soap opera like. They didn't go for a Soprano finale leaving everything open, but neatly resolved everything at the end, getting everybody in bed with their secret love and all. But the fun part of watching The West Wing is the learning experience, especially for somebody who is not an American.

The United States of America have a unique political system, with some features like the electoral college or the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary being hard to understand for foreigners (actually they might be hard to understand for Americans as well). This year's fight over the primary calender doesn't have an equivalent in other countries. There is a lot of tradition involved in US election rules and customs, and some of them date back over 200 years. The electoral college for example is a brilliant solution if you want to hold nationwide elections of a president in a time before the telegraph was invented. And once you introduced those rules, they are very hard to change, because every change disadvantages somebody, who will veto the process. There is a very funny episode in The West Wing, where some delegation from an ex-communist country comes to study the US constitution, and the White House staff tries to explain them that this is in fact not the ideal solution for them, even if it works good enough for the US.

So while the later seasons of The West Wing weren't quite as good as the earlier ones, they happen to cover a complete presidential election, from primaries to inauguration, in great detail. And because the people in the series are fictional, they can say things about the process that real politicians rarely do. At the end one has a pretty good idea how a US presidential election works, and the news from real 2008 election are getting a lot easier to understand. You learn something from The West Wing, and that is what makes it fun. Apparently Raph Koster's Theory of Fun is valid for other things than games too.
I love The West Wing, and I think your insights are accurate (I am American, and a history teacher, but my wife is Australian, and I often end up explaining the more bizarre aspects of our political system as we watch). I'm glad you enjoyed the show, and I myself enjoyed your observations.
I particularly enjoyed the early seasons myself. Of course, having no idea how chaotic the White House really is, the dialogue made it at least feel very realistic and tense. The writing, early on, was fantastic.
If you liked The West Wing, you will love Studio 60 on Sunset Strip. Classic early Aaron Sorkin magic...
A more abstract look at Washington, DC, politics is the short-lived "K Street" from HBO. It's focused more on the lobbyist side of things. Very cool work on mostly digital hand-held stuff. Executive producers were George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh (Director of "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"). I liked the series, but don't expect a clean ending. It was cut off very abruptly.
Oh god no, stay away from Studio 60.

I was a big fan of the show for the first few seasons, but I stopped watching until the election during the final season of the show. I do recommend that everyone watch the first few years... I remember being riveted during the Season Two finale.
It gives you a good idea of how the elections work. It is much shakier on how the politics work. The show even pauses at points to recognize that its political world is unrealistic, and then it merrily goes on its way.

I am very fond of the show's deputy directors of communications. I relate best to those two characters.
Yeah, what a coincidence, i just finished watching west wing 7 seasons too, even I am from Hong Kong, i could enjoy the show very much, know a bit how the election/ legal system runs in USA, i certainly love a lot. The show is actually getting a bit boring since season 4, and become very bad in season 5/6. I miss Josh and Sam !
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