Friday, December 22, 2006

The Once and Future President

Strange Horizons's reviews section published a piece yesterday that I've been looking forward to for quite some time: Graham Sleight's retrospective on The West Wing, in which he argues that Aaron Sorkin's political drama can and should be read as science fiction.
On one level, of course, the claim is silly: there is nothing in the series outside the canon of current political or scientific possibility (or what we as outsiders might imagine those to be.) The West Wing is entirely mimetic. Of course, in another sense, it's trivially true that The West Wing is sf. It's a piece of alternate-world science fiction: presidential elections take place in 1998 and 2002, not in leap years; the September 11th terrorist atrocity does not take place; and global events in general follow a different track from our recent past. I want to argue, though, that it's sf in a more profound sense, the Roger Rabbit sense. It makes an argument, as sf does, about possibility, about what can be done, and it does so by presenting us with a world already showing a change from our own. (One might call this technique cognitive estrangement.) Science fiction has always, I think, been a peculiarly American genre because of its allegiance to a belief in possibility. Once this was geographical: a new frontier, somewhere out west, was always there to be discovered by anyone smart and brave enough. (And anyone who happened to be living there already might find themselves getting effaced from the story, like dumb aliens in a pulp magazine.) Sf moved this frontier out into space, the potentially infinite worlds out there to be discovered. But as the difficulties of space travel become more and more apparent, it might be better to say that sf's frontier is now temporal. It tells stories about what might be done with tomorrow, starting today.
I'm actually just in the right mindset to be reading about The West Wing right now. A local channel has been spinning the show's first three seasons again and again in daily strips, so that every couple of weeks I can catch an airing of "Noël" or "Bartlet for America". Which, as you might imagine, has given me an opportunity to think about the show, not to mention a unique perspective on it (there probably aren't a lot of people who know that "17 People" still hurts like hell on a fourth viewing). I don't disagree with Graham's reading, and certainly not with his assertion that The West Wing is unique for thinking about the future--an observation that is made quite poignant by the realization that so little of overt genre TV seems even remotely interested in this topic. Where Graham observes the show's themes and storylines, however, and notices an SFnal aspect, my repeated forays into The West Wing have caused me to pay greater attention to the interactions between its characters. On that level, I think the argument can be made that The West Wing is a work of fantasy.

Well, not really. Or rather, only in the trivial sense that Graham notes at the beginning of the paragraph quoted above--if we give undue significance to the marketing decision that folded alternate history into science fiction, The West Wing can be read as SF. By the same token, fiction that takes place in an imaginary, pseudo-medieval setting is usually packaged as fantasy even if there are no magical or supernatural elements in the story, and there is something downright medieval about the relationships, the exchanges of power and allegiance, between the show's characters. They'd call it loyalty, conviction, political idealism; I call it vassalage.

Aaron Sorkin is by no means the first person to equate an American white house with a royal court. The last time someone presented the American people with as coherent and complete a fantasy of goodness and idealism holding sway within the corridors of power as the one Sorkin created, they did so by drawing a direct comparison to Camelot, and in Jed Bartlet, Sorkin has created a character of Arthurian grandeur. A remarkable man, uniquely capable of taking on the burdens of leadership, Bartlet is driven by a deep-seated sense of purpose and the belief that he has been divinely intended for his role ("a boy king" and "blessed with inspiration" are two phrases used to describe him in an episode that flashes back to his youth). At the same time, Bartlet possesses a breathtaking capacity for arrogance and self-centeredness, qualities that allow him, for example, to dither until nearly the last moment before accepting a congressional censure that will spare his oldest and closest friend from a career-ending public humiliation, to obliviously insist until almost that same last moment that his choice to lie to the electorate about a degenerative illness was somehow not a terrible and inexcusable mistake, and to dismiss, with enormous cruelty and terrible wrath, a long-time advisor who had betrayed him over a matter of principle. When the time comes to choose Bartlet's replacement, the process is frequently portrayed as a Tolkien-esque passing of an age of giants. The two nominees who emerge out of a posse of contenders who scrabble for the crown are capable but somehow uninspiring--the grizzled veteran who shares some of Bartlet's gravitas and experience but lacks his integrity, and the young upstart, Bartlet's ultimate successor, who possesses vision and moral character, but is ultimately a less substantial, less heroic man--Telemachus taking over from Ulysses.

In itself, the fact that its central figure is lionized isn't sufficient to support my reading of the Bartlet white house as a feudal system. For that, we have to look at the relationships between Bartlet and his closest advisors, which are most frequently characterized by a complete, unquestioning loyalty that takes precedence over the characters' individual wants and priorities ("This is the most important thing I'll ever do ... more important than my marriage" Leo explains to his soon-to-be ex-wife in an early episode). The West Wing pays lip service to the notion that what brings its characters together are shared ideals and a mission to which they can all contribute, and this may very well be how they each came through the door. What keeps them in the west wing day in and day out, however, is individual loyalty, a sense of belonging to a team, a side, an 'us', and the terms in which that belonging is expressed seem, in many occasions, to have been lifted out of Shakespeare, or Dante's descriptions of the quarrels between the Guelphs and Ghibellines (it doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to picture Josh, Toby and Sam cruising the capitol hill, biting their thumbs at Republican congressmen).

"I told Leo McGarry that we could trust you, and Toby backed me up," Josh tells relative outsider Joey Lucas before revealing a closely-held secret. Translation: he and Toby vouched for Joey's honor, for her worthiness to be allowed into the inner sanctum. In that same episode, Abbey Bartlet petulantly accuses white house chief counsel Oliver Babish--a nominal insider--of blowing the potential ramifications of revealing the President's MS out of proportion "because defending the President in primetime looks good on a resume." Translation: no matter who signs Oliver's paychecks or what his job description is, he isn't part of the in-group, and his motives are therefore suspect. And then, of course, there's the end of the first season episode "Let Bartlet be Bartlet", in which Leo turns to each of the staff as they recite "I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States." He isn't leading a pep rally; he's reminding them of their oaths of fealty, and reminding Bartlet, who is standing just outside the room, of the courage and devotion of the men and women he commands.

In Aaron Sorkin's hands, the west wing isn't a place for cold professionalism, and, whatever he may claim to the contrary, change isn't achieved solely through idealism or conviction. In Sorkin's west wing, everything is personal, and it is that capacity to personalize the impersonal, to sublimate their individual identity to their identity as members of a group, that allows his characters to do good. The only modern setting in which this kind of mindset is common is the war story, and it is fairly common for stories set in high-stress, male-dominated environments to make use of that genre's vocabulary, to reference foxholes and encampments or refer to the characters in military terms. Sorkin repeatedly avoids this device even when it might seem appropriate--when Bartlet's administration is besieged by enemies either foreign or domestic. Instead, he consistently turns to the terms of the medieval drama (even going so far as to include references to Henry V and The Lion in Winter in the show).

I was concerned, when I started writing this piece, that it might come across as a parody of Graham's article, or at best an attempt to devalue his argument by positing a parallel one. I'd be saddened if this happened, not only because I think Graham has written an excellent and compelling essay, but because I don't see the two readings as being at all incompatible. Rather, I think they bolster each other. In a response to a comment I made in this LJ discussion of Graham's essay, which showed up in my inbox just as I was getting ready to compose this paragraph, Niall Harrison suggests that all utopian stories evince a tension between fantastic and SFnal elements, and although we could go back and debate whether my choice to equate a feudalistic mindset with fantasy is legitimate (although that would bring us perilously close to the definitional argument--it's the third rail of genre discussion. Touch it, and you die), I think if we accept a more general description of utopian fiction being characterized by a tension between hope for the future and nostalgia for a past that may never have existed, we might come close to an accurate description of The West Wing, and of why it worked so well at both conciliating and uplifting its viewers. Yesterday was golden; tomorrow will be bright. How can today be anything but glorious?

4 comments:

A.R.Yngve said...

THE WEST WING ain't SF. It's primarily Fantasy.

Like there's Fantasy Sports, there is now Fantasy Politics.

"President Bartlett" is, to put it as bluntly as possible, Fantasy Clinton.

Not saying the show isn't well written or acted, but at heart it's an American compensatory fantasy -- a bit like those cheesy "Let's Go Back And Win The Vietnam War" flicks in the 1980s, starring Chuck Norris.

THE WEST WING is MISSING IN ACTION for Democrats.

BrendanMoody said...

When I watched The West Wing for the first time recently, I also found myself thinking of it as much like a work of fantasy. The extreme deference shown to Bartlet by the staff, which you adroitly place in the context of a larger feudal system, was part of it, as was the extreme potency of the White House. None of the things that Bartlet and his staff can do are different in principle from what actual presidents can do, but in the context of a TV drama (particularly an idealistic one like The West Wing) they take on an almost magical feel: the president has only to speak a word and people halfway across the globe will die.

I think part of the show's appeal is its ability to meld various genres- in addition to those discussed here, you could add idealist polemic, romantic drama, and family sitcom. (Bartlet may be a great leader, but he's also the quintessential modern sitcom dad.)

Fred said...

I've been arguing for awhile now that The West Wing can be read as science fiction. Mostly because you so often see the opposite impulse in effect: writers, directors, producers, studios, et cetera, falling over themselves to tell you how their science fiction program clearly isn't science fiction. [I've yet to actually see it, and I hear very mixed things, but this is one of the things I already like about The Fountain: Aronofsky wears the label of science fiction with pride. If the shoe fits, wear it.]

But I do think you make a pretty convincing argument; however many sf-like elements might be at work in this show, ultimately there is a pretty wide schism between it and reality -- even a reality that might be at work in an alternate universe.

A.R.Yngve said...

By the way, one of the most horrifying sci-fi TV shows in recent memory -- and one of the biggest hits among very small kids! -- is TELETUBBIES.

Think about it: Earth, 50,000 A.D. The human race has been reduced to chubby Eloi, pampered into imbecility by their computer-controlled artificial environment, that resembles a giant automated park. Superimposed on the real Sun is a baby-faced hologram of the computer intelligence which treats them as beloved pets...

...has there EVER been a scarier vision of the future than TELETUBBIES?
;-P

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