Legacy of a beloved series

The West Wing, a political drama set in the White House, ran from 1999 to 2006.
The West Wing, a political drama set in the White House, ran from 1999 to 2006.PHOTO: NBC TELEVISION

This week marks the 10th year since the end of the The West Wing, the hit political drama that imagined the inner workings of the American presidency as seen through the eyes of senior White House staff.

The brainchild of writer Aaron Sorkin, it amassed three Golden Globes and 26 Emmys during its seven-year run, in the process making policy wonks look cool.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles recently, actor Bradley Whitford, who played Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on the show, reflected on the legacy of the still-beloved series.

However, he points out that before the series became a cultural phenomenon and began winning accolades, "nobody thought that political shows could work".

"It's just like in Hollywood, they'll often go, 'Oh, baseball movies don't work.' But actually, no, bad movies don't work - it's not the arena," says Whitford, 56, who won a 2001 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama for his role.

What The West Wing demonstrated so well was that politics are "the perfect arena" for story-telling, says Whitford, who steps into a make-believe White House again to play Vice-President Hubert Humphrey in the new HBO drama, All The Way, a look at the turbulent days after President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination.

Since The West Wing, the political genre has expanded considerably, with new dramas including current hits such as Scandal, starring Kerry Washington as an aide who has an affair with the President, and House Of Cards, which casts Kevin Spacey as a politician who schemes and murders his way into the highest office in the land.

Whitford points to both series to illustrate how broad the spectrum is now for shows about Washington D.C., the former "a comedy version - kind of fun and sudsy", and the latter more like the Shakespearean tragedy, Macbeth. "It's an incredibly fertile arena."

But unlike the heightened universe of those shows, he believes that The West Wing "portrayed a relatively accurate sense of how much people care about doing the right thing" and was thus far less cynical about politics and politicians than some of today's series.

Whitford still disagrees with critics who argued that The West Wing was ultimately unrealistic precisely because of that optimism about how well-intentioned politicians are.

In defending the show, he cannot resist taking a dig at the current political landscape and turmoil within the Republican party, with the rise of politicians such as Donald Trump, whose outlandishness would have made them too preposterous for the series, he believes. "People used to say The West Wing is such a fantasy. But the biggest fantasy in the show was that we have rational Republicans.

"I mean, if we had introduced a Donald Trump character before you even got to the costume fitting, they would've stopped you and said, 'That's insulting to Republicans,'" he says, chuckling.

In defence of politicians, he adds, "we make them climb these filthy ropes and then they get to the bottom and we go, 'Oh, your hands are dirty.'"

"And we always talk about them pandering, but don't you kiss a** at work too? I mean, do you tell your boss exactly what you think of him? Probably not. So I think they're in a very tough place."

His new movie, All The Way, which depicts President Lyndon B. Johnson's fight to get a landmark bill on civil rights passed, is also somewhat sympathetic to the struggles of politicians.

"It's a laugh riot to point out what pandering idiots they are, but I think that something like this movie really shows that the consequences of what they do are extremely important."

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'Legacy of a beloved series'. Print Edition | Subscribe