Since election night, liberals have been seeking solace, whether through confessional essays, renewed civic participation, alternate-timeline fan fiction or yoga. I understand those impulses; I’ve even indulged in that last one myself. But in the midst of this orgy of self-care meant to help us survive President Trump’s administration, I’m begging all of us, as well as the entire entertainment industry, not to take us down one particular road. Whatever else happens, please don’t revive “The West Wing.”
To be clear, no such revival or reboot is in the works at present. It’s just that NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt apparently keeps asking Aaron Sorkin whether it can happen. Sorkin has, thus far, been wise enough to decline. But the allure of a return to “The West Wing” in particular, and the series’ style of liberalism in general, is something we would be wise to resist.
On an artistic level, revivals are a generally depressing part of the television landscape. They’re often a symptom of the twin ailments of creative bankruptcy and lack of confidence. The network ordering said revival is suggesting that it lacks the vision to develop strong new concepts, and even if it does incubate good new shows, to sell those shows to the public. Sometimes, a revival even retroactively insults an original work by implying that the first iteration was unfinished or didn’t quite close the loop on a character’s story. Ordering a revival can imply that the fans of that original franchise will simply respond, puppy-dog-like, to the basic framework of the show without attention to whether that framework is still relevant or whether the original cast retains its chemistry. And if nothing else, revivals are a blunt reminder that the television business is at least as much about commerce as it is about art. Artistic achievement is wonderful, but it’s not the end goal for all executives.
NBC’s addiction to revivals pushes all of these buttons for me. The prospect of zombie versions of “30 Rock” or “The Office” lurching around the programming calendar makes me feel more depressed than nostalgic. But the thought of a revival of “The West Wing” is truly more than I can bear, and I was never a “West Wing” obsessive to begin with.
For all that I hate the idea of a “30 Rock” revival or reboot, I have to admit that the evolution of feminist debates, racial politics, Republican politics and the television business in the years since that show went off the air would give Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) plenty to deal with. It’s even true that the rise of the gig economy and the creep of heroin into towns like Scranton, Pa., might give “The Office” an extra zing of tension.
By contrast, the brand of technocratic, sometimes smug liberalism that defined “The West Wing” has taken such a hit that returning to it would seem more delusional than escapist. After all, even before Trump was elected president, Republicans in Congress had spent eight years under President Barack Obama demonstrating that procedural obstructionism and mock outrage could effectively counter coolness, rationality and efforts to find common ground. The contours of politics that have defined the 1990s haven’t vanished so much as morphed into new and strange terms: The religious right has stayed in power less through purity than through self-abasement; the National Rifle Association has embraced a darker and more paranoid vision; the aftermath of 9/11 has intensified a narrative about the clash of civilizations; and the United States has seen its position on the world stage recede. The dysfunction of the Trump administration has made “Scandal” rather than “The West Wing” the show that most directly channels what it’s like to be a staffer in the soap opera of Washington. And the rancid relationship between the president and the mainstream press is another toxic element in the stew: Today, having a cozy relationship with the White House would make Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) look collaborationist rather than sympathetic.
Finally, as Act Four contributor Sonny Bunch wrote all the way back in August 2015, it turns out that the fantasy of a straight-talking politician who gives Americans the sort of frank sentiments they’ve been longing to hear may not work exclusively to liberals’ advantage. Sorkin stories such as “The West Wing” and “The American President” were based on the assumption that Americans wanted their leaders to be frank about the facts. Trump turned this model around by suggesting that the truth that had been suppressed was different from the wonky details and stirring appeals to our better angels that Sorkin’s characters tend to offer. He co-opted Sorkin’s style and applied it to different and darker ends. Even if liberals don’t accept that we need to find a Trump of our own to compete on the new terrain of American politics, I think we have to grapple with the idea that the Trumpian take on Sorkinism worked.
A version of “The West Wing” that helped us navigate the present moment would have to confront that. And it would have to make room for the possibility that its characters could be totally defeated, thoroughly compromised or driven out of public service altogether. In other words, it wouldn’t be “The West Wing” at all.