‘The West Wing Changed My Life’
The Story of the Fan Who Moved to America Because of A TV Show
When someone asks why Claire moved to D.C., she answers by asking, “do you want the real version of the version that makes me sound sane?”
The real version is that Claire Handscombe, originally from London, works and lives in Washington D.C. now entirely because of the political drama television series The West Wing.
In 2008, she watched an episode of the show and, well, let’s just say she liked it. Fuelled by her obsession with the show, in 2010 she visited D.C. for the first time. In 2012 she moved to D.C. for her graduate studies. She created the Twitter @WWChangedMe, set up to gather stories of fans whose lives have been affected by the show. She’s about to self-publish a collection of essays from these fans. She’s also written three other books over the years, inspired in some way or another by her love of the show.
It all started, as life-changing moments have a tendency to do, by accident. While living in London after graduating from Cambridge University, Claire borrowed a friend’s computer to watch Friends. She instead found the disc for The West Wing Season 2. She decided to watch it anyway. “I was like, ‘wow, this is actually pretty intelligent!’ and the guys are good looking and it kind of gives me chills,” she says of her initial reaction. Soon after, she moved to Belgium to begin a career and she found her herself spending more and more of her free time watching the political drama.
She’s now seen the series’s 7 seasons and 156 episodes at least 3 or 4 times over in their entirety — and always in order, no skipping around. Nowadays, she still watches the show, albeit with a less voracious appetite than the first time around. The Christmas and Thanksgiving episodes are some of the standouts.
But from that very first episode — which happens to have been the first episode of Season 2 — she realized the situations and actors on her screen inspired her on a personal and a professional level. At the time, Claire was in Belgium to teach languages and had always been a prolific reader, but writing, which had been something she loved as a child, had taken a backseat. Aaron Sorkin’s witty, fast-paced, dialogue-rich scripts, however, had her creative mind racing.
Claire had always been interested in politics, but as a European, she had never bothered to really understand how American government worked. Suddenly, the language of congress and The White House mattered. A real passion for politics began to brew.
“It’s funny, because re-watching The West Wing now, I understand probably 95% of what’s happening, but I think I would have had no idea what any of it meant when I originally watched it,” she remembers. She began watching The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC — which is a difficult endeavor when you live in Belgium where MSNBC does not exist — and listening to various political podcasts. In 2012, when the primary season for the election that kept President Obama in Tthe White House was heating up, Claire was glued to her screen for both The West Wing and political coverage. A classic case of right show at the right time.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the show sparked Claire’s curiosity for America, and she decided to visit Washington D.C. at the invite of a friend. Driving around at night, with the monuments lit up — just like they are in many scenes of The West Wing — Claire felt a strong connection to the capital city. “Somehow it felt like D.C. was part of me and I was part of it, even though I didn’t live here,” she says.
In 2014, Claire moved to D.C. to begin her MFA in Creative Writing at American University. She graduated last May. She has interned in Congress and is currently writing for Washington Life, a local lifestyle magazine, and has a long list of freelance writing projects. She also interns at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Claire’s work, like her life, is directly influenced by her love of the show. She began writing her first novel while she lived in Belgium; it is about a woman who teaches an American diplomat French before moving to D.C. One of the characters in it was inspired by a student of hers in Belgium, who, “if you squinted,” looked like Josh Lyman, her favorite character from The West Wing. She has also written a fictional account of a primary campaign. “The main character in that is called Aaron, but I don’t think that was intentional,” she says, laughing. Another novel of hers is about a girl who is obsessed with a television show, writes a book, and meets the actors from her favorite show.
And she can thank The West Wing for all of it.
The West Wing is a political drama that ran from 1999 to 2006. It followed the lives of The White House staffers and political junkies during the administration of the fictional President Bartlett. The show consistently received positive reviews and won an impressive 26 Emmy awards and three Golden Globe awards. Although the show was shot in Los Angeles, it was remarkable for its portrayal of the political culture of D.C. And, if the 2016 presidential elections are any proof, audiences the world over are always intrigued by American politics.
But no matter the number of Emmys it might have received, not every show can inspire someone to shake up their lives so profoundly the way The West Wing has inspired Claire. Elizabeth Dawson, Claire’s current roommate in D.C., understands it might sound odd to say a person moved halfway around the world just because of a TV show.
But she stresses that Claire comes home from her two internships… and works. She’s either editing one of her current novels, chasing up a literary agent, working on poetry, or writing for her many freelance gigs to meet her “self-imposed deadlines,” as Elizabeth describes it. Elizabeth has also followed Claire through the process of self-publishing a book. Claire had always been self-employed before moving to D.C.
“A lot of that dedication was inspired by The West Wing,” Elizabeth says. “She’s always had it in her to be a hard worker but the show gave her the push to do that over here. She knows that she wants to make it, and in D.C. specifically.”
The West Wing was routinely criticized for being too idealistic — a liberal, democratic fantasy where things actually worked in D.C. But for many fans, the show illustrated a world where people wanted to affect positive change through their positions of power. Claire herself identifies as an idealist, adding that “there is something gratifying about watching a show that makes you feel noble because its about making the world a better place.” Elizabeth goes one step further and says, “Claire’s a dreamer. A lot of the show’s idealist qualities? Claire has those too.”
“Idealism, people! It’s so important!” Claire yells, laughing, emphasizing her point by throwing her arms up over her head and opening up her blue eyes wide. “I think people now are more House of Cards than The West Wing, but… the show shows you what politics can do at its best,” she explains.
For Aisha Yaqoob, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Public Administration (“it’s essentially for people that want to work for the government and be part of the solution”) at The University of Georgia and major The West Wing fan, the idealism is a valid aspect, especially today. “A lot of people would benefit from that level of idealism especially if they are seeing candidates that are constantly disappointing them or if they are hearing all of these campaign promises that they know are never going to happen,” she says.
A couple of years ago, Aisha was not interested in politics at all. She thought it was slimy. Then she watched The West Wing — all 7 seasons in 3 months, in fact. This year, she launched a non-profit that aims to inspire the Muslim community in Georgia to become more involved in the political process, especially local and state government. She is looking to get into local government before potentially making the leap to the capital. And she specifically credits The West Wing for her direction in life.
Aisha’s story is not unlike the stories of several others whom Claire has worked with on her latest project, Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives, a collection of essays and interviews Claire has curated and self-published.
There’s the teacher who shows an episode about a homeless veteran who is given a funeral thanks to a character on the show every year to his class to shine a spotlight on veteran’s issues. There’s the story of the church leader inspired by the character Josh, who leaves his job as Chief of Staff to campaign for a candidate who he truly believes in. And there are the Brits whose opinions of America were changed for the better thanks to the show. “That’s what happened to me, so it made me smile,” Claire says.
Aisha and those fan stories are testaments to the idea that The West Wing was a particularly inspiring TV show. Clearly, it’s not just Claire. But Claire is still unique. Her dedication to her passions — whether it’s writing, politics, or Aaron Sorkin — has put her in a position where she knows what she wants to do and where she wants to do it. Even if it was all because of a TV show, not everyone nowadays can say that.