I watched Aaron Sorkin’s television work in reverse order: The Newsroom began when I was 14, then I dug out Studio 60, then dove into The West Wing when I was 17. If The Newsroom sparked my interest in the media side of politics, it was Sorkin’s true masterpiece — be it a show he only wrote four of the seven seasons of — that sparked my passion for policy, progressive action and desire to be the loudest, smartest voice in the room. The West Wing is falsely judged by those who haven’t watched it as a stuffy, interior, impregnated-with-pretension political drama filled with white men in suits arguing over tax and trade. This is what my dad thinks The West Wing is. I showed him the scene in season five episode “Eppur Si Muove” when Big Bird from Sesame Street sits down inconspicuously in the chair beside CJ. He pointedly refused to believe this was what The West Wing looks like: dry, sharply funny, infused with hope and romance, both a throwback to the His Girl Friday style of screenwriting and a trailblazer in establishing the narrative tropes of 21st century American television.
It’s a great show not just because of its left-leaning politics (though that helps), but because of how it persuades the viewer to care: it encourages intellect, wit and well-researched argument. In a time when even the politics of the left has — for young people especially — been reduced to soundbyte tweets and 10-second video clips — it has never been more vital to highlight the value of a well-researched, well-made four-minute rant about an issue you care about deeply. With The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin turned that into poetry. Emmy-winning poetry. And he presents it through the filter of an exceptional cast of actors, each embodying a core element of what he deems the American spirit.
I could write all day about why I love every character on this show so deeply: Josh and Donna with their mansplain-flirtation dynamic that wouldn’t pass the woke test in 2019, CJ with her heroic flamingo spirit, Leo’s elder statesman Fred Astaire charm. But for the sake of time constraints I’m just going to describe what Richard Schiff, the absolute sweetheart who plays Toby, talked about on The West Wing Weekly (Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway’s brilliant podcast) a few weeks ago. Schiff struggled with how Toby was written following Sorkin’s departure, his grumpiness insufficiently diluted with idealism, and came to heads with the new writers and producers regularly.
Heading into season seven they finally got fed up and turned the storyline of Toby betraying the president by leaking classified information into a swift exit strategy for Schiff. In one scene that Schiff described as particularly cruel, President Barlet tells Toby he’s “not even surprised… that your righteous sense of superiority would be your downfall”. It’s not true to Toby, it’s not true to how the President sees Toby and it broke Schiff’s heart.
That’s a character I’ve related to a great deal during the later years of my youth, somewhat morose and intensely cynical but maintaining (and I’m stretching my self-aggrandising here) a deep sense of morality and desire to fight for what I believe in. This isn’t always the best way to make and maintain friends. I can so vividly relate to how Schiff felt when Toby was neglected in this way. I was on the verge of tears recounting this story to a CJ-esque friend a few weeks ago.
Television moves people, The West Wing inspires me to be principled even when I may seem like a ‘difficult’ person in the process. So blame Aaron Sorkin, everybody.