Over the years, a lot of people have called The West Wing -- the NBC drama that concluded its fourth season this week -- a liberal fantasy. To be sure, the show's politics are explicitly liberal, but those politics have always been secondary to the program's central message: that intelligence and moral purpose are the two most important attributes we ought to expect from our political leaders. In the last season, and particularly in his final episode Wednesday night, series creator Aaron Sorkin managed to turn his show into a meta-statement, not just on what's wrong with American politics but also on what's wrong with American entertainment.
How ironic, one of my friends recently pointed out, that the creator of a show devoted to lamenting the lack of intelligence and seriousness in American leadership is now out of a job because his show was . . . too intelligent and too serious. In the last scene of Wednesday night's episode -- the final scene Sorkin wrote for the show -- the intellectual President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) invoked the 25th Amendment and handed power to the buffoonish and unserious House speaker (John Goodman). This has to go down as one of the least subtle -- and most daring -- middle fingers ever thrust at a television network on its own air time. The idiots will take it from here, Sorkin seemed to be telling his viewers.
On some level it was a self-indulgent and unfair ending to what has been a brilliant four-year run for Sorkin: self-indulgent because, on the surface, it seemed to be more about his own squabbles with NBC than about the show itself, and unfair (at least to viewers) because Sorkin left so many important plotlines to be resolved next fall by a successor who cannot possibly be up to the task. But on another level it was a brilliant ending, because it resonated with the suspicion held by many Americans that the idiots are very much in charge -- not just at NBC but in Washington as well.
That may sound partisan, but I don't mean it in an ideological way, and I suspect Sorkin didn't, either. After all, what has set Josiah Bartlet apart from his fictional Republican rivals -- and from his real-life counterpart in the White House -- has been less his politics than the intellectually and morally serious way he approached his job. The means that Sorkin used to distinguish Bartlet from his adversaries were -- contra the widespread perception of the show as a liberal fantasy -- almost never ideological. In the penultimate scene of last season's finale, Bartlet clashed with his opponent in the coming general election, not over politics but over the question of whether intelligence in public life is a virtue or a vice. Earlier this season, when Bartlet's advisers began preparing him to debate his challenger, their strategy came down to a decision over whether to show off the president's considerable intellect or to muffle it in an effort to have him appear more in touch with average Americans. They opted to put the real president -- brains and all -- on display; he trounced his opponent in the debate and in the subsequent election.
Once again, this past Wednesday night, the differences between Sheen's president and Goodman's House speaker had little to do with the policies they favored to respond to the episode's terrorist kidnapping. Both characters were prepared to use force; the difference was in how they prepared to use force. Sheen's character ordered American troops to ready for an attack on Qumar (the show's fictional stand-in for Saudi Arabia), but he did so after weighing the options with what appeared to be an appropriate sense of the ethical weight of his decision. Goodman's character, by contrast, burst into the Oval Office and announced that he'd shoot his mother out of the sky if need be -- he was all macho flippancy and no serious consideration. Sheen's character is certainly not a pansy: We've seen him use force before, and we know he'd do it again. But we also know that when he does order military action, he does it the right way. You wouldn't catch President Bartlet saying, "Feels good," as George W. Bush is reported to have said after ordering the U.S. attack on Iraq to begin in March. Bartlet would more likely be praying for the lives of those he has just ordered into combat, and hoping against hope that the decision to go to war -- which is, after all, a human decision and therefore fallible -- proves to be the correct one.
In that sense, I've always thought that the media overplayed The West Wing's ideological component. Of course there were policy differences between the Bartlet White House and the Bush White House, but the real fantasy for most viewers wasn't in imagining that the president was liberal -- it was in imagining that the president had more ethical scruples than Bill Clinton, more intelligence than Bush and more seriousness of purpose than both put together.
You could say that the show -- in its worship of intelligence and superhuman selflessness -- was elitist, but I think that would miss the point. The implication was not that Sorkin wanted a president who was a know-it-all (although Bartlet does sometimes come off that way, as Prospect contributing editor Garrett Epps pointed out last year). It was rather that presidents ought not to merely ask the best of Americans but also to ask the best of themselves. And in that context, an open disdain for intelligence or intellectual sophistication doesn't seem like something we should want in a leader -- no matter his stance on the actual issues.
In the end, however, The West Wing hasn't been a good series because of what it had to say about politics; it's been good because it was smart TV. The use of camera work, of metaphor and of symbolism often elevated the show to an artistic level that's usually the domain of independent films and the occasional Hollywood movie, but almost never seen on network television. Some of Sorkin's best themes had nothing to do with politics: The importance of fathers and fatherhood was a running obsession of the show and, with the notable exception of a subpar episode this past winter about Alzheimer's, was usually employed to solid dramatic effect. When the show was firing on all cylinders -- which was not always, but often enough -- it had the sophistication of literature. And that was Sorkin's meta-statement: His was a smart show whose central message was about the virtue of intellectual passion. In its rise, it demonstrated that there is an appetite for intelligent, popular art among a wide swath of Americans -- and in its ratings decline, which led to Sorkin's well-publicized feuds with NBC, it has illustrated how fickle that appetite can be.
The show's genius was so particular, its narrative voice so distinctive, that it's hard to believe it will even be worth watching next fall with Sorkin out of the picture. True, his final show did not provide the dramatic resolution viewers were hoping for -- the kinds of dramatic resolutions that Sorkin had dreamed up in his thundering climaxes to the last two seasons -- but I suspect that was part of the point. The ending was so blatantly dissatisfying, so guilty of weirdly comical stunt casting (if the people I was watching with were any indication, viewers all across America started laughing when, at a moment of great dramatic tension, the camera revealed the House speaker to be none other than the boorish-looking Goodman), that I wonder if Sorkin didn't intend it that way. The idiots have control of American entertainment, he seemed to be saying; now, let them have my show.
Still, if it was a cynical statement, it was a rare one for The West Wing. And it can be forgiven because of what Sorkin gave us the past four years: a smart show that celebrated not intelligence for its own sake but intelligence moderated and spurred on by the highest of ideals. In its final hour, the show was not just smart about its values; it was also smart about its own inherent fragility as a smart show. Aaron Sorkin may have let buffoonery triumph in his final episode. But his remarkable success during the last four years has proven, against long odds, that it need not always win.
Richard Just is the editor of The American Prospect Online.
CORRECTION: John Goodman's character said he would shoot his "mother" out of the sky, not his "mama" as was originally written.