Four years ago, many were keen to draw parallels between the candidacy of Barack Obama and the television program The West Wing. This made perfect sense to me at the time: Obama was an articulate, charismatic, intelligent academic from a northern state, sharing many qualities with President Bartlet. An apt comparison, I thought.
The thing is, they weren’t talking about Martin Sheen’s Josiah Bartlet, the fictitious US President in Aaron Sorkin’s seminal TV series. No, they were talking about Matt Santos, the Presidential candidate introduced in The West Wing’s sixth season as a touted replacement for Bartlet as he neared the end of his second term.
Huh? Matt Santos? The former Marine? How did that— oh, I get it. He’s a fresh-faced politician with a young family and, most importantly, he’s not white. This was apparently the level of depth we were prepared to apply to the comparison.
Those who know me (or have come within a five kilometre radius of me) know of my disdain for the latter half of The West Wing’s run. The first four seasons, as written by Sorkin, make for one of the greatest television programs of all time. It is a triumph on every measurable level, and its addictive and rewatchable quality has left me able to recite those first eighty-eight episodes almost by heart.
The last three seasons, made without Sorkin, are, to be kind, bland. Gone is the complexity of story, of argument, of emotion, replaced by a pale facsimile. It is fan fiction with a budget, and like all fan fiction, it concentrates heavily on replicating one or two key aspects whilst completely missing all the others.
One of my many problems with seasons five-to-seven – and fear not, this rant is important to the central premise of this piece – is the way in which Matt Santos is introduced to our world. White House Deputy Chief of Staff and viewer favourite Josh Lyman takes it upon himself to act as kingmaker to Santos, abandoning the Bartlet Administration to help elect this inspirational young leader.
And Santos is too good to be true. Whereas Sorkin gave Bartlet some real demons – he lied about a degenerative illness to secure the Presidency, for instance – the biggest controversy surrounding Santos is a news story about him being good in bed. (I’m not even making that up. Go watch the season seven episode The Mommy Problem, then go read about the literary archetype of Mary Sue.)
Meanwhile, Josh Lyman abandons all previous character development in the abandonment his President. As established heavily in Sorkin’s run of the show, a traumatic childhood experience resulted in Lyman’s perpetual anxiety over abandoning people, letting them down, leaving them in their time of need. So why does he run off to chase a younger, fitter model of the President he already has?
The whole Santos/Lyman storyline does, in fact, make sense in the context of the real world. These episodes were made and broadcast in 2005, at the height of George W. Bush’s second term. If you were too young or apolitical to remember it, I fear it’s impossible to properly articulate the sense of hopelessness and frustration and fear caused by that administration, and particularly its President. It was that exact culture that gave rise to Barack Obama, and it’s that culture that clearly informed the creation of Matt Santos. People were crying out for a fresh, inspirational leader, and they first got him in the form of actor Jimmy Smits.
The problem is that the storyline did not make sense in the world of The West Wing. Bartlett may have been getting older and sicker, but he was hardly an establishment-steeped hawk against whom the younger generation need rebel. He was already well-accepted to be the inspirational leader that the country needed. Santos wasn’t so much the Barack Obama rebelling against a conservative plutocracy: he was Jimmy Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, with no real concept of what it is he’s rebelling against. The show’s latter seasons flail desperately as it silently but earnestly asks: ‘Whaddya got?’.
Candidate Obama running for his first term was Jed Bartlet in everything but cosmetics (and back story, though in fewer ways than you may think). He embraced the complexity of controversial issues, spoke in a logical and straightforward manner without ever having to dumb himself down, and appeared to embody a collection of ideals and values that had been missing from the interminably-cynical real-world political realm for an age. Whether or not you believe that his Presidency itself bore these promises out, the fact is it was this sort of practical idealism that, in 2008, reflected the wish-fulfilment leadership of Bartlet.
Now, as America lurches once more into the height of election season, Obama is naturally finding it more difficult to rally support around his re-election bid than his maiden run. No longer is he sweeping in to save a country and world from a disastrous Other President. No longer is his voice of intelligence and reason in sharp contrast to the highest office. No longer can he run on a platform of anti-establishmentism when he himself is the establishment.
Finally, at long last, Obama has become Matt Santos.