I've often wondered who gets the most pissed at watching fictional depictions of their profession. For example, in almost every medical drama that has ever been filmed, at some point a patient's heart rate monitor (ECG) will flatline (a.k.a. a heart going into Asystole) & the Doctors will reach for paddles to shock said flatline, since according to long-standing Hollywood medical procedure a heart is like a car battery that can be jump-started. Beep... Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep… Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee... CLEAR!… KA-CHUNK!!!!!!!… Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep. Of course, this is totally wrong, since shocking someone with a defibrillator can only help stop a dysfunctional rhythm. It can't start a normal sinus rhythm where there isn't one.
However, those same medical dramas, that can get so much wrong, have also inspired countless people to pursue careers in medicine as well. And similar things can be said for the lawyer shows that screw up legal procedure, and the various science-fiction franchises that sometimes play fast & loose with the science part.
So what can be said about the depiction of politics in media? Recently, there was a post at ThinkProgress which argued President Bartlet of "The West Wing" was a mediocre (fictional) President. But over at Vanity Fair, contributor Juli Weiner has authored a piece in which she argues Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" has been influential in shaping the current generation of public servants. Is she right?
Both "The West Wing," and its spiritual predecessor 'The American President,' proceed from an idealistic, Capraesque vision of American politics that believes in the positive aspects of government and more importantly the positive aspects of people in government.
From Vanity Fair:
President Obama is often credited with inspiring political idealism in young people (at least until the campaign ended and actual governing began). But before Obama there was Aaron Sorkin and President Josiah Bartlet. It’s been nearly 6 years since the series finale of "The West Wing," and more than 12 since the one-hour drama, which Sorkin created and largely wrote, first walked and talked its way through NBC’s Wednesday-night lineup; and yet you might think the series never ended, given the currency it still seems to enjoy in Washington, the frequency with which it comes up in D.C. conversations and is quoted or referenced on political blogs. In part this is because the smart, nerdy—they might prefer “precocious”—kids who grew up in the early part of the last decade worshipping the cool, technocratic charm of Sorkin’s characters have today matured into the young policy prodigies and press operatives who advise, brief, and excuse the behavior of the most powerful people in the country.In Sorkin's political universe, most of those in government are good public servants who are trying to do their best to make a difference. Those with principles are victorious over those who spread half-truths & distortions. And all that is necessary for the best political policy to carry the day, no matter how controversial it might be, is the guts to say what you mean & mean what you say.
In the same way that the noble, sleeves-rolled sleuthing of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in 'All the President’s Men' prompted legions of baby-boomers to dream of careers in journalism, The West Wing, which made policy discussions seem thrilling and governing heroic, has become a totem—its romanticization of a stuffy, insular industry infusing a historically uncool career with cultural cachet. Rather than treat the political process as risible at best ('Dick,' say, or 'Primary Colors'), a horror show at worst ('The Ides of March'), The West Wing was pluckily idealistic. A hyper-real drama about waiting for a callback from some freshman congressman (D—Nowheresville) would have sent aspiring White House interns and aides running back to law school. Instead, "The West Wing" “took something that was for the most part considered dry and nerdy—especially to people in high school and college—and sexed it up,” says Eric Lesser, who worked in the Obama White House as a special assistant to former senior adviser David Axelrod and is now a student at Harvard Law School.
"The West Wing" also had a way of being preachy in entertaining ways, which is not always easy. It also cut through some of the shit of conservative cultural arguments. For example, conservatives who want to call others sluts & whores, but are public embarrassments themselves.
Aaron Sorkin: "Our leaders, government people are [usually] portrayed either as dolts or as Machiavellian somehow. The characters in this show are neither. They are flawed, to be sure, because you need characters in drama to have flaws. But they, all of them, have set aside probably more lucrative lives for public service. They are dedicated not just to this president, but to doing good, rather than doing well. The show is kind of a valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions. It celebrates education often. These characters are very well educated, and while sometimes playfully snobby about it, there is, in all of them, a love of learning and appreciation of education."However, the 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' version of politics does not always track with real-world politics. "Good" & right do not always win in the end, lies & distortions can work all too well, and "how" something is said or done can be judged to be just as important, if not more important, than what is actually said.
David Simon's critically acclaimed "The Wire" takes a much darker view of institutions and the people involved in politics. Over the course of the show, every institution, whether it be local or state government, labor unions, the public school district, the police department, or even the Baltimore Sun, is in some way corrupt or incompetent, and fails in their stated goals. And the "good" people who come into those institutions, with ideas & hope of changing things for the better, are ultimately crushed by the weight of the system.
David Simon: "I am wholly pessimistic about American society. I believe that "The Wire" is a show about the end of the American empire. I believe that we all—or our kids—are going to live that event. And how we end up at the end of it and where we end up and whether or not we can survive it on what terms is going to be the only question from now on... The great conceit of The Wire…[is that] every single moment on this planet from here on out human beings are worth less… human beings have lost some of their value."Armando Iannucci's sitcom "The Thick of It," and its feature film spinoff 'In the Loop,' take a very dark, cynical view of British politics. Largely a scathing parody of New Labour's image conscious government between 1997 and 2010, "The Thick of It" has been described as the Anti-West Wing, and largely fits that description.
Almost every character is either inept or corrupt. Most of the action is centered around the Prime Minister's Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker (with Peter Capaldi's character based in part on Tony Blair's Director of Communications/hatchet man Alastair Campbell). The show portrays the spin doctors and the media, not the politicians, as the most powerful forces in British politics.
To that end, both "The Thick of It" and 'In the Loop' seem to say that public policy is not born out of good ideas, but as the product that results from spinning the bad ideas that didn't play well.
"I'm a man of principle: I like to know whether I'm lying to save the skin of a tosser or a moron."
— Malcolm Tucker