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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
"The West Wing" chronicles the inner workings of a fictional presidential administration. The president is Democrat Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, and his staff includes heavy hitters played by folks like Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, John Spencer and Richard Schiff. For the first four seasons, most episodes of "The West Wing" were written by Aaron Sorkin, who created the show and gave it many of its signature flourishes - the snappy banter, the walking and talking and, of course, the big speech that solves everything.
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MARTIN SHEEN: (As President Jed Bartlet) We hold these truths to be self-evident, they said, that all men are created equal. Strange as it may seem, that was the first time in history that anyone had ever bothered to write that down. Decisions are made by those who show up. Class dismissed. Thank you, everyone. God bless you, and God bless America.
THOMPSON: I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are looking back at "The West Wing" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining me today from her home in Philadelphia is Christina Tucker of the "Unfriendly Black Hotties" podcast. Welcome back, Christina.
CHRISTINA TUCKER, BYLINE: Stephen, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be here. This is a really exciting moment for me.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Well, I'm very, very glad to have you here. So it is not easy to summarize seven seasons of a major network prestige TV drama.
THOMPSON: But if you haven't seen "The West Wing," you have an assortment of high-minded public servants. There's not only President Jed Bartlet, but also loyal Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is a smart-alecky hot shot played by Bradley Whitford. Hangdog communications director Toby Ziegler is played by Richard Schiff. Press Secretary C.J. Cregg is played by Allison Janney. Charlie Young is an aide to the president played by Dule Hill. Many of these people get promoted or change jobs over the course of the show, and new characters are introduced later on. The series ran for seven seasons from 1999 to 2006 and, in that time, won 26 Emmy Awards.
I did it. I summed up "The West Wing." Christina, you have watched the entire run of this show several times. Am I right?
TUCKER: I'm going to say a redacted number of times. I don't know if it's important that we get into the details of how many times I've watched "The West Wing" here, Stephen.
THOMPSON: So you are perfect for this discussion. Give me your baseline thoughts on "The West Wing," and we'll go from there.
TUCKER: It needs to be said that I do love "The West Wing." But at the same time, it feels like me going to somebody and saying, like, here's my hideous and horribly embarrassing heart; like, please don't crush it in your hands.
TUCKER: Because I understand every criticism. I probably agree with most of them, of the Sorkin-esque need to, say, do expository dialogue via, you know, telling a woman what's what as a man walks through a corridor; his inability to understand anything that doesn't come from, like, a centrist structural framework. Like, the politics of "The West Wing" and I do not agree in any way, shape or form, really.
But somehow it is still the show that I always, like, can just put on an episode of and be like, ah, yes - it's like slipping into a bathtub of comforting, if not sometimes kind of high-minded and obnoxious dialogue.
TUCKER: But I think of myself as like, I can also kind of be high-minded and obnoxious. So, like, maybe that's why I love it so much.
TUCKER: But I have watched it a troubling amount of times. And I do think it is, for my money, the best TV pilot ever - that, I will wager on.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I think I have a somewhat similar reaction to this show. I have not watched this show multiple times. I did not watch this show when it originally aired from 1999 to 2006. I have watched all 156 episodes of this show within the last - probably during pandemic times. And it was really my introduction to it. I had never seen a minute of it. And for me, some of the central flaws that people talk about when they talk about "The West Wing" really bothered me a lot and maybe bothered me more, visiting it for the first time in 2020...
THOMPSON: ...Than they would if I were revisiting it for the fifth or sixth time in 2020.
THOMPSON: So the Aaron Sorkin troubles that you laid out, I think are very, very significant. I think that those first four seasons you have this unbelievably snappy dialogue. Aaron Sorkin is a master of...
TUCKER: He's a master of the dialogue.
THOMPSON: ...Extremely snappy dialogue, usually delivered while two or more characters are walking, as you said, through a corridor. His problem with women is really sneaky and constant and frustrating as anything.
THOMPSON: The way the very few central women characters on this show are written in those first four seasons - and I'm talking specifically about C.J. and especially Donna...
THOMPSON: ...Are very, very troubling and frustrating and constantly took me out of my otherwise kind of enjoyment of this show. I mean, you mentioned the kind of centrist lens of this show. I think that can really create a Rorschach test over whether you view the show as idealistic or disappointing in a way.
TUCKER: Yes, absolutely.
THOMPSON: I think that really depends on the viewer. And also, Sorkin loves a big, windy speech. He is a big believer that a problem is solved when a 55-year-old white man has given a speech - see also "The Newsroom." That kept taking me out of my enjoyment of those first four seasons. That said, I watched 156 episodes of a TV show that I did not have to see for work because it's so good...
TUCKER: Yeah. It is good.
THOMPSON: ...Because it has all these kind of heavy hitters. Who can't watch Allison Janney for 156 hours?
TUCKER: I would love to. Someone challenge me to do so, please.
THOMPSON: I mean, we call this work.
TUCKER: We do. Yeah, it's hard to think about - you know, I was famously in high school when the show premiered and finished - or when the show finished, I was in high school.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) You were in high school for seven years, but we're not going to talk about that.
TUCKER: I was just in high school from about '99 until about 2006. It was a great time for me. But I watched it occasionally, and I really got into it in, like, the height of the second Obama-era term. And, like, having that framework in our actual politics to watch the show I think made it - and also just being a person who was younger and had less of my own political thoughts made it a little easier to take in. Like, when people ask me now if they should watch "The West Wing," I'm like, oh, I think maybe the time has passed. Like, I don't know that I would recommend a person who has never seen it, right here in 2020, diving in and expecting it to hit for the - like the way that it did for so many people before now. I just don't know that it can do that.
You know, when I think about what works for me in "The West Wing," I always come back to - there's a moment in the - I think it's the third episode, "A Proportional Response," where they're talking about, like, none of the choices we have here are good. And Leo basically says, like, there is no good choice here; this is what we have, and this is what we have to do. And I think that is the framework that the show is really trying to work through is - like, what do these choices look like? Like, what are the morals that we have to work with and around when we're making choices that are not necessarily helpful? They're not good. They're not bad. They're just like, this is what we do because this is how the system is set up for us to work in it.
TUCKER: And, like, how can we be good people in that system?
THOMPSON: Yeah, and I think it's interesting. I saw an interview with Aaron Sorkin where he referred to the show as very idealistic. And I remember thinking, like, idealistic? What are you talking about?
THOMPSON: Like, so many of the plotlines on this show revolve around, like, as you said, making choices between two unattractive options and then picking the absolute least satisfying imaginable outcome. And I find, like, how is that idealistic? And then I realized - and he did expound on this, which helped me realize it - he's talking about the simple idea that these people view themselves as public servants, are basically good at their jobs and are doing their best. It is a vision of American government that is rooted in a basic, fundamental ideal of operating in good faith.
THOMPSON: And I can see how that can scan to a lot of people as idealistic, especially if you do, like me, watch it for the first time in 2020.
THOMPSON: And I think that is something about the show that does make it feel a little more soothing in a way. I did want to say, like, maybe my hottest take about "The West Wing" is...
TUCKER: Ooh, bring it on.
THOMPSON: ...That maybe because of how frustrating I find some of Aaron Sorkin's flaws, Seasons 5 and 6 - which are the first seasons after Aaron Sorkin - are a very mixed bag, but once it gets into the groove of this very unlikely election between high-minded centrist Democrat Matt Santos and high-minded centrist Republican Arnold Vinick, played by Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, respectively, I think the show really takes off. And I think I like Season 7 better than I like the Sorkin years. And I'm not sure that is an opinion that is held by very many people.
TUCKER: That take is scorchingly hot.
TUCKER: I will say, what I always think about when I think about the Sorkin years v. the later years is the speed in which every woman in "The West Wing" gets promoted to a new job in the fifth, sixth and seventh seasons...
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Exactly.
TUCKER: ...Is, like, staggeringly fast. Suddenly - obviously, C.J. should be chief of staff. Donna obviously should leave Josh. She's been an assistant forever. She needs to do something else.
TUCKER: And it's like, we bring in Kate Harper. There's all of these new people who are women with jobs that are not just listening to men talk to them.
THOMPSON: Oh, my God.
TUCKER: And they are actually doing things and making choices in a way that was not happening in the first four seasons.
TUCKER: I do think, you know, for me, the first, I'd say, two seasons are probably, like, my go-to, like, favorite seasons. I think they have some of the better episodes. I think some of the best dialogue, like, character moments are really in those. But, yeah, watching the later seasons, I'm like, sure, this is missing some of that, like, kind of Sorkin zing.
THOMPSON: The snappiness, yeah.
TUCKER: But at the same time, it's really nice to have, like, the ability to watch C.J., like, do a new job and do it well and, like, change her relationship with the president so it's less he's like, ah, kid, my little daughter over here, who's also my press secretary. Like, changing that dynamic, I think, really works for the show, despite some of the later-episode mishmash...
TUCKER: ...That I think it can kind of be at the end.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think that's right. I think especially Seasons 5 and 6 feel mishmashy (ph)...
THOMPSON: ...In ways that, by the end, they're able to kind of bring it together. And I'm sure, like, the ratings were much, much lower in the later seasons. Like, this show ended up getting canceled.
THOMPSON: But I think, again, as a bingeing experience especially, those later seasons are more satisfying than I think they are sometimes remembered as being.
TUCKER: Yeah, I agree. I totally agree.
THOMPSON: So we asked POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR listeners for questions about "The West Wing," and y'all delivered. We are going to get to some of those questions after this short break.
Welcome back. Let's get to our first question about "The West Wing." This comes from Leah (ph).
LEAH: Hi, POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. I am about halfway through "The West Wing," watching it for the first time. And I always heard people call it a political fantasy, sort of as a barb or a criticism, I guess. And I didn't quite know what they meant. I thought maybe they meant because Republicans and Democrats get along so well in so many of the episodes. So I guess I'm just wondering what you guys think of the criticism of "The West Wing" as a political fantasy and also maybe what you think some of the more unbelievable "West Wing" moments are. Thanks.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) Well, when it comes to unbelievable moments, Christina, I think you and I agree that solving the Middle East crisis in, like, two episodes...
TUCKER: Just one, you know, long meeting at Camp David has really solved a problem that has plagued all of our history for so long.
TUCKER: And all we needed was Jed Bartlet to come down to Camp David with his folksy know-how and his Nobel Prize in economics. And he really nailed it, and I think that's incredible for him.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I think that is the perfect example. And I think that arc brings to mind another issue I have with this show, which is this show - more than most shows of its kind, I think - has a real tendency to drop threads once it's tired of them and to kind of resolve a crisis with a big speech and then to never address it again. And so, like, solving the Middle East crisis and kind of laying out all the reasons that it is basically impossible to maintain peace in the Middle East - it has then (laughter) kind of solved and never spoken of again, including, like, dropping characters who are never seen or heard from again.
TUCKER: Mandy, where are you?
THOMPSON: That's where I think the kind of unbelievableness of this show comes in. It has a tendency to deal with issues kind of one at a time and then really lose interest in them almost immediately.
TUCKER: Yeah, absolutely. I think for my money, the other unbelievable one that I always come back to is the - I think it's in Season 5, wherein they shut down the government, and the president walks to the Capitol building to negotiate with the Republicans, who then refuse to negotiate with him. So then he leaves and walks back to the White House, I suppose.
TUCKER: It is just so fully nonsensical, and it is, like, the chef's kiss of a Sorkin dramatic - just, like, ah, yes, this man is going to walk up to the Capitol building for the good of American people. He'll talk to some tourists and say that he's sorry.
THOMPSON: This impotent gesture will solve everything.
THOMPSON: All right, let's get to another question. This one comes from Lauren (ph).
LAUREN: Hi, PCHH. My question regarding "The West Wing" has to do with Josh and Donna's relationship. I'm a recent viewer of "The West Wing" and absolutely loved the show and really fell in love with Josh and Donna. And then as I pondered that further, I was kind of like, ooh, maybe that's not so great; maybe their relationship is weird. So curious what your thoughts on that are. Thanks so much.
THOMPSON: Well, to provide a little bit of background - Donna works under Josh. Josh is the deputy chief of staff in the early seasons, and she is kind of his underling. And they have a little bit of a flirty, co-dependent relationship. And, eventually, the people who've been shipping those characters - spoiler alert - kind of get their wish. Christina, what do you think about Josh and Donna?
TUCKER: Yeah, I mean, it's a bummer. I think those two characters have - I think those actors, specifically, have such good chemistry that I can see why they were like, OK, well, at some point we're going to have to do something about this. It's interesting that they choose to move them out of the White House before that happens. Like, she doesn't necessarily work under him in the same way that she did when the show begins - though, she does, to be clear, still work for him. In that time, we were just - especially in TV, was just so addicted to workplace dating.
TUCKER: I was, like, thinking about, like, early "Grey's Anatomy." Like, all of these shows were just like, well, this is what you do. You date your bosses at work. That's what a TV show is. That's what romance is.
TUCKER: It's like - it's not great. And I think in our, you know, 2020 time we can look back and say, that's really a bad dynamic, and I don't love it, especially given the way that Sorkin writes Donna, especially in those early seasons. It's not cute. I see why they did it then; let's not do that anymore.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I had basically the same reaction. I just didn't think they needed to have that relationship at all. They have a professional relationship. Those two actors, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney, do have good chemistry, but they don't necessarily, to me, have great couple chemistry. Josh in particular is not a particularly functioning (laughter) human being...
THOMPSON: ...Does not seem to me to be particularly ready for a relationship of any kind. I'm just so relieved, though, by that point that they have given Donna an opportunity to soar as a professional...
THOMPSON: ...In ways that Aaron Sorkin never would have allowed her to do. And I think Janel Moloney does a really nice job with that pivot, too.
TUCKER: I think so, too.
THOMPSON: OK, so before we wrap up, I think we have time for one final question. Thanks to everyone who sent in their questions. We got so many excellent ones. They really helped shape this discussion. We just couldn't get to all of them. Let's hear it.
BIANCA: Hi, PCHH team. This is Bianca (ph) from Chapel Hill, N.C. I'm wondering if you think that there could be a sequel to "The West Wing," and if so, what would be the story? And would any of the characters come back?
THOMPSON: All right, Christina, I know you've thought about this.
TUCKER: I have thought about this. So I'm of two minds. One - no, they don't need to come back. We're all done. I know that I basically broke down the virtual doors to be on this episode, specifically talking about "The West Wing," a show which I'm about to say we don't need to talk about anymore.
TUCKER: But we really don't need to relitigate or talk about it, especially in some sort of sequel reboot. We don't need to do that. We can just stop. It's fine. It's there. All seven seasons of it exist, available to watch. Let's let it go.
TUCKER: I will say, it is very clear to me that after she leaves "The West Wing," C.J. Cregg then works for the FBI and becomes the character Allison Janney plays in "Spy," 2015.
TUCKER: I think that's just canon. I think that makes the most sense. And I think we can all just go forward in life knowing that that's true. We don't need anything else from this. Let it go.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) I do think this show is a complete story.
TUCKER: It is.
THOMPSON: It tells the story of eight years in American history. It has ushered us into the next presidential administration. I think the show is very clear that there are serious political futures for characters like Will Bailey, played by Joshua Malina. I think Donna Moss certainly could potentially run for office, and I would welcome that at kind of a continuation of her arc. I would very much like to see the character of Charlie Young go on to one day be president of the United States.
I just don't know that that story necessarily needs to be told through the prism of the people who made "The West Wing." We can write all the fan fiction in our hearts that we need.
TUCKER: That's a really beautiful way of thinking about it.
THOMPSON: Well, I am absolutely positive that many of you listening have many, many thoughts on "The West Wing." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much for being here, Christina.
TUCKER: Thank you for having me. This was a delight. And I do want to just go watch "The West Wing" now.
THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you back here tomorrow, when it will be time for "Animaniacs."
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