The West Wing presented American politics in a new light when it first hit the airwaves. It presented audiences with a President who was both an authority figure and a fully realized human being. With the creation of President Bartlet and his idiosyncratic staff, America welcomed politics into their homes on a weekly basis rather than as an obligation every other November. More than it was just a television show; it was a commentary on our American culture. It presented important issues, both domestic and foreign, and made it accessible to everyday people. Over the course of its seven-year run, The West Wing opened the door for debate on political issues while also providing characters that audiences grew to love. It is this combination of politics and pop culture that has allowed The West Wing to continue on in fan activities, such as fan fiction, as well as in the hearts of so many viewers years after its series finale.
In understanding how The West Wing has accomplished this engagement, it is important to understand a little bit about the show as a whole. The West Wing ran from Sept. 22, 1999 to May 14, 2006, effectively spanning the two terms that fictional president Jed Bartlet was in office. Although Bartlet himself played a crucial role as the series developed, The West Wing also focuses on the White House staffers closest to him such as CJ Cregg and Josh Lyman. Throughout its seven seasons, the show tackled issues both political and personal, from thinly veiled recreations of current events, such as the murder of Lowell Lydell in “In Excelsis Deo” which closely resembles the Matthew Shepard murder, to more personal matters, such as Danny Cancannon, a reporter, asking Press Secretary C.J. Cregg out on a date in the same episode. It is that fine line of the political and the personal, or, arguably, the effective erasing of that line that helped The West Wing get a wider audience than just those interested in politics. The show defies categorization in this sense as it bounces from politics to personal issues effortlessly. Certainly continuity becomes increasingly important in later seasons, but for the most part, the show divides itself into chapters in each of these character’s lives. Each year tackled a different overarching issue that occupied the focus of the whole season, such as the show’s concentration on terrorism in its third season. These seasons also manage to address smaller and more personal plots for some of the staffers, such as CJ’s secret service love interest in the same season. This type of versatility is what helped to establish The West Wing as a powerful drama with a genuine interest in American politics, but also the men and women behind the scenes. At no point does it lay claim to being completely accurate but Myron A. Levine makes a point of saying in his essay “The West Wing and The West Wing: Myth and Reality in Television’s Portrayal of the White House” that it has a desire to take a look at the inner workings of the White House, but it also has an obligation to remain engaging television that people want to watch. It is described most accurately as “a television series that is designed to entertain” but Levine also forgives its inaccuracies by stating “not every element in each week’s story line is meant to give an exactly accurate portrayal of Washington.” (Levine 2003, 43) Understanding it from that perspective is key in examining how The West Wing functions within fan culture, which seems to be equally interested in the personal and professional lives of its characters.
However, before delving too deeply into the story world, it is important to understand the context in which the show was created. In 1999, when The West Wing first aired, the nation seemed to still be reeling from the impeachment trials of President Bill Clinton. Chris Lehmann characterized the show as such by saying it “has played as a sort of higher-minded, conscience-haunted upgrade of the Clinton White House.” (Lehmann 2003). Still, The West Wing was not influenced only by the political and personal failings of the Clinton administration, no matter how closely Bartlet may resemble a sanitized depiction of Clinton. Indeed, as the show evolved it became clear that the president himself had a few flaws that could have jeopardized his re-election campaign. It is true that he certainly possessed a stronger moral compass than most people in the world of politics, but his personal failings ran deep as well. The show demonstrates this in the third episode of the first season, “A Proportional Response”, when President Bartlet’s military advisors ask him how to proceed after an act of aggression by foreign enemies. Not only does he have difficulty coming to terms with the idea of how life and death can be viewed in military terms, but he also has trouble dealing with it emotionally. This kind of characterization helped audiences to establish the president as more than a figurehead for American politics. He is also a man who, at times, is as lost and confused as people who were watching at home. Certainly there have been other attempts to humanize the president, but this depiction saw the president and his people at their most emotionally vulnerable.
Still, as compelling as it was to watch the president in a state of emotional fragility, even then the president was somewhat glorified. It was not until the season two finale when Bartlet reveals to the American public, of The West Wing universe, that he has MS but has not publicly disclosed it until now that the morality and ethics of the president are thrown into question. This level of complexity added yet another dimension to the role, which fans seemed to appreciate as it is the highest rated episode of the series on TV.com (CBS Interactive Inc. 2010). This kind of popularity among viewers as well as awards ceremonies, such as the Emmys and the Golden Globes, helped contribute to its long run. Although passive audiences certainly took an interest in The West Wing, it is the reception within the fan community that is perhaps most note worthy.
When looking at why The West Wing was received so well within the fan community, it would be an oversimplification and a great disservice to The West Wing universe to say that it was just about the characters. While the people that inhabited The West Wing universe and the actors and actresses that portrayed them deserve a fair amount of credit, as previously stated, one of the predominant forces that seems to have helped it gather such a following was the context in which it was created. Although the events leading up to its creation have been discussed, it is important to understand the effects of the political events during its run. Directly after the country felt it had been let down by the immoral actions of President Clinton, it needed a hero more than ever. Sorkin delivered that in the form of President Jed Bartlet. While The West Wing may not seem to be your typical cult text, it actually falls within the realm of Gwenllian-Jones definition of cult text. She states, “the object is to erode the boundary between spectator and text.” (Gwenllian-Jones 2004, 85) In essence, she is claiming that a cult text has the ability to engross the viewer and encourage the audience to impress their desires for positive change on to the reality of the fictional world. This policy of “virtual reality” as Gwenllian-Jones describes it continued throughout the series as the political climate changed after the Clinton administration well into Bush’s presidency. Brought in as the result of a highly controversial election in 2000, Bush occupied the White House for most of the run of The West Wing. Bush and Clinton are mentioned specifically because it is important to understand that the times before, during, and even after The West Wing are characterized by political chaos. Despite the unifying events of 9/11, afterwards saw a whole host of new problems for the American public. There was the oil crisis as well as the war on terror. Nevertheless, what The West Wing offered, much to the dismay of Salon’s Joyce Milman, seems optimistic. Milman says about the show that it “mirrors the sort of warm fuzziness America seems to be looking for from its pols this year.” (Milman 2000) While she may have a point, this was also written back in 2000 before Americans were hit with such problems as a seemingly unwinnable war, terrorist attacks, which The West Wing addressed in the special episode “Isaac and Ishmael” and a failing economy (Sorkin 1999). It is true that The West Wing may have not started out as a cheerier forecast for the future of the United States, but that seems to be what it became. The bleak events of the real world has helped solidify The West Wing as a pleasant alternative. The show clearly demonstrates the political process, but in a way that the fan is empowered, when most of the American public seems powerless. This kind of fragile relationship between reality, the limitless possibilities of The West Wing universe and the active audience is an undeniable force in The West Wing’s fan community.
In the realm of the fan universe, where viewership becomes subservient to activity within the community, The West Wing has a colorful history. Fans have actively voiced their opinions on the direction the show should take from early on. In fact, Sorkin even made reference to these fan sites in the season three episode “The U.S. Poet Laureate” where Josh Lyman finds a website dedicated to him. This is an in-joke about Sorkin and The West Wing’s relationship with fan sites which could be characterized as tumultuous at best (Dirk 2006). It is true that Sorkin’s depiction of the posters on LemonLyman.com is a bit one dimensional, but to this day, The West Wing remains one of the most-written about television shows on fanfiction.net (FanFiction.net 2010). While there has been some debate about the fan relationship with Sorkin himself, it is undeniable that the fan base for The West Wing remains intact. As fan fiction continues to come in, it has become clear that the devotion is not simply to the characters, although that is a particularly strong aspect of it. Certainly there are many fan fiction writers out there that tend to focus their work on the unresolved relationships or imagined relationships amongst the White House staffers, but this is not the only type of fan fiction. People continue to write fan fiction as it relates to current events, suggesting that the fascination is with the combination of characters and politics, with an undeniable slant to the political. Perhaps it is just a desire to be heard or to inform by making the political more accessible, but whatever the reason may be, The West Wing maintains a strong grip on its fan community. It is in fact, through fan activity alone, at least according to Matt Hills, that helps define The West Wing as a definitive cult text. Hills outlines the varying definitions of cult text in his “Defining Cult TV.” One of his three definitions directly equates fan production with a text’s, in this case The West Wing’s, status as a cult text (Hills 2004). In this sense, the four thousand some fan fiction pieces generated on fanfiction.net alone solidify The West Wing as a formidable fan text. Nevertheless, there is no unified definition for what makes a cult text a cult text, but many point to the involvement in the fan. Although fan fiction is one of the more cited methods of fan production, there are a myriad of other ways that a fan can be involved such as artwork, music, or in the particular case of The West Wing, fan videos. YouTube is lhome to literally hundreds of videos dedicated to the characters of the show. The videos themselves range from assembled clips to music videos. Using the media available to them, fans continue to try to create something new out of what The West Wing has given them. Therefore, if cult text is being defined by the amount of fan text that is produced, as some authors such as Hills have suggested, then The West Wing has proven itself to be an undisputable cult text.
Since its beginning over a decade ago, The West Wing has managed to engage both critics and audiences alike. With its ability to make the politics of our nation’s capital into something more compelling and character-driven without losing focus on its politics, The West Wing has proven itself to be a text unlike any other. Not only have very few, if any, shows tried to capture the spirit of the political process, but rarely has a political administration, as well as the men and women behind it, been able to engage the audience as this show did in its seven year run. It is this interest in the events and the lives of The West Wing universe that have established it as a cult text well worth examining.
In 1999, Sorkin brought President Bartlet and his staff to NBC, setting in motion a seven season long love affair between the American public and this fictional presidency. In doing so, Sorkin and his creative team re-defined television in such a way that the line between politics and matters of importance and entertainment was blurred, and arguably even erased. At times it was criticized as idealistic and overly optimistic, but in a time when America was desperate for understanding and some sense of hope, The West Wing both educated and entertained.