At the end of 1999, the United States had a budget surplus of $125 billion. It had recently been rocked by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but it was recovering. The Internet was shiny, new, and barely capable of loading a JPEG—and Google was still in beta. America was riding a post-Soviet high all the way to global hegemony. And so, it makes sense that the show that won the most Emmy Awards for that year depicted an America in which policy-making was easy, and the president cared enormously about the well-being of his constituents.
The West Wing was popular because it spoke to everything that government could be, but it was an ideal that in the late ’90s must not have seemed all that far off. It was also popular because it was a well-written, well-acted portrayal of the most powerful office in the world. But the show also presented the best possible future course for American democracy, at a time when people could be optimistic about the U.S.
While The West Wing’s president, Jed Bartlet, was at first a never-cheated-on-his-wife-or- signed-DOMA version of Bill Clinton, then a liberal alternative to George W. Bush, today’s TV depictions of American presidents offer a more damning view of government. House of Cards’ president is an ineffective and easily manipulated Democrat portrayed by a man deliberately mimicking President Obama’s mannerisms; Scandal’s is a barely conservative Republican who is manipulated by everyone around him and who sleeps with his former press secretary; and Veep’s president has no clear political affiliation or relationship with his vice president, whose staff spends its time correcting public relations snafus, searching for her lipstick, and doing little else.
Every incarnation of the president in a currently airing TV show is everything that Jed Bartlet is not: unfaithful, disloyal, duplicitous—or worse, ineffective, incompetent, and powerless in the face of manipulation from his own cabinet. And Congress, when relevant at all, is uncooperative and outwardly hostile to the White House, whose only way of enacting effective policy ends up being some bizarre combination of bribery, manipulation, and extortion.
Most notably, House of Cards does not merely present a bleak view of the political process—it presents a damning one. In one episode, a character tells Vice President/Protagonist/Undeniably Evil Frank Underwood, “What you’re asking is just shy of treason.” “Just shy,” Underwood responds, “which is politics.”
Both Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow jumped at the chance to guest-star on the show. Both of them heavily and convincingly criticized the fictional president. Neither of them are actors.
While it is easy to say that works of fiction, especially soap opera-esque TV like Scandal and House of Cards, and sitcoms like Veep, do not represent real life, it seems true that in order for a TV show set in the White House to have a following, it must have viewers who find its perspective feasible.
We live in an America that is unabashedly angry at its government and utterly exasperated with its leadership. Our government’s characters are not likable or sympathetic, and so it is necessary for their on-screen equivalents to be unlikable and unsympathetic. Offering the public a TV show where the White House is entirely competent, and not only in charge of the executive branch, but also able to effectively coordinate and compromise with Congress in 2014 would be ridiculous; The West Wing’s West Wing is not the one that we see, nor is it one that we can even believe in anymore.