What’s Next: Why the West Wing Still Matters

THE MOST PRETENTIOUS THING YOU CAN DO IN HOLLYWOOD is say that a television show is “so much more than a television show.” The second most pretentious thing you can do is start a podcast just so you can talk in public with your famous friends, but I love Rob Lowe so dammit, he gets a pass.

Since I’m not in Hollywood, however, I can be as pretentious as I want. So here’s the truth in all its dramatic glory: The West Wing is the living, breathing, online streaming soul of the American Dream.

Just as NASA inspired a generation of Americans to go to space, the West Wing inspired a generation of young Americans to go into politics. My daughter is one of them — I sometimes think she went to college in Washington D.C. just on the off chance she might run into C.J. Cregg doing “The Jackal” in a Georgetown bar.

But what I didn’t know — until this week — was that The West Wing inspired at least one person to become an American.

A new colleague told me, very matter-of-fact, that the West Wing is the reason he is in America. A TV show he watched while going to school in the United States, halfway around the world from his home and family, is why he’s still here today.

“If this show was America, I wanted to be part of it,” he said. “It was that simple.”

A TV show? Stop it. That’s like the aliens in “Galaxy Quest” believing Tim Allen was really a starship captain, not an actor who played one in a TV series.

But no, this really happened. A TV show had become a promise of something better, a blueprint for What’s Possible. A young man changed his entire life not to go into politics, but because of an idea called the United States.

That promise remains unfulfilled, as we’re all painfully aware. The West Wing now looks less like fiction and more like farce, a poke in the eye, a comedia acta for the modern cynic (the Latin was for you, President Bartlet.) The show’s ideas and ideals are now so foreign it’s hard to believe they ever existed.

But the West Wing still matters. It still has the potential to be a force for change, if we want it to be. It once convinced an immigrant to make a life in an imaginary world; it can help us find that place again, and make it real.

(For a refreshing West Wing fix, check out the special cast reunion performance on HBO Max and listen to a refreshingly unpretentious Rob Lowe’s podcast interview with West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Okay, now what’s next?)

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