BROOKE GLADSTONE: Presidential pretzels aside, we haven't faced a major White House health crisis in a good many years. But for devoted viewers of "The West Wing," a fictional crisis is bad enough. TV President Jeb Bartlet suffers from MS, and probably kept his degenerative condition far too long from the American people. But fans faced a different kind of loss this week when NBC announced that after seven years, "The West Wing" will end in May. From the start, "The West Wing" was unusual network fare - the dialog a little faster, the characters a little smarter than nearly anything else on the air. James Poniewozik writes about TV for Time Magazine. He says that in 1999, when "The West Wing" first hit the small screen, the conventional wisdom was that politics just doesn't play as a subject for mass-market drama.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Politics is polarizing. I mean, I think this all goes back to the vaunted and, I think, now outdated notion of L.O.P. – least objectionable programming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Right.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: That is, if you're a big TV network, you want to provide viewers with as few reasons as possible to change the channel. Well, if you're doing a show about politicians that has any actual politics in it, at some point, somebody has to say what party they're in, and they have to take a stand on issues that people get mad about in real life. And, you know, the thinking is, well, [LAUGHS] you're doing a show about, you know, a Democratic administration, you've lost half the audience. I think that that turned out not to be true, because, in fact, I think that while "The West Wing" is certainly Democratic wish fulfillment, I think it's also a non-partisan wish fulfillment in a way in that a lot of its storylines are really simply about the wish for politicians who take stands on principles. [VIDEO CLIP]
LEO McGARRY: President, I gotta tell you something and you're not gonna like the sound of it.
PRESIDENT BARTLET: What?
LEO McGARRY: He's right and we're wrong.
PRESIDENT BARTLET: About what?
LEO McGARRY: About the ethanol tax.
SAM SEABORN: Mr. President, Leo's right.
PRESIDENT BARLET: Sam's weighing in.
SAM SEABORN: Sir? I put McCambridge, Aiello and Dane in a [CHUCKLES] headlock to vote our way. Let's send them back. We'll lose 53 to 47. Then we'll take the Vice-President off the hook.
PRESIDENT BARLET: All right, let's do what Sam said. [END VIDEO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While it was launched during the Clinton Administration, and I guess it was supposed to be somewhat based on it – I know there were a lot of TV producers and writers hanging around the Clinton White House – but it wasn't really supposed to be the Clinton White House, right?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: It wasn't exactly supposed to be the Clinton White House, and ironically, you know, back then in 1999, part of the wish fulfillment element was that it was an idealized Clinton White House, one in which there was more honesty. I remember, in the first season, Aaron Sorkin talking about how he once wanted to a scene, which I think he never actually did, in which an intern propositioned Martin Sheen in the Oval Office and, you know, Martin Sheen told her something like, you know, "If you ever try to do that again, you'll be fired." In other words, it was in many ways, frankly, a critique of what was then the sitting Democratic administration. [VIDEO CLIP]
Donna Moss: We have a 32 billion dollar budget surplus for the first time in three decades.
Josh Lyman: Yes?
Donna Moss: Republicans in Congress want to use this money for tax relief, right?
Josh Lyman: Yes.
Donna Moss: Essentially what they're saying is we want to give back the money.
Josh Lyman: Yes.
Donna Moss: Why don't we want to give back the money?
Josh Lyman: 'Cause we're Democrats.
Donna Moss: But it's not the government's money.
Josh Lyman: Sure it is. It's right there in our bank account.
Donna Moss: That's only 'cause we collected more money than we ended up needing.
Josh Lyman: Isn't it great?
Donna Moss: I want my money back.
Josh Lyman: Sorry. [END VIDEO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] You know, after you heard that the show was cancelled, you wrote that you hoped that it would end with Bartlet and his team cleaning out their desks, ready to hand the baton over to a Republican President. Why do you hope that?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: I think it makes dramatic sense. One thing that I think has been a flaw of the show is that purposely it has been a little too easy on its protagonists in the Bartlet White House. So I think it would be a plausible and dramatically rewarding change for the show to, you know, have the characters face being turned out of office in favor of another party and to look back on, well, what have we accomplished over eight years and what have we done right and what have we done wrong?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously we cover the Washington press corps in real life on this show, and so I've always been interested in how "The West Wing" portrays the press and the administration's relationship with the press. Is that just me or do you think that those storylines are compelling for everybody?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: One thing that I think is probably interesting to the lay viewer is the fact that the White House press spokesperson can often be strategically kept in the dark and even willingly kept in the dark. There are often these questions of, you know what? – don't tell me about that because I can't tell the press corps about this and I don't want to have to lie, so don't let me know too much about this information that I can't disclose. I think it sometimes portrays the Washington press corps as interested in superficiality and, you know, personalities and "gotcha" stories and things like that, all of which is entirely true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] I was waiting for that.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: [LAUGHS] But it's often a function of the fact the White House press corps lives in this, you know, sort of hermetic environment in which they have a very difficult time getting actual information out of the administration. So what else are you going to write about?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, a lot of White House insiders who have been involved with the show have been quoted over the years regarding the impact of "The West Wing." Lawrence O'Donnell, who is one of the show's executive producers and is one of those former Washington insiders, said he knew the show was making a cultural impact when he found that politicians who rarely watched TV were fans.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: I think it was taken fairly seriously in the political community for the way it laid out actual real political issues. I mean, as a critic, I thought that the show could often be a little preachy, a little didactic. On the other hand, you know, I have to give it credit. It would do storylines about the census and redistricting, and I think it deserved respect for that. [VIDEO CLIP]
Sam Seaborn: This census has to be taken seriously.
C. J. Cregg: Tell me about it.
Sam Seaborn: You know, it's not glamorous, but – you know?
C. J. Cregg: Sure.
Sam Seaborn: Do you need something?
C. J. Cregg: Did you get a haircut? [END VIDEO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you think you'll miss it?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: You know, I will miss it. There are certain shows, and "West Wing" is one of those for me, that, because they're so ambitious, even when I haven't liked them, they provide just a rich level of things to criticize about. You know, it can be more rewarding for me – [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: - to be mad at "The West Wing" than it is to enjoy a show that is one-fifth as ambitious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as we look ahead, we have Geena Davis, who plays the first woman President in "Commander in Chief." Who would you prefer for President, Geena Davis or Martin Sheen?
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: I've got to go with Geena Davis – [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: - because I'm pretty sure she's taller, and -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: - the taller candidate just always seems more authoritative, don't they?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It didn't seem to work for Kerry.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Oh. [LAUGHS] Well, there's always the exception that proves the rule.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay, James. Thanks a lot.
JAMES PONIEWOZIK: Okay. Bye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Poniewozik is the TV critic for Time Magazine.