The West Wing's Workaholics

On Wednesday nights, like millions of Americans swimming upstream to a vision of a presidency marked by intelligence, I tune into The West Wing.

The show has been something of a phenomenon in this age of niche marketing and defections to cable channels: a network program not about teenagers routinely ranked in the top 10, right behind Friends and E.R. Winner of multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards, The West Wing is one of those shows that prompts appointment viewing: Fans carve out time for it every week and are loath to miss it. Why is this show -- which is, after all, about politics and public policy and not mud wrestling or eating live scorpions -- such a hit?

Quick answers include great writing, great acting and the desire to pretend, if for only one hour a week, that the White House is not filled with ignorant, mean-spirited, moronic, war-mongering lackeys of corporate America. And this might, in and of itself, probably be enough. Yes, there were those awful moments at the end of the show, especially in the first and second seasons, when the patriotic music soared and someone -- usually President Bartlet -- rhapsodized about the beauty of the Bill of Rights and the vast wisdom of the American political process. But even this we were willing to swallow in exchange for the conceit that the president was an expert in 17th-century cartography. It didn't hurt that the show routinely attacked the religious right, the NRA, Dr. Laura and the tobacco industry.

But I think the show also speaks powerfully to people whose leisure time continues to shrink, people who live, day-in and day-out, with speed-up at work. The West Wing absolutely celebrates, fetishizes, if you will, workaholism. Overwork is made to seem exciting and glamorous. Watch the way the camera moves. People in the West Wing -- because they're so important -- are always walking at a brisk pace up and down the halls, in and out of offices, in groups of at least two, and the tracking cameras virtually jog to keep up with them. Doors swing open and shut. Phones ring constantly in the background, just above the general din of important-sounding work.

Unlike the multi-tasking we grunts are stuck with -- chained to our desks, often alone, reading e-mail while listening to voice mail and on hold with automated phone information centers -- this West Wing work happens in motion, on the fly: It's almost breathless. The pace and editing alone confirm that working constantly is enviable and thrilling.

The show's dialogue gives new meaning to the term snappy patter. These people don't just talk a mile a minute, peppering each other with policy positions, quotations and statistics. They're witty, too, as if Letterman's writing staff was feeding them one-liners through an earphone. This too glamorizes the work of political insiders. Their unflagging agility at verbal jousting and affectionate, rapid-fire insults implies intellectual quickness and a deep camaraderie with their colleagues (two things that may be lacking in your own place of employment).

When Josh can't answer a series of questions Mandy puts to him, she asks with mock condescension, "What is it you do here, exactly?"

"It's never been made clear to me," he retorts.

"There's a fire in Yellowstone Park," Sam tells Josh as they rush down a hall.

"So put it out," Josh deadpans.

Josh walks into work early one morning to discover his assistant Donna working. "Were you here all night?" he asks.

"Is it daytime?" she shoots back. "Usually when I'm up all night, I'm able to pass a 19th-century English literature midterm." And so on. Everybody is relentlessly arch.

During the commercial breaks, we see ads for companies like Pacific Life. They are silent and repeatedly show the word "performance" while we see athletes jumping or diving, intercut with whales surfacing and diving. Individual drive, determination, discipline, that's what leads to success. And that's the message being sold to us by The West Wing and its sponsors.

Now, given the right-wing takeover of almost all public-affairs programming on the tube, I am indeed grateful for a show in which liberal (occasionally even progressive) politics seem utterly reasonable, and usually superior to conservatism. It's also refreshing, given the rampant anti-intellectualism of our media environment, to see a show in which being well-read, knowledgeable and smart are all advantages at work and in life.

But what the media giveth with one hand, they taketh away with the other, and I've come to recognize that media fare I enjoy usually has retrograde ideological sludge lurking someplace deep within. The West Wing is no exception.

Millions of us have, over the past 15 years, been asked to do a lot more at work in exactly the same amount of time, often with fewer resources. This speed-up has often been accompanied, and made possible, by downsizing and layoffs. It also imposes enormous stress on family and personal life. But we're supposed to feel that the busier we are, the more important we are, and tough shit for those out there without a job.

The West Wing celebrates liberal politics and even, at times, social justice. Yet it also canonizes the expectation that staying late at work is more important than going to your kid's science fair -- or even seeing an old friend. I think we all want to pretend for an hour a week that overwork is glamorous and exhilarating; it makes many of us feel better about our own overtime. Let's just not lose sight of what else is getting legitimated as well.

Susan Douglas writes for In These Times, where this article first appeared.

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