The West Wing–A Hyperreal, Not a Reality Show
by: Trudy L. Hanson / West Texas A&M University
The cast of The West Wing
“And the nominee is . . . Matt Santos!” NBC’s The West Wing’s sixth season concluded with the hoopla of a fictional Democratic National Convention (much more interesting than the actual one held in 2004) as the Representative from Texas and the former White House Chief of Staff raised arms in a victory salute. Through the fictional world of The West Wing as Henry Jenkins noted (Flow, Volume 2, Issue 1), the “shadow presidency” addresses conservative and moderate objections to the Democratic Party. One of the strategies that has become more prevalent in the 2005/2006 season is the use of hyperreal images. Although as viewers we already know we are watching a fictional story unfold, the story has increasingly been told through manufactured images of news media. Jean Baudrillard would probably call this the Disney-fying of American Politics. Rather than deal with real world images of the Presidency, we take comfort in the fictional ones created for us. However, the effects of this Disney-fication are not necessarily negative.
For example, in the final episode of Season 6, the contending Democratic candidates Matt Santos (portrayed by Jimmy Smits) and Bob Russell (portrayed by Gary Cole) find out that they are being challenged at the last minute by Pennsylvania Governor Baker (portrayed by Ed O’Neill) by watching TV sound bites of the Governor’s answers to reporters’ questions on the convention floor. Rather than the camera focusing on a scene that unfolds for us, we see a mediated scene of a mediated story line.
Perhaps the best example of hyperreality occurred in Season Five, Episode 18. The episode begins with typical footage associated with a public television documentary, focusing on a day in the life of White House Press Secretary C. J. Cregg. Throughout the episode, the camera focus keeps changing from watching a film crew shooting the documentary about C.J. to shots of a TV screen where CNN is supposedly broadcasting updates on a hostage crisis in Shaw Island, which in turn references file footage of a similar FBI raid in Casey Creek, Kentucky, three years earlier which ended badly. In this case, reality is layered through three levels. The viewer sees clips of Eisenhower’s press secretary, and a clip of Nixon shoving a staff member. These documentary images add credibility to the story, as does the home movie footage of C.J. as a child that is edited into the presentation. This plot device gives the viewer a different perspective of how the press shapes the image of the President and his cabinet, particularly the role of the press secretary. Viewer expectations of the fictional President Bartlet become more complicated as the realization is hammered home that what is shown on television is a montage of what has happened in the past, seen through the lens of the present, and then filtered by the press secretary whose job is “to articulate the President’s message.”
Martin Sheen who portrays President Jed Bartlet explained to an interviewer: “The key word about The West Wing is show. It is not a reality show. It has nothing to do with reality. We have a phrase we use sometime: present issues of great importance, and hope this will cause some measure of public debate, because the issues are so important.”
To stimulate debate, The West Wing blurs the line between fact and fiction. Shawn Parry-Giles and Trevor Parry-Giles in their analysis of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, Constructing Clinton: Hyperreality and Presidential Image-Making in Postmodern Politics, identify five axioms of postmodern presidential politics. They discuss how postmodern presidential politics both fragments and unifies the public, stressing that this empowers the public as a redemptive agent. One can argue that the current storyline is dictated by economic factors more so than artistic or political agendas. E-Online reports with the renewal of The West Wing for 2006/2007, the per episode cost is expected to be less as Martin Sheen’s character (President Bartlet) and other higher salaried regulars are not featured in every episode.
However, the national civics lesson which began with The West Wing’s initial season in 1999/2000 continues. Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles coined the term presidentiality to describe the ideological rhetoric that shapes the meaning of the presidency. The West Wing more than any documentary or news programming continues to teach Americans about what it means to be President. As we watch the fictional campaign of Republican candidate Arnold Vinick (portrayed by Alan Alda) and Democratic candidate (Matt Santos) unfold in Season Seven, there’s a strong possibility that young viewers will learn more about the political process. Lance Holbert’s research has established the positive effect of watching The West Wing on viewers’ perceptions of past and current Presidents. Even though the audience viewing The West Wing has declined to 11.3 million viewers per episode from its all time high of 17 million viewers in its initial season, the potential for positive impact on its viewers remains. What other entertainment series website has Hot Links to such topics as the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, Project Vote Smart and a Step by Step Campaign Guide?
Current research continues to show that college age voters gain the majority of their information about political campaigns from television programming–entertainment programming, that is (e.g., The Daily Show, MTV’s Rock the Vote). With the blurring of fact and fiction, The West Wing not only entertains but also provokes discussion. Jeffrey Jones in his book, Entertaining Politics, suggests that television currently demonstrates a willingness to entertain politics in creative ways from dramatic narratives to parodies, as well as exploring politics in imaginative ways. In so doing, The West Wing may be engaging college age viewers in ways that make politics meaningful. So, is the Disney-fication of politics such a bad thing?
1. The cast of The West Wing
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