The West Wing–A Hyperreal, Not a Reality Show

by: Trudy L. Hanson / West Texas A&M University

The West Wing
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?

Image Credits:
1. The cast of The West Wing

“Votes” (Season Finale)
The West Wing as Endorsement of the U.S. Presidency
The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism. forthcoming.

Please feel free to comment.


  • Pingback: FlowTV | This week on FLOW (April 29, 2005)

  • Sheen or Bush?

    There is something comforting about knowing the President on West Wing is making moral decisions and worrying about Americans’ (or more importantly, my) futures. Especially when compared to real life, I almost feel like I have more control because I can see the motivation behind the decisions made in the White House. Hanson makes a great point in that maybe our fiction shows are bleeding into reality especially because we know our reality affects our fiction.

  • Bryan Canatella

    hyperrealism vs. “reality TV”

    The west wing is a great show for stimulating debate about current moral issues in regards to politics. The show is not “real”, but, like the article points out, a hyperreal. Viewers are used to basic narrative structure (something that builds dramatically), and this show does that, but also presents issues that are of importance and necessitate discourse. “Reality TV” is no more real than the west wing, sure the people are real, but what does eating cockroaches have to do with our reality? The issues on the west wing present more issues of importance to us as American citizens than any reality TV show. The blend of fiction with contemporary moral-political issues allows for a more “real” experience than most shows that claim to be reality.

  • Kyle Rafferty

    As Hanson points out, the West Wing does educate people about political processes to a degree. Granted, it’s not a handbook, but the show does help the viewer along as the plot moves through the muck that is the American political system. What struck me most about this show, which I try to watch as often as possible, is how it effectively humanizes the presidency. In the same vein as Brea’s comment, seeing the processes and sometimes turmoil the characters go through while working fro what they consider to be in the public’s best interest helps to put politics in a different and much needed light; this humanizing of those in office is the first step in moving away from the “us vs. them” mentality that rules American politics today and remains at the heart of most public and political discourse.

  • Can Jed Bartlett please stay President?

    Even as THE WEST WING does an admiral job of presenting political issues and layering hyper”reality”, when I watch this show I cannot help but recognize how very far from reality its governance is, especially in the midst of the second GW Bush term. The show for years has been an alternate reality: a democratic administration running the White House in a parallel universe to the Republican dominated “real” one. Even more striking to me was the episode a few weeks back where Alan Alda’s character, as the Republican candidate, stood up in front of the TV nation and professed that he did not believe in God…and had not attended church since his wife died. Furthermore, at the end of the episode he gave a moving speech that defended his right to separate his religious practice (or lack thereof) from his politics, saying something along the lines of, “if you have a religious question, go to church; if you have a political question, I’ll answer it.” Even as I applauded the show’s stance, I could not shake the feeling of irony: was this not basically what John Kerry stated during the 2004 election run-off? While Kerry still attends church, he defended the separation of legislation from personal articles of faith. And did he not got slammed for it by every Republican who could possibly find a way to air that criticism? I’ll take the alternate universe. It sure seems more balanced than the one we have right now.

  • Baylor Johnson

    Yeah, but, is it any good?

    True, the series has seen a rise in the level of “reality” in its content in seasons five and six, including, most startlingly, an appearance by Fidel Castro in episode 6.19, “Ninety Miles Away” (Well anyway, an actor playing him). But does this incorporation of “real world” political issues represent a step forward for the series, or is it a “ripped-from-the-headlines”-type crutch to enable the post-Sorkin writing staff to substitute the subtle character work and wit of seasons 1-4 with what a friend of mine aptly described as “crisis-of-the-week” television?

    I lean toward the latter, especially since the way these issues are dealt with is more toothless, please-everybody pontification than a reflection of the complexities of modern politics. Every week, a new proverbial can of worms is brought to the table, but rather than opening it, the writers bring in one character after another to say “here is my politically improbable yet inoffensive stand on this issue.” And by next week, the matter at hand is forgotten and unresolved. I don’t really know how much discussion something as morally neutral as the show tries to be sparks. Anyone who is educated on the issue being presented w probably sees it and thinks to his or herself, “well, yeah, that’s a problem we have,” and moves on, while anyone who isn’t educated on the issue probably isn’t watching THE WEST WING.

    True, the presentation of these issues and of candidates discussing them gets them on the air in a way that is “safer” and more accessible than “real” political debate, but with the ever-increasing level of ludicrousness in the post-Sorkin WEST WING (an asteroid?? AN ASTEROID??!), it becomes harder to take them seriously in the context of the show. Call me stubborn, but I just liked the show better when Sorkin was writing it and Schlamme was directing. At least those first four seasons knew what level of reality they were playing on. The series wasn’t supposed to be “hyper-real,” it was a fluffy, banter-filled dramedy that wasn’t on the air to get people to see a reflection of what was on the news, it was on the air like any other show to get you invested in characters so you come back next week to see what happens to them.

    Was THE WEST WING not living up to its educational potential in those days? Perhaps. But was it better television when you turned in to see the further exploits of Josh and Donna and all your favorites than when you tuned in next week to see “ANTHRAX!” or “NORTH KOREA” or, again “ASTEROID!”? Certainly.

    To paraphrase Jean Lauer’s earlier comment, I’ll take the Sorkin universe. It sure seemed more respectable than the one we have now.

  • The West Wing offers its viewers a new perspective of politics. Granted, I have only seen the show a handful of times, but it seems that problems that arise in the show do in fact have a solution. The harsh reality on the other hand remains quite the opposite. Politics is a tricky ballgame, and most political “spats” don’t have an easy solution and often result in a filibuster or stalemate of some kind. For example, it is widely agreed upon that Social Security reform is imperative so people like me don’t have to pay exuberant amounts of money to support the retiring baby-boomers. Even though we know the task at hand, cooperation is hard to come by in D.C.. The West Wing on the other hand is in a unique position to restore hope into our political system. The show often addresses contemporary issues, which are solved via compromise. The West Wing’s TV administration also always has the country’s best interest in mind, which is an admiral quality given our current political system. The show has an educational quality that cannot be ignored. By focusing on “real” problems, the show has the ability to make its viewers aware of the world around them to some degree. Furthermore, the use of archival footage brings the show credibility along with its own voice. Determining what footage will be used throughout the show gives the production team a vehicle for their own views. Not to say that archival footage is biased or unnecessary—it is. It educates the viewer on important historical events, and to understand contemporary politics, one should ideally be a political historian. Finally, I like and admire the show and what it’s doing. Sometimes we need the binary opposition between “real” and “fiction” to understand what we are really dealing with in our political system.

  • The Disney-fication of politics makes The West Wing one of the most educational productions to hit TV in the past decade. Anything that reaches out to the American populous and teaches the political process (and more importantly that which is not readily accessible to the public) is of great importance with present day’s low voter turnout. As a student, I can vouch for the effectiveness of the “spoonful of sugar” mentality that the combination of entertainment and educational material carries. Thus is the reason why so many teenagers report the way they do in response to questions about where they learn the most on current events and political matters. The fine line that The West Wing creates between reality and its hyper-real fiction allows for the perfect mixture of “real” material with enough entertainment value to distract their viewers from the intense focus on social issues. I am in agreement with Hanson on the claim that the Disney-fication of political discourse is in fact a good thing. The only problems occur when viewers may completely disregard reality for events that are taking place in the narrative. However, Hanson is still correct in the claim that social discourse will still take place over the issues at hand within the show. Whether it be directly or indirectly, heightened political awareness surfaces from the Disney-fication of The West Wing.

  • I feel that the central idea of The West Wing, aside from just entertainment, is not necessarily to express a certain political agenda to its viewers but rather to raise issues and present caricatures of different attitudes towards them. The fact that the issues that are dealt with in the show correspond with real life issues is no small surprise. There would be no reason to make a show about no longer relevant political issues. Honestly I haven’t watched too much of The West Wing but from what I’ve seen, it seems to take real political issues and show different ways of approaching them as opposed to just that of the shows writers and producers.

    The various characters of the show always seem to be arguing about these issues giving different ways of dealing with them. There is one character for example whose role seems to be simply to complain about whatever topic is at hand. This presents a more nihilistic approach which can then be argued against by other characters.

    In argument to Baylor’s statement that politically uninterested people probably aren’t watching The West Wing, I feel that the show does a good job of encouraging people to become politically interested. Being a primetime show I have a hard time believing that its 11.3 million viewers are all active political thinkers. If nothing else, the show implants the idea of forming some kind of opinion in people’s minds. In other words, it tries to make them a little more politically active.

  • The hyperreal of The West Wing is just another good example of the quasi-golden age of television that we are in. Though it is true that there is a significant number of programs on air or in development that offer little or no value to society, the fact of the matter is that TV quality programming continues a trend of creating meaningful shows that address the chaos and confusion that this world has to offer. Optimistic? Hanson’s argument for the possibly-positive effects of the “disney-fication” of politics is convincing, and brings hope to television, moving it far away for the “vast wastleland” paradigm. Although, Hanson’s ending on The West Wing being one of the college watched shows that stimulate political discussions hopefully had some research behind it, because I can’t think of any friends of mine who watch The West Wing and are in college. But here is to hoping that many young adults do watch The West Wing and find themselves motivated to be involved, in some small part, in this nation’s politics.

  • Benifits of Hyperreality

    It is hard to determine whether or not the Disney-fication of politics as shown in The West Wing necessarily has a negative impact on society. Making fiction something that as serious as The Presidency does not seem to be such a good idea. However, the usefulness of this fication depends on how this fiction is displayed and how it serves and affects society. On one hand, the youth of our society is exposed to a large part of what it sees as the reality of politics through the hyperreallity of shows such as The West Wing and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. On the other hand, this allows the younger population to be entertained while at the same time engaging their mind in politics.For this reason, what is portrayed must have many aspects of reality in it. It must also be shown in such a way that the youth can take from it something of usefulness. This point is very similar to one of the four imperatives argued by Godmilow (1), only she is addressing documentaries rather than television shows. The West Wing and other shows presenting a hyperreality of politics to children, though not entirely based on reality, is still not entirely fictional and gives the youth something to ponder. Because of this spark of interest for politics created in the mind of the viewer, this fication is a positive thing for society. It benefits the audience in that they go away with a newfound idea of politics and are forced to take an opinion on such politics. This gets more people involved in and contributing to what is going on in our nation and around the world.

    (1) Jill Godmilow, Kill the Documentary as We Know It

  • Galen Carter-Jeffrey

    I have only seen a handful of episodes of “The West Wing” but I do agree that it does push the boundary for fictional Television by using the techniques in the article. The quote from Martin Sheen (he’s getting old), “The key word about The West Wing is show. It is not a reality show” clearly reminds us that however close to reality the story becomes, it is still fiction first and foremost. It’s easy to watch a show like this and talk about similarities between the stories and real life and what the writers are trying comment on, the show (ratings) come first.

    “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?”

    I must admit I get a lot of my news from the Daily show, so this quote is something I can relate to, when it comes to using entertainment as news. Is it such a bad thing? It definitely has its drawback, such as entertainment not being objective, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

  • Trudy Hanson’s argument that The West Wing, although fictional, is beneficial and pro-social is, in my opinion, right on the mark because of the fact that people are learning more about the political process by watching it. The “Disney-fying” of American politics argument is true no doubt, but if you look at its power to inform, spark interest, debate, and criticize American politics and compare it to the news media’s, particularly TV news media’s current status in doing these same things, this “Disneyfication” offers a shred of hope to those who aren’t buying the “myth of American journalism.” Of course the program is fictional and not entirely realistic, (the serial narrative structure of TV drama is a little different from real-life…) but if you look to TV news for a “realistic” depiction of American politics, I believe you might find that attempts to educate through shows like The West Wing are important in many ways. I see these types of programming such as The West Wing, The Daily Show, Da Ali G Show, etc, as a response to the current state of American Journalism. The myth of American Journalism, which I mentioned above; that Wooward and Bersteins are out investigating, muckraking, and exposing corruption at all levels, doesn’t fit with the changing news media structure of the past few decades. Media consolidation, cable news networks, the Internet, and audience polarization, just to name a few, have completely transformed the news media landscape, allowing those who own it a plethora of ways to manipulate information to align with their own interests.

    I said earlier that The West Wing and others offer hope because they can address these media/political issues, (which are curiously left as invisible in the news media) in creative ways that serve the public interest where traditional news is horribly failing. Journalism’s number one obligation is supposed to be to serve the public, so I conclude by saying that there is a good reason to believe that it is failing when fictional, parody, and entertainment programming is becoming a influential source of political awareness in informing the public.

  • Response to the fact vs. fiction of the West Wing

    Is it necessarily bad that we’d rather have President Jed that President Bush? Well…not really. With other television shows as well, we, the viewers, can easily blur the line between fact and fiction. With “The West Wing,” the line becomes more and more hazy with every episode. Not only do we hope and pray before we go to sleep that when we wake up Martin Sheen really does live in the White house, but we seem to criticize our “real” government when they don’t act like our “fake” government. I think we all do realize that television is fake, but sometimes we cannot help but associate the two subconsciously. “The West Wing” is a in-depth look at what politics should be like: a president fully devoted to the true well-being of the people and a presidential staff willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill that desire. Obviously, out country in reality does not run like that. We concentrate way too much on the negative and expect the positive to work itself out. When we hear something good about the government (which rarely happens), we brush it off profusely with “well, this still has yet to be solved.” Not everything in the world can be perfect like “The West Wing”! So we can just stop hoping, and wishing and praying for political stability to exist in an socially unstable world. It’s sad to say, but perhaps we can learn a thing or two from television. *shudder*

  • Daniel Alexander

    Reality should reflect TV!

    I think television portrays the US President in the way that we all, ideally, wish he was (as others have said in their posts). We wish the presidency was not manipulated by special interest groups, and we wish that our president cared for each American life as much as on The West Wing. However, our love for the President on the TV show is a result of the insight we gain into his life. The show lets us see more of the facts surrounding his decisions. The information released to us in real life, regarding the president’s actions, is usually based on what he does, but it is unlikely that we ever completely know why. I think we would probably adore the real life president (more, at least) if we were given such an endearing look into his daily life.

  • all the time i used to read smaller articles or reviews which also
    clear their motive, and that is also happening with this article which I am reading now.

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