TV UK, 26 October

George W Bush just can't compete with Jed Bartlet, The West Wing's learned and urbane president, who is all the more likeable for being fictional.

Dolan Cummings

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President Bush appeared on TV last Tuesday and declared, ‘First of all, I don’t have anthrax’.

This was a joke. I can just imagine some bright spark in the West Wing grinning to himself as he penned that one. I mean, it’s good. The president appears all solemn-faced in the height of a global panic, with the whole world hanging on his next word, and he tells us that he doesn’t have a sheep disease. Even the phrase, ‘to have anthrax’ is comically unfamiliar. No doubt, it’s a good ‘un.

In its author’s mind, I can well imagine, this was to be the moment that America finally embraced President Bush as a wit, and more, as a leader capable of facing adversity with cool humanity. When our enemies threaten our way of life, we respond with bon mots. Maybe it was in the delivery then, maybe it was just that nobody wants to like the guy, but when Bush told the world he didn’t have anthrax, the world said, ‘Oh’, and then, ‘What a plonker’.

Several weeks into the new season of The West Wing, Bush just can’t compete with Jed Bartlet, the learned and urbane president who is all the more likeable for being fictional. We poor allies are still catching up with the last season on E4 (Tuesdays at 9pm and Sundays at 10pm), but already it is clear that The West Wing is one of the few examples of the continuing superiority of Western civilisation.

As ever, greatness is revealed in the detail. Last week’s opening sequence casually established the presence on the White House chief counsel’s desk of a Dictaphone That Won’t Stop Recording, and a Big Hammer, before bringing in the president to discuss whether he is guilty of a massive conspiracy to deceive the American people. This is how to introduce a new character (the chief counsel) with a bang.

Equally to its credit, the programme has been sustaining for some weeks a delightful will-they?-won’t-they? romance between Josh and his PA Donna. (Is ‘delightful’ too much? Ah, what the hell.) Having resolved some tension over Donna’s ex-boyfriend a couple of episodes ago, Josh made his first sexual innuendo to her last week. This went unnoticed by the characters and was not even highlighted by a lingering shot of anybody’s face looking all meaningful. This is classy stuff.

The secret of a successful subplot, of course, is to have a strong plotplot. This is what The West Wing is good at, in contrast, for example, to BBC2’s Attachments (1), which is all will-they?-oh-they-just-did, and isn’t delightful at all. The West Wing is held together by its political storylines. If the special terrorism episode was an embarrassing flop, it is because it was artificially grafted on to a well-thought-out drama that focuses on the dilemmas of ethical men caught in political machinery.

Notice that I say ethical, not necessarily right. I was gratified to see Josh and CJ joking the other week about how Toby Ziegler is a fascist. He is too, you know. Toby is the White House director of communications, and is a reliable indicator of the authoritarian take on the various issues dealt with in the programme. Ban this, enforce that, invade here, impose sanctions there. If Bush can’t do humour, he can just about manage that.

Americans have a choice. They can put up with a second rate Toby Ziegler, or they can do what the world has been crying out for and put David Letterman in the West Wing.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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spiked-issue: TV

TV UK, 19 October, by Dolan Cummings

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