We’re in the middle of the U.S. Presidential debate cycle, that magical time that comes around every four years that makes some people excited about their candidate, others angry at at least one of the two choices available, and even more wondering if it’s too late to just try and move to another country before November.
Instead of dwelling on the horrors of contemporary political discourse, however, why not escape into a fictional past where debates were (mostly) civil and unrealistically erudite? It’s time to return to the liberal comfort food that is The West Wing, with ten episodes focusing on Presidential races, including two debate episodes that will make you wish that Martin Sheen, Jimmy Smits or even Alan Alda was on the ticket this time around.
S2 E1/2: IN THE SHADOW OF TWO GUNMEN
The first real look at the original Jed Bartlet campaign came in flashback scenes at the opening of the show’s second year, and it was intended as a sign that the already beloved, capable-if-thwarted-by-the-system crew came from scrappy beginnings. However, if this was scrappy, then the rest of us have no hope — they were almost immediately self-righteous and capable.
S3 E9: BARTLET FOR AMERICA
Even more flashbacks to that first campaign arrived a year later, as a congressional investigation into Bartlet — who, by this point, had revealed to America that had M.S., something he’d “accidentally” not told the country during his first campaign—unleashes all kinds of remembrances by his staff about how trustworthy and forthright he seemed, way back when. Compared with today’s choices, though, this all seems like small fry.
S4 E1/2: 20 HOURS IN AMERICA
The campaign trail gets real (time) in the show’s fourth season opener, as the first campaign of the series, and Bartlet’s second overall, gets underway with some missed connections and the discovery of what the President is going to say in order to get re-elected. Spoilers: he also wants to make America great again, but in the vague, actually great way that fictional Presidents get to plan things.
S4 E5: DEBATE CAMP
This year, debate prep became a matter of media speculation when reports surfaced that Donald Trump was less actually preparing for the first debate, and more having drinks and cracking wise with his buddies (Something that seemed utterly believable judging by his performance on the night). What should he have been doing? This episode offers a hint or two.
S4 E6: GAME ON
The first of the show’s two debate episodes, this episode doesn’t focus entirely on showtime—there are subplots about Sam’s pending departure and a foreign visit that will cause trouble down the line—but there is the benefit of seeing a Presidential debate with dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin, which… I mean, come on. That’s all kinds of amazing, right?
S4 E7: ELECTION NIGHT
What’s great to see about this election episode—the first in the show’s run—is how casually it treats the election results themselves. After all, the audience aren’t stupid; they knew that the entire cast of the show wasn’t about to be replaced midway through a season. Instead, the fun of the episode is seeing how it treats the electoral process itself, and the characters’ own nervousness about how everything is going to turn out.
S7 E6: THE AL SMITH DINNER
Cut forward a few years, and The West Wing is almost a different show; Sorkin is gone, and by the time of the third season, the show had so many newcomers that it feels oddly disconnected from what went before—especially considering the fact that it’s essentially turned into a series about Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits trying to be elected President. The entire season has that storyline to a degree, but it’s really this episode—where the two characters struggle to respond to an outside group’s attempt to stir up an abortion discussion—where things get going… leading to the following epic:
S7 E7: THE DEBATE
A stunt episode performed and broadcast live twice (once for the east coast, once for the west), it’s an episode where the fictional debate actually… feels like a more convincing U.S. Presidential debate than either of the two we’ve “enjoyed” from the real life 2016 campaign. Trust me, you’ll find yourself wanting to vote Vinick or Santos by the end of the hour.
S7 E10: RUNNING MATES
More debate humor is mined in this episode, which sees former White House Chief of Staff turned Democratic VP candidate Leo McGarry worrying everyone on his team with particularly poor debate prep, leading to the possibility that things were about to get very difficult in the Veep debate. Suffice to say, things don’t go as anyone planned. Well, aside from one person.
S7 E14: TWO WEEKS OUT
Ignore the morality play about whether Alan Alda’s Republican candidate is immoral enough to use a mistake on behalf of Jimmy Smits’ Democratic opponent to get ahead (He’s not, of course; he’s Alan Alda)—what makes his episode curiously effective is watching Alda’s character struggle through campaigning when it’s already taken such a toll on his health. In a way that few other things do, it’s a subplot that manages to make the human cost of the non-stop campaign far more human than most would recognize.