Finally, after the months of speculation, news stories, debates and sleepless nights over the abject terror of what lay in wait, we’re finally properly into the Presidential Race of 2016. The Iowa Caucuses were at the start of this week, meaning that the people have started choosing just who is going to run the United States of America and see their hair turn an appealing shade of grey in an astonishingly brief amount of time starting this time next year. Praise democracy!
Of course, that feeling of goodwill towards the process only lasts until you look at the current race and see where everything is. How did the Republicans end up trying to outrace each other to the most extreme positions? Why are the Democrats attacking each other about who is most authentic on subjects that they agree on? Is there any kind of middle ground out there for undecideds, beyond “we hate the government”? It makes you long for simpler times and more honorable politicians… which means, in that case, it’s time for another dose of The West Wing.
In the years since its conclusion, The West Wing has been exposed as a beautiful fantasy where everyone really is trying to work towards a better good, despite having different ideas about what that might mean. If there are destructive jerks, they’re either taught to be nicer or quickly ousted from the political process after being taught a lesson. In The West Wing universe, neither Ted Cruz nor Donald Trump would exist, put it that way.
So, consider these following 10 episodes — all available on Netflix, as the rest of the series is — a much-needed antidote to reality, and something to recharge your belief in the system.
S1 E19: LET BARTLET BE BARTLET
Much of the first season of the show is, perhaps surprisingly considering what follows, about how difficult it is to govern after you’ve managed to win the election — not just in terms of the President himself, second-guessing himself and trying to be all things to all people, but his staff as well. Everything comes to a head in this episode, as things fall apart (well,almost) before everyone starts to get their mojo back.
S2 E1-2: IN THE SHADOW OF TWO GUNMEN
The West Wing really hit its stride with the opening to its second season, which mixed the melodrama of the aftermath of an attempted assassination with flashbacks to how Bartlet ended up in office in the first place. Rarely has the political system seemed so charming. (Or dangerous, considering that assassination attempt.)
S2 E17: THE STACKHOUSE FILIBUSTER
Here’s an example of the unrealistically collegial attitude that The West Wing specialized in: an attempt to filibuster the President’s own healthcare bill ends up being assisted by the White House, because it’s a filibuster that exists for moral reasons and sometimes, dammit, you just have to do the right thing. Why can’t this happen in the real world?!?
S2 E22: TWO CATHEDRALS
Wrestling with oncoming public scandal — his MS is about to be revealed to the world — and important decisions to be made (To run for a second term or not?), Bartlet finds himself more concerned with his grief following the death of his longtime right hand woman, Mrs. Landingham, which leads to one of the most dramatic set pieces of the series: President vs. God. We all know who wins.
S3 E4: ON THE DAY BEFORE
In the midst of a congressional investigation into Bartlet withholding information about his MS from the American people, the President has to veto a bill for the first time — as long as he doesn’t get undercut by the House of Representatives, which just might have enough votes to override the veto. Oh, a governor in his own party might be interested in running against him in the next election. Some days, it apparently doesn’t pay to be the leader of the free world.
S3 E12: THE TWO BARTLETS
Never mind the fact that Bartlet has to counter an attack on a woman’s right to choose, nor even the problem of peacefully dealing with protestors who are, technically, on the same side as the people they’re protesting against; this episode is all about the question of what happened to the missing gold bullion from Fort Knox. Oh, sure, you laugh now, but just you wait…!
S4 E1-2: 20 HOURS IN AMERICA
As the re-election campaign gets into full swing, the Washington Elite come into collision with the real world and… okay, it’s far from their finest hour, even as the show offers up one of its best episodes (helped by a surprise appearance by a young Amy Adams) with the staffers coming up with the big idea to help Bartlet get back into power.
S4 E6: GAME ON
Hey, Aaron Sorkin is best at talky scenes and sermonizing, and presidential debates are all about talking and sermonizing, so unsurprisingly, the debate episode of The West Wing — more specifically, the one that the show did when Sorkin was still working on it — is fire itself. Amazing stuff, and enough to guarantee that all real debates will be a letdown afterwards.
S5 E8: SHUTDOWN
The post-Sorkin West Wing is rarely as good as what came before, with some character moments seeming almost nonsensical. But this episode, in which a standoff between the Republican Congress leadership and Democratic White House, is as charming as it is a fairytale written by people entirely in the tank for “their guy.” Utterly unrealistic, but something that will make you wish that the truth was just like this nonetheless.
S7 E13: THE COLD
By its final year, The West Wing has almost become a different show, as it followed the campaigns of the Republican and Democratic pretenders to Bartlet’s office more than it showed the final year of Bartlet’s presidency. There are pluses and minuses to this approach (The latter including, hey, why have you sidelined half your cast?), but this episode — in which the Republican candidate is getting pressure to appeal more to the base, while both candidates have to deal with the current president — is amongst the best of this era.