In these dark days, a lot of us are turning to the old idiot box even more to escape everything going on at the moment. Also, in long-term lockdown there are only so many new hobbies you can take up before you realise you hate hobbies. There are any number of amazing shows worthy of a rewatch (or first watch if you somehow missed them so far) like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, to name but a few; but for true escapism from the harsh realities of a worldwide pandemic you want true comfort-watch TV. Something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, and doesn’t make you confront the darker side of humanity but in fact transports you to a lighter, happier place. For your lockdown entertainment, here are a few of my favourite comfort things. I can happily watch these shows any time (and I have) and feel better.
The West Wing
Everybody should have to stay inside for three months so that they truly appreciate the outdoors. I appreciate the outdoors, now. I’m an outdoorsman.
– Josh Lyman.
The West Wing‘s central conceit is based around the notion of a Democrat President and his closest advisors, who are dedicated solely to doing good for the country. Arriving in the closing stages of Clinton’s presidency it seemed naive then and over the course of its seven-year run during the George W. years began to resemble more of a delusional refuge from the realities of partisan politics and the growing divide in America’s populace.
Since then, of course, we’ve had Obama who, if very different to the wealthy New Hampshire-born descendant of a founding father, was at least closer to the spirit of the character than most Democrats ever expected to see in the White House. In the Trump years the show has begun to regain its place as comfort-watching for depressed Democrats—a bucket of political Ben & Jerry’s to sob into as they witness Trump use the truth as a sparring partner on a daily basis.
Aside from the writing—which is consistently excellent if you are OK with ignoring Sorkin’s didactic excesses—it has some excellent characters and acting. (Except Mandy. Nobody liked Mandy and she vanished after the first season with so little mention that any character that subsequently disappeared was deemed to have gone to ‘Mandyville‘). They may all be highly intelligent, successful (and possessing a superhuman ability to operate on almost no sleep) people but they are also deeply flawed, particularly in the emotional arena.
Bartlett himself is portrayed as somewhat of an intellectual snob, with a fairly hefty ego problem, but it’s balanced with a fierce desire to fix the country’s problems, which, in a nod to actual party politics, proves to be harder and harder to achieve during his term in office. Toby is a deeply bitter grump with a rigidly unbending moral compass; Josh is a hyperactive policy nerd who’s workaholic tendencies have left him utterly incapable of managing real human relationships. Charlie, C.J, Leo, Sam, Mrs. Landingham—all these characters are brought to life impressively while the larger chaos of life in the White House plays out around them, and they become familiar friends before you know it.
This is perhaps my biggest complaint about Sorkin’s later shows: Studio 60 and The Newsroom. The West Wing characters have evident character flaws but you love them nonetheless, whereas with those subsequent shows I felt no real connection to the characters. I just saw the flaws. Perhaps they’re simply more realistic and less schmaltzy. Regardless, my love for The West Wing is unchallenged. I can rewatch this show every year and still enjoy it.
The quality slides a little in the fifth season after Sorkin’s departure but picks up again in the sixth as we follow Josh and his new candidate in the primaries and through the election that follows.
As comfort watching it is in my opinion almost unparalleled by any other TV drama, especially in these times. It handles difficult issues and serious topics with aplomb, but you rarely come out of a West Wing session without feeling a little more hopeful about the world and the people in it, and we all need some of that at the moment. As we all seem to be in for the long haul, the added coup de grâce is that there are seven seasons of it—154 hours of political optimism to wrap around yourself like a blanket of hope. It’s available on Netflix in the US, and Sky in the UK.