Though Janney was only in character for a couple of minutes, the sight of her behind the podium talking to reporters felt particularly meta—even for a show whose fictional elements have so often bled into, or influenced, reality. The West Wing, which debuted in 1999, is now old enough that it surely inspired some of the younger staffers in the Obama administration to get into politics. And when the show intrudes into the real world, it does so in ways partly playful and partly serious: Back in 2008, the fictional Democratic President Bartlet (Creggs’s boss) even “endorsed” Obama in Maureen Dowd’s New York Times op-ed column, via a peculiar dream dialogue conjured by the show’s creator Aaron Sorkin.
Since airing its series finale almost a decade ago, The West Wing has remained in the public consciousness, thanks to its easy availability on Netflix and an evolving world of Internet fandom, including a slew of popular Twitter accounts imitating the show’s main characters. Now, the actual cast is getting more involved with the nostalgia boom. In a recent episode of The Late Late Show, the host James Corden did a walk-and-talk sketch with Janney (back as Cregg), this time accompanied by a white-haired Bradley Whitford as Bartlet’s Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman. In March, the actor Joshua Malina (who played Will Bailey on the show’s later seasons) and the composer Hrishikesh Hirway launched The West Wing Weekly, a recap podcast that tackles an episode a week.
Malina is now a regular on Scandal, one of a new wave of popular shows that present a darker side of Washington than The West Wing did—and that reflect the more cynical view many Americans today have of the political process. Scandal has always highlighted its president’s human weaknesses: Fitzgerald Grant is a philanderer who had the election stolen for him and possesses little actual power. He’s also committed murder, as has House of Cards’s Frank Underwood.
Compared to those shows, The West Wing exudes an almost cartoonish optimism about the power of politics to work for the common good. “[The West Wing] is a little too gentle for the sort of the cable landscape we’re used to now, in terms of an hour-long drama,” Malina told Vulture in an interview about the podcast. “That’s part of what’s so great about rewatching it. It does feel like a palate cleanser from the world of Breaking Bad and Sopranos.” Of course, The West Wing, for all its merits, is still high fantasy. Amid growing disenchantment with the 2016 presidential race, where the two leading candidates are likely to be the most unpopular ever nominated by their parties, it’s become easier to understand why even Obama White House officials are looking backwards—or to a D.C. that never really existed.
In the end, any administration’s achievements will lack the scripted magic of the The West Wing, where insurmountable problems can be conquered in the writer’s room. Look at what the Bartlet administration accomplished in its two terms: One episode brokers peace between Israel and Palestine, another “solves” Social Security’s fiscal insolvency, and a third confirms a controversial liberal as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In the show’s earlier days, progress came more slowly, and episodes would end with the staff grinding their teeth at the seeming impossibility of enacting gun-control legislation or making college education free for all. Over the seasons, those achievements started to stack up, effectively enshrining The West Wing’s romantic view of Washington. But the real melancholy is the fact that America’s political heroes can only exist in a dream sequence. When they actually take the stage at the White House, they quickly have to break character.