The White House press briefing has been presided over by its share of celebrity guests over the years, but when C.J. Cregg took the podium on April 29, it might’ve marked the first appearance of a fictional character. “Josh is out today, he has ... I believe it’s a root canal?” she quipped, probably referring to the incumbent Press Secretary Josh Earnest—or was it Josh Lyman, who had once stepped in for C.J. after her own dental emergency? Either way, she’d lost none of her poise. “Let’s be honest, I’m better at this than he is anyway,” she joked.
The moment was mostly a fun political stunt: The actress Allison Janney, who played the role of Press Secretary C.J. Cregg for seven years on NBC’s hit drama The West Wing, eventually broke character and ceded the stage back to Earnest after briefly speaking about sufferers of opioid abuse. But the gag was also the latest in a long line of enthusiastic throwbacks to a show that depicted a gentler, more idealistic time for Washington D.C.—one where White House staffers could be realistically portrayed as hard-charging, lovable do-gooders. The West Wing has been off the air since 2006, but this unfulfilled desire for harmony and efficacy in the political process is perhaps why there’s been more nostalgia for the fictional Jed Bartlet administration than for any real one in recent memory.
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.