So “Game On” captures on the one hand the intellectual bloodlust that many such debates will involve: the partisan rancor, the high stakes, the anything-could-happen serendipities (and tragedies) of live TV. It also functions, though, as an hourlong ad hominem attack against an entire political philosophy. It assumes that conservatism can be fairly stereotyped as bumbling and word-tripping and uneducated. All of this by way of proving its broader argument: that one side is Right, and the other is Wrong. (The West Wing’s fourth season aired during the fall of 2002, halfway through George W. Bush’s first term; it does not require much imagination to see Ritchie as a grotesque version of the former Texas governor.)
That is, all in all, a flaw. It’s a stance that is unnecessarily alienating; it’s one that makes the line C.J. utters, as part of her post-debate victory lap—“the president just reminded us that complexity isn’t a vice”—ring ironically hollow. “Smug,” whichever side you’re on, is very rarely a good look.
And yet. “Game On,” for all its easy stereotypes and all its smug equivalencies, also goes a long way toward explaining why The West Wing—now 10 years off the air—has remained such an enduring feature of American political life. In the decade since Bartlet left office, politics have on the one hand gotten even more partisan, and even more bitter. But they have also, at the same time, lost clarity. They have become even more epistemologically unmoored than they once were. The 2016 campaign, after all, features battles not just over opinion, but over facts themselves—with many of the stories about it taking for granted the notion that we have now entered the “post-fact” era of political discourse.
In that environment, The West Wing, with all its blithe assumptions, offers the refreshment of certitude itself. “Game On,” in particular, treats politics not just as empty spectacle, but as something that actually matters. It rejects cynicism in favor of conviction. Many of the shows that have come in The West Wing’s wake—Designated Survivor, Veep, Madam Secretary, etc.—de-emphasize their characters’ political parties and convictions. Whether for purposes of broad audience appeal or (as in the case of Veep) a kind of #lolnothingmatters strain of satire, they downplay the combative elements of the American political system.
Not so The West Wing. It wants, for better or for worse, a fight, and a contest, and a game. It treats politics as a sport, and it revels in the moral promise that athletic events make to viewers: Sports, after all—like an election itself—feature clear winners, and clear losers. Whatever happens during their games, one team (or one person) will come away as the victor. There is no ambiguity. There is no uncertainty. There is no “post-fact” thinking. There is only right and wrong, only win and lose.
“I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial,” the speechwriter Will Bailey tells Sam Seaborn, after the debate concluded in Bartlet’s favor.
“So did we,” Sam replied. “But then we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate.” He paused. “If your guy’s seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.”