For years, American television producers were most likely to set their dramas in places like courtrooms, hospitals or police stations. But over the past decade, the White House and halls of Congress have also become popular settings as well. Many credit the critically-acclaimed drama The West Wing with providing an "insiders" look at the U.S. presidency and Washington political process. The West Wing concludes its final season next Sunday as Washington political observers reflect on the show's contributions.
As many as 15 million American viewers tuned in to the NBC network to watch actor Martin Sheen play a fictional president, Jeb Bartlett -- as he and his White House staff grappled with everything from global terrorism to aggressive reporters. Now that the series is ending, Mr. Sheen says he has enjoyed his seven-year -or nearly two-term tenure- on The West Wing. The show's title refers to the area of the White House where the president's and many staff offices are located.
"It's been a beautiful, beautiful grace-filled, happy run," says Sheen. "I have mixed feelings about it: it's hard to let go of, but it must be let go of."
News reports attributed the show's cancellation to a declining number of viewers and the sudden death last December of key actor John Spencer, who portrayed the president's chief of staff. George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley says the show filled a need of Americans to have a "fantasy leader."
"I think people liked The West Wing because it was the president they wanted," Professor Turley says, "someone who was sensitive, intelligent, even conflicted, but someone aware of his conflicts. People enjoyed The West Wing more than reality because it was the White House they wanted, whether they were Democrats or Republicans."
Professor Turley says the dialogue on The West Wing sounded accurate because the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, hired real-life White House staffers, such as ex-President Bush's and Clinton's press secretaries to help with the TV scripts.
"The West Wing was very much a part of a cottage industry here in Washington," says Turley. "There were a lot of contributors who brought a lot of reality. The West Wing often followed contemporary events closely and was a commentary on those events. What was striking was that people seemed to take comfort that The West Wing was dealing with contemporary problems even though it was purely theatrical [and] there was a certain nobility to the way the problems were handled."
Former CBS News White House correspondent Terence Smith once visited the West Wing studio set in Burbank, California, and found it almost like the real president's office in Washington. "It was eerie walking around that set - how similar it was," Smith says. "Many things were shrunken down in size, but I was very familiar with the White House press room. They got it right."
But observers also say the show sometimes presented an idealized view of the American presidency. Professor Turley says he found The West Wing staffers were sometimes too good to be true.
"The greatest problem with The West Wing was that everybody was articulate, no matter what occurred," Turley says. "You could have a nuclear threat and people were talking in complete sentences! In reality, Washington is not that articulate, neat or provocative."
Retired correspondent Smith says The West Wing has to have some literary license to make the show exciting. "Of course, it was theatrical," he says. "But there was an authenticity to it. It was fascinating for people to watch. The cast was so good, including the late John Spencer, who was a terrific actor and a tragic loss."
As a university professor, Jonathan Turley and other educators applaud such shows as The West Wing and ABC television's Commander in Chief for giving viewers a unique look at their government in action. But he says it's unfortunate that many need to turn to television for strong presidential role models and staff.
"There's an element of fantasy as people in both parties are unhappy with the current politics," says Jonathan Turley. "They're turning to television, where actors are providing a more viable and sustainable model. [But] it's worrisome that so many Americans turn on the TV to see White Houses that resonate more deeply with them. It's an example of the deep malaise and dissatisfaction both Republicans and Democrats have with the political system. Right now, television offers the most inspiring models and reality is far more disturbing."
Apparently, interest in fictional White House dramas is diminishing. Along with the ending of The West Wing series, ABC television recently announced it has canceled the new series Commander in Chief, starring actress Geena Davis. Davis won a Golden Globe "best dramatic actress" award earlier this year for her portrayal of the first female president of the United States.