December 18, 2005

UK Heart West Wing. What?

While skimming the front page of the BBC News website (International version) I spotted an article on the death of John Spencer, the respected character actor who plays Chief-of-Staff "Leo McGarry" on the American TV series "West Wing."

The UK reader comments at the bottom of the article were surprisingly emotional. That doesn't make sense, I thought. Sure enough though, when I jumped over to to check responses to the DVDs of the six seasons of the West Wing, it was all effusive positive comments, "best series ever", blah, blah, blah. Even from the congenitally nasty British TV critics. Am I dreaming?

Friends, Desperate Housewives, The OC, ER? OK. "Gold Mountain" for the Anglo plebs.

The Sopranos? Kinda understandable. Everyone seems to love the American Mafia.

But an ensemble TV show on the arcana of the US governmental system, and the President throwing his weight around once a week? ... with dialog written in the style of a Hepburn-Tracy movie and everyone prancing around office corridors looking grim and speaking in paragraphs. You're kidding, right?

Widely savaged on the west side of the Atlantic as the "Left Wing" -- TV alt-history pr0n for Democrats -- all I can think of is that the West Wing portrays Americans the way the British would *like* to see them, confident but oh so sensitive ... much as Yanks love the American Public Broadcasting System's "Masterpiece Theatre," ... endless British 19th century period pieces with girls in corsets and men in cravats (sort of a Hollywood farm team system for potential UK stars).

As a Canadian who's lived in the US off and on for forty years, I'm pretty familiar with the American federal system, current events, and slang. Even so, some episodes of the West Wing can be hard slugging. So do they teach the separation of powers in UK schools, now, along with "pleading the Fifth"? Or do Brits actually prefer a strong Father? Please explain. My world is in turmoil.

Posted by jmccormick at December 18, 2005 02:36 PM

I think it's the thrill of being at the center of the hegemonic power; the fantasy-world of a competent center-left president that doesn't have Bill Clinton's, uh, idiosyncracies, and the not totally unrealistic portrayal of the mechanics of US government.  (The offices of the staff are much larger and nicer than the actual equivalents in the real West Wing, as I remember them.)  Of course 9-11 didn't happen in the West Wing universe, making it the only alternate-history fiction set in a more boring universe than our own.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 19, 2005 12:09 AM

There are several answers. Firstly, they don't teach anything very much in UK schools and any knowledge of the British, let alone American constitution has long ago disappeared. Journalists make the most fundamental mistakes when writing about the parliamentary process.

Secondly, there never was real separation of powers in Britain. It was supposed to be a British idea but was not realy put into place untile the Americans got going. It never made its way back across the pond.

Thirdly, all theoretical information about the British constitutions is out of date because of the EU and its powers.

So, all we are left with is a woolly-minded admiration for glamour and emotionalism.

Posted by: Helen at December 19, 2005 06:54 AM

It is not a representive sample. The people who are fans are most likely to write favorable comments. Those who are not fans will probably skip the article let alone leaving a comment. Who's going to write an unfavorable comment on an obituary?

Posted by: iamnotanumber at December 19, 2005 09:53 PM

Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speech writer and Washington Times columnist, writes on and off for West Wing. In an interview with Brian Lamb she commented that while the show is certainly written as a drama and all that entails, they make an effort portray the functioning of the White House as realistically as they can.

Posted by: Michael Hiteshew at December 21, 2005 07:51 AM
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