A still from the show "West Wing"

Courtesy of NBC

Skirting The Issue

Courtesy of NBC

The Self-Care of Escapist TV

With the distressing realities of politics, the spread of Covid-19, and a halt to life as we knew it, there’s comfort in political dramas, if only for an hour at a time.

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“Am I binge-watching fictional political dramas to escape the real-life political drama of the Trump administration?”

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself most evenings for a while now. After a long day of seeing troubling and frustrating headlines about the goings on in the White House, I eagerly queue up Netflix, where I’m quickly transported to another, very different White House – that of President Jed Bartlet on The West Wing.

On a recent Saturday night, for example, I watched the Bartlet administration appoint the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; it was just one historic moment in a show that exemplifies, even 20 years after its initial run, the very best of what our government can be. It may be a fictional behind-the-scenes peek into the life of the president and his senior staff, but for 44 minutes every night, it’s exactly what I need. And on the worst days, when reality kicks into high gear, it’s the only 44 minutes where I’m not angry about politics.

The West Wing is just the latest in my foray into the world of political shows, which has never been my favorite TV genre. Too boring. Too serious. And who wants to watch the government at work? How insufferable!

And then the 2016 election happened and the world swiftly, seemingly overnight, turned on its axis. Nothing made sense and it was now a reality that was truly insufferable. In just three years, we’ve witnessed Donald Trump separate families and put children in cages at the border, strip people of health insurance, refuse stricter gun control laws, possibly collude with foreign governments, deny the dangers of climate change, threaten women’s reproductive rights, mock a disabled reporter, criticize the press and bully people daily on Twitter, and downplay the current global pandemic that is not only threatening our economic security but our very lives. His list of transgressions is the very antithesis of what a president should be.

The West Wing and shows like it are my respite, offering me a vision of reality that isn’t corrupt and dangerous, even if it’s only on the small screen.

“The Trump era is uniquely disillusioning — and I think people are yearning for a little hope,” says Pat Cunnane, a staff writer on Designated Survivor, and former senior writer and deputy director of messaging in the Obama White House. “Since they aren’t finding it in real-world politics right now, who can blame them for seeking it on TV?” “For many, myself included, it’s refreshing to see political characters strive to do the right thing and grapple with tough decisions in moral ways. Plus, who doesn’t love an intelligent, banter-filled walk-and-talk through the halls of the West Wing?”

No doubt we’ve all binge-watched a show or two over the years. Thanks to the availability of streaming services like Netflix, the term “binge-watch” is officially a verb — and a quite popular one at that. For example, data from 2017 shows that 73 percent of Americans have watched multiple episodes of a TV show in one sitting — that number was up from 68 percent in 2015.

What’s driving these marathon binging sessions? A need to feel good — literally. Binge-watching is not only incredibly comforting, but it also gives our brains a jolt of dopamine (the feel-good chemical!), according to psychologists. And during times of stress (umm, like a Trump presidency, for example!), TV as a stress reliever and distraction is a prime coping mechanism.

“We are all bombarded with stress from everyday living, and with the nature of today’s world where information floods us constantly,” says Dr. John Mayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand. “A binge can work like a steel door that blocks our brains from thinking about those constant stressors that force themselves into our thoughts. Binge-watching can set up a great boundary where troubles are kept at bay.”

So when headlines proclaim binge-watching a “comfort binge,” I can’t help but agree. In the last six months, I’ve binge-watched political dramas almost exclusively. I first turned to Designated Survivor, where Kiefer Sutherland’s HUD Secretary Tom Kirkman is suddenly thrust into the role of commander-in-chief following a terrorist attack. In Kirkman, I saw a president who had the best interest of the people at heart and rose to the auspicious duties of the office with grace, compassion and dignity.

Cunnane’s White House background proved to be an asset while writing for the series.

“I try to pull as much reality into whatever I write,” he said. “My first episode of Designated Survivor was based – very loosely – on a true story from the Obama White House and one of his secret trips to Afghanistan.”

Madam Secretary hit particularly close to home. After all, I got to see Téa Leoni’s turn as Elizabeth McCord – an inspiring woman who went from Secretary of State to President of the United States over six seasons; here was the alternate reality that we could have had in 2016, one in which we elected the first female president – a loss so many of us are still mourning, even more now that the once historically diverse Democratic presidential field has been whittled down to two septuagenarian white men.

And now, the worse things get with our real-life current administration and with primary season in full swing, the more I cling to the Bartlet administration on The West Wing. As it turns out, I’m not alone: Following the 2016 election, Vice examined Google trends and discovered a distinct spike in interest for the Aaron Sorkin drama.

I can’t help but wonder what these fictional characters would think of our present reality. One person certainly has an idea: Bradley Whitford himself. Whitford played Josh Lyman, deputy White House chief of staff during the Bartlet administration. Lyman was an idealist who believed in progress and he would be “climbing the goddamn walls” in anger and frustration over the Trump administration, says Whitford.

Whitford describes the show, which ran for seven seasons, as an earnest presentation of the political world, but there was fear in the early days that the show wouldn’t get picked up because it was the first of its kind. No one really knew if the world of politics was a good arena for storytelling.

The show’s runaway success quickly proved that the medium of television has the power to hit all the right political notes, kicking off a genre that gets to the truth of the political world through the eyes of its fictional characters and where viewers get to see the public good take precedence.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that it’s an anthem to public service – people who are genuinely trying to do the right thing by the country,” Whitford said of the show’s legacy. “It’s really reassuring.”

There’s no denying that it’s all too easy to become jaded in the world of politics, but the power of The West Wing lies in the fact that it managed to avoid that trap altogether.

“What I loved most was that in an arena where it’s easy to be cynical, [the show] refused to be cynical; that was really important,” said Whitford.

So maybe in this new reality, where cynicism thrives, it was only inevitable that I would discover a newfound love of fictional political dramas. And in the end, maybe watching these shows serves a dual purpose – one not just about escapism, but also about rejuvenation. Because I’m going to continue watching as a way to regather my strength, and then, when I’m ready to rejoin the fight, I’ll ask, in the wise words of President Bartlet himself, “What’s next?”

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