A couple of weeks ago, when The West Wing concluded with a scene in which the White House staff, buffeted on every side by defeat and doubt, came up with a new strategy for Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet — ”Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” (it was conveniently scrawled on a piece of paper by Leo, John Spencer’s chief of staff) — I nearly jumped out of my seat as the end credits began to roll. Hey! I didn’t want to wait another seven days to see the new tactic in action; I wanted to watch the next inspiring hour right now!
About a half hour later, Wing-mania momentarily staved off by NBC’s follow-up show, Law & Order, I was sprawled back in my seat, sneering along with homicide detectives Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Green (Jesse L. Martin) as a patently fishy psychologist played with pitch-perfect hauteur by Jon Cypher (Walker, Texas Ranger) said of himself and his murder-suspect son, ”[We have] nothing to hide; we’re therapists — we believe in the truth.” In the world of Law & Order, the only possible response to that kind of malarkey is ”Yeah, sure, buddy — come down to the station and get in a lineup.” Which is what, more or less, Briscoe and Green said.
Each of these shows exploits, with artistry and shamelessness, an extreme of vicarious pleasure: There’s the hop-out-of-your-seat-and-salute idealism of The West Wing followed by the oh-jeez-the-cops-are-sure-to-find-my-porno-stash pessimism of Law & Order. Together, they combine to form the best back-to-back two-hour block in prime time. When I first reviewed West Wing last October, I hedged my bets with a B grade and some measured grousing about the show’s fairy-tale-liberal politics. But over the past six months, I’ve been swept up (as has what seems like every other person with whom I have a TV conversation) in the warm-bath emotion and bracingly icy screwball-comedy dialogue that make irresistible the fictional presidency of Bartlet and his hardy band of loyalists.
In the world created by writer Aaron Sorkin, we’ve been given a precious fantasy: A decent, funny, intellectual man runs the country, surrounded by decent, funny, intellectual women and men. And while Sorkin and NBC were probably hoping viewers would swoon over Rob Lowe, they couldn’t have bargained on the fact that nearly the whole damn cast, especially Allison Janney’s flinty press secretary C.J., Bradley Whitford’s swivel-hipped deputy chief of staff Josh, and Richard Schiff’s bald, brooding Toby, would become TV’s new sex-symbol super-team.
Meanwhile, in Law & Order’s mirror universe, pessimism is the only sane response to a world festering with betraying spouses, murderously greedy family relations, and immoral doctors of every persuasion. If we visit the TV West Wing to receive comfort and succor, we huddle with these law-and-order cops and lawyers because they seem to be the only ones who aren’t victims or suckers.
Notice I say pessimism, not cynicism: Briscoe, Green, McCoy (Sam Waterston), and Carmichael (Angie Harmon) always expect to be on the losing end of a tough case, but this feeling only makes them redouble their efforts, and they refuse to give up hope that other good people will help them win. Over time, the hangdog expressions of Orbach on the beat and Waterston in the courtroom have taken on a similar mien; they could be blood brothers in their belief that evil works slowly but relentlessly.