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1 July 2023

Grieving, I find safety in the West Wing

The series provides the comfort and company I need – and it’s so horribly dated it doesn’t matter if watching it now ruins it for me for ever.

By Jonn Elledge

For the first two days after my beloved partner Agnes died, shockingly, unexpectedly and far, far too young, I mainly lay in the dark of my teenage bedroom and sobbed blankly into a wall. Eventually though, however much pain you are in, you start to need something to fill the silence. And so I switched the television on.

Grief is hard to write about, for the same reasons the sea is hard to write about while you’re in it. But every so often, these last few days, I have heard a small, strange voice mutter, unbidden, the deeply childish phrase: “I want to go home.” The problem is, the home I’m referring to isn’t a place or a building, but a feeling: a security bound up in the person who is gone and the life we were building together. The home I am longing for is a home which cannot now exist.

One of the advantages of being the sort of person who consumes a lot of box sets, though, is that other places which can offer at least some temporary safety still do. Two decades after I left, the spare room in my mother’s house has long ceased to be my own. But various fictional universes, containing people with whom I’ve spent hundreds of hours, are still there, their storylines familiar, their characters comforting. When the silence has become too much, but all I want to do is hide under a blanket and hug my dog, there are worlds to lose myself in, containing imaginary people who feel like friends.

I’d ruled out books because my attention span is shattered, and radio because that’s what I do when I walk. Many of the TV shows that have meant the most to me seemed off limits too, either because they’re too silly or contain too much death or, in several cases, both. (My brain has also, helpfully, been suggesting to me what would be the worst possible things to distract myself with right now. Top of the list: Douglas Adams’s last novel Mostly Harmless and the devastating early Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”.) There was another reason to be careful in my choice: whatever I chose to watch now would always be the thing I’d watched now, in the days and weeks after I lost the woman I’d expected to be my family.

But then I found the thing. There are 154 episodes of The West Wing, a series I watched so much in the early 2000s I can still recite chunks of dialogue, and even more of the accompanying West Wing Weekly podcast series I listened to far more recently than that. It will throw at me no shocking twists; no intruding, real-world trauma (at least, so long as you don’t count the damaging impact the episode “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” had on the Labour Party in the era of Ed Miliband). But it does offer a whole, distracting world of big ideas and witty dialogue, and characters I have known for half my life.

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It also doesn’t seem to matter if the experience of watching the series now means I can never return to it again. I know it inside out already for one thing, but more than that, nearly 25 years after the pilot, the show comes sort of pre-ruined. The “God bless America” tone, already grating in the Bush years, feels, after Trump and the insurrection of January 2021, to be more like science fiction. The early episodes, like much of the work of their writer, Aaron Sorkin, have abysmal gender politics, patronising the hell out of those few female characters who aren’t mere assistants, and leavening all this, this being the Nineties, with the occasional mildly homophobic joke. The show is exactly the wrong age, horribly dated without being quite old enough to feel like a product of another time. If watching it now means I can never watch it again, it won’t, in the scheme of things, matter.

Some years ago Quentin Tarantino coined the phrase “hangout movies”: films where story and plot matter less than the characters and dialogue, the sense of being with people you just want to be around. The West Wing may be a pretentious, dated show about smug liberals in suits, but I’ve known its occupants for half my life. And to make it to tomorrow, even when alone, I need to feel surrounded by friends.

[See also: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny review: a feeble last crack of the whip]

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