BY MITCH WEBBER
1. This season’s The West Wing picks up after a Palestinian terrorist bombing kills two American congressmen and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While the nation calls for military reprisals, the President retaliates with calligraphied invitations to a Camp David peace conference. Within two episodes, Israelis and Palestinians reach a comprehensive agreement on borders, repatriation, security, and joint sovereignty over Jerusalem. You know the drill: international summits, dialogue, diplomacy, strongerathomemorerespectedabroad. I’m not sure who’s stealing from whose foreign policy crib notes, but you can’t fault Senator Kerry for his enthusiasm over “reengaging” the Middle East Peace process. After all, it looks so easy on TV.
But The West Wing, while once a fine show, has passed its prime. A liberal New England Catholic Democrat as president? We can suspend disbelief only so long. Which is why I now turn to The WB for my political drama fix. This is the season of Jack & Bobby, a show about two teenage brothers, one of whom will grow up to be president of the United States, at least one of whom dies prematurely. No relation to the Kennedys, by the way.
2. Aside from the politi-
cal background, Jack & Bobby, co-created by a former executive producer of Dawson’s Creek, is classic WB programming. The characters ooze sanctimony, clever-by-half comebacks sit on the tips of their tongues, and by the end of the hour we’ve all learned a Very Important Lesson about integrity, friendship, faith, and sharing our toys on the playground.
The premise is a little convoluted. The show takes place in 2049, framed by a documentary on the just-former president’s character before and during his administration. We learn that the president spurned the party system to run as an independent (Why didn’t anyone ever think of that before?!), and that he nearly lost the election by freezing during a debate because he was asked an uncomfortable question. But decency won out over partisanship when his opponent fielded the question himself, scolded the moderator for asking in the first place: “Isn’t it enough that we’re all Americans?”
The majority of the show, though, is in flashback to the present day, as Bobby and Jack begin the eighth and tenth grades, respectively. The life lessons experienced or observed at a young age are explicitly tied to the president’s leadership four decades later. Bobby learns that courage means not always doing what’s popular, and that deep down bullies are just misfits in need of a little flattery. Jack and Bobby’s single mother, a pot smoking hippy-holdout professor, comes to realize that Islamic fundamentalism women’s garb reflects a different brand of feminism, one no better or worse than America’s secular women’s liberation movement. Jack is forced to make a choice between the track team and himself. And although I’m not sure it qualifies as a moral lesson, but, creepiest of all, Bobby’s future wife is Jack’s high school girlfriend, because, I suppose, the perfect woman just can’t be replicated.
3. The show’s implication is clear: everything you need to know about public policy you learned in the middle school cafeteria. We’re told that in his darker moments, when the president felt overwhelmed, he would remark to his staffers, “The wrong brother become president.” It’s a disarmingly inane comment, considering the interchangeableness on the show of every character’s deep-down goodness and mushy worldview. Sure, the future president and his brother are brave, weekly displaying the courage of their convictions. But minus any real convictions, the drama looks a whole lot like empty bravado.
Lee Siegel of The New Republic described the show as a fantasy of “a dictatorship of feeling, where the present abides eternally, and no one disagrees for long because ideas are so silly.” But as a big fan of the show, I’m not so dour. Real life politics is adversarial, aggravating, distracting. Candidates are argumentative and out to win, and issues, like elections, are sometimes “too close to call.” I want what Jack & Bobby promises – a public arena in which the prettiest girl is always the chastest, and where a pensive look has the force of a thousand arguments and rebuttals that a moment will reverse.
Mitch Webber watches The WB.