There’s no way I would have been watching The West Wing this season if not for a perhaps perverse sense of loyalty to what it was back when it was Aaron Sorkin’s show. The writing, as many have observed, has tanked, and everything else has gone down with it. Tonight, however, may have been a new low. Whereas Sorkin could actually (and did) make the census riveting television, this season’s writers have made the policy discussion so dry and so trite that the one clever line of the show was when Leo responds to the President’s monologue by asking the others whether they were taking notes. And the character development may actually be worse. It was only in the last minutes of the episode, however, that I was offended in a way I can’t remember ever (despite often coming down pretty far to the left of the positions advanced there) being offended by the show.
President Bartlett has rightfully chosen to take a strong stance against mandatory minimums in drug sentencing and has commuted the sentences of thirty-some first-time non-violent drug offenders stuck with outrageous sentences under mandatory minimums. After the State of the Union, he’s introduced to a Black woman who’s one of the thirty-plus just released and expresses her gratitude. At this point Bartlett launches into a lecture on how lucky she is to be getting a second chance, how dire the consequences if she screws up again, how much the futures of other prison inmates are riding on her behavior, and how important it is that she appreciate her freedom. The sight (fictitious or not) of a white Nobel Laureate/ US President born to privilege taking the opportunity of having taken small steps towards ameliorating awful, punitive, and racist policy lecturing a Black woman who’s just made it out of years of humiliating and unjust punishment for a non-violent offense on how grateful she should be to him and how if she played by the rules he might be more magnanimous to others of her kind was offensive to the point of being difficult to watch. And that the woman simply smiles, blushes, and thanks him again for his kindness is absurd. I expected better.