The West Wing is about to be demolished. No, not the edifice that is home to White House senior staff, but the television series that has aired on NBC since 1999. This week, NBC announced that the last episode will air on May 14.
Like many viewers, I tuned out long ago. When Bill Clinton was still in office, there was something mildly amusing about the Hollywood fantasy version of what a White House should be. Josiah Bartlet was everything Bill Clinton wasn't: a devoted husband, a man who got down on his knees in the Oval Office only to pray, a leader who'd rather lose an important vote than compromise his principles. But the series became tedious, the liberal proselytizing more aggressive, and the premise ridiculous once George W. Bush assumed office. The series has been on life support for several seasons, with every effort to revive the excitement first generated seven years ago failing. Not even the prospect of heartthrob Jimmy Smits (Congressman Matt Santos) becoming president has been enough to woo back an audience.
With "West Wing" gone, Hollywood fantasies of wresting control of the White House from evil Republicans will have to rely on the staying power of ABC's "Commander In Chief." But Geena Davis as President Mom is a pretty thin reed. Although the show premiered to record ratings in September, it's been losing ground almost steadily since. Conservatives have criticized President Mackenzie Allen as a fictional stalking horse for Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Davis' President Allen may actually set back the chances of a woman becoming commander in chief any time soon. Do we really want our president grappling with teenage angst and sibling rivalry in the middle of the War on Terror?
The show's creators seem not to realize that most women have long ago given up trying to have it all. Sure, working moms are now the norm, but the evidence suggests that most women who make it to the very top of their professions do so either after they have raised their children or chosen to remain childless. It's hard to balance work and family, even harder to balance becoming the boss in the workplace while maintaining the role of involved mom at home, and nigh impossible to manage a nuclear crisis while supervising the kids' homework.
But Hollywood keeps trying to remake the world in its own image, even if it doesn't sell to the viewing audience. And it's not just political shows that fall flat. NBC's new series "The Book of Daniel" has not only flopped in the ratings battle, it has scared off viewers and sponsors with its in-your-face iconoclasm. The main character, the Rev. Daniel Webster, played by Aidan Quinn, is a pill-popping Episcopal priest with a gay son, a drug-dealing daughter and an alcoholic wife. Jesus -- more of the Jesus Christ Superstar variety than a biblical interpretation -- makes regular appearances on the show to dispense Dr. Phil-type advice, but He, too, seems aimed more at irritating than attracting believers to the show. At a press conference with NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly this week, one TV critic noted that a recent episode ran virtually without ads: "Your commercial breaks were a festival of NBC promos; I think you had maybe one national ad in the whole show. Can you afford to keep putting that show on, or have these pressure groups . . . driven off literally all the advertisers?" A better question might be whether network executives are willing to air shows that drive viewers away if it suits their political agenda.
Hollywood used to try to entertain Americans, now it tries to indoctrinate them. And it has had some success. Shows like "Will & Grace" have made homosexuality appear non-threatening, indeed endearing, for example, advancing as well as reflecting greater tolerance toward gays. But the last four federal elections suggest Hollywood has yet to convince a majority of voters that Republicans are all simple-minded, greedy autocrats. They keep trying anyway, failing to advance their politics at the polls and losing viewers all the while. Maybe one day, they'll get back to trying to win audiences, not elections.