Writing in April 2020, Joke Hermes and Annette Hill note that audiences turned to television during the coronavirus pandemic “because of its particular affordances: its affective, material and ontological elements which become central in lockdown Culture” (2020: 656). There are clear links between the pandemic experience, media texts, and our sense of what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls ontological security (Giddens 1991), which “arises out of having what you know about yourself and your social world regularly (re)confirmed and […] forms the basis for building trust in a fragmented and dispersed social environment” (Garner 2020). When this trust is threatened, as in the case of the pandemic, individuals often turn to the media (especially television) to cope and to rework their understanding of the world in which they live.
We can see this need for security, our attempts to cope, across a range of media forms and genres from fans revisiting the Eurovision Song Contest (Waysdorf 2020) and the entirely mediated experience of 2020’s Glastonbury Festival (Weston 2020), to the odd comfort of re-watching apocalyptic drama series (Garner 2020). It also manifests in the screening of episodes of television series, often accompanied by live-tweeting from actors, writers and fans as in the case of Doctor Who (1963-1989; 1996; 2005-present) which has been “generating dialogues across platforms, nations and divisions – uniting, delighting, empowering and enlightening us in our enforced isolation” (Charles 2020). Such communal viewing also clearly speaks to the need to connect, to maintain links with other people even as we are asked to remain apart. As Hermes and Hill note, “Television undoes social distance” (2020: 659).
Yet not all our viewing is collective, shared with others on social media platforms and through hashtags. My own lockdown viewing has been varied. But, from comedy series such as Schitt’s Creek (2015-2020) and What We Do In The Shadows (2019-present) to the reality television of SAS Who Dares Wins: Celebrity (2019-present) and the instructional programming of the Food Network, it has tended towards the reassuring or undemanding. It has also included a re-watch of every episode of the BBC mystery drama Jonathan Creek (1997-2016), a case of comfort viewing an old favourite, like slipping into an old cardigan or beloved jumper. I would not be alone in turning to ‘Comfort TV’ during the pandemic, as Elke Weissman’s (2020) recent blog for CST noted. In the past few weeks, however, its another familiar friend that has slid into my DVD player and I have, almost accidentally, found myself revisiting The West Wing (1999-2006).
The NBC drama series, which ran between 1999 and 2006, focused on the lives (both professional and personal) of White House staffers who served under the Democratic President Josiah (Jed) Bartlet, famously played by Martin Sheen. The show was heralded as an example of early 21st-Century ‘quality’ television; Janet McCabe calls it a “milestone television series” and argues that “Evoking ideas of quality in terms of authorship, stellar casting and acting (associated with legitimate theatre), high-production values and the latest television image-making technology, upscale viewers and serious highminded (political) debate helped distinguish what made The West Wing stand out as a beacon in the highly competitive television marketplace” (McCabe 2013: 8).
Reactions to the ending of the series in 2006 became a focus of my doctoral research and ended up forming the foundation of my first monograph which introduced the concept of “post-object fandom” (2015) to explore how fans react when favourite media texts or objects end, and what they do afterwards. The West Wing has lain dormant for the fourteen years since its final episode, ‘Tomorrow’ aired. But its return from the televisual dead for a reunion on HBO Max in advance of the 2020 US election propelled it back into the limelight. Rather than an entirely new episode, the reunion is an adaptation of the season three episode ‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ which is staged, quite literally, at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. Most of the original cast return including Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney and the part of Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is played by Sterling K. Brown due to original actor John Spencer’s death in 2005.
This is not to say that the stars of the series have been silent since the finale in 2006. Actors such as Bradley Whitford, Alison Janney and Martin Sheen have been outspoken on a range of political issues and campaigned for Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But it is the HBO Max special that has stirred up discussion and analysis of the series again, with online pieces discussing its idealism and often naïve optimism (Armstrong 2020). It is this resurrection that has prompted my own rewatching, even though international distribution limitations mean that the episode is not widely (legally) available outside the US. But returning to a series that I know so well, that I have studied and loved, has been an experience worth reflecting on, especially within the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
Keidl and Melamed describe ‘pandemic media’ as:
media forms and formats, content and narratives, exhibition and distribution, locations and settings, practices and uses, as well as analogies and metaphors that have made the invisible virus and its consequences perceptible. […] “Pandemic media” represent a specific attitude toward media in a moment of transition and uncertainty at a time of a global health crisis. […] These configurations have reordered social spaces, rhythms, and temporalities through calls for information, synchronization, regulation, and containment, as well as the reconfiguration of media technologies and cultures themselves (Keidl and Melamed 2020).
I would add that the pandemic has also enabled us to revisit, and re-evaluate, how we use existing media texts, objects and forms, particularly given the confluence of the coronavirus with the political and civil unrest and protest that has characterized 2020. It seems almost impossible to separate the two since, as Hearn and Banet-Weiser note, “The conjuncture of Black Lives Matter activism and the material inequities exposed by the global pandemic has provided […] [a] kind of ontological shattering” (2020: 5).
My own journey back to The West Wing hovers between comfort and melancholy, and between past, present and future. Revisiting a show that I haven’t watched for the best part of a decade offers the pleasure of return, the chance to remember key moments and characters. It is an experience made better since I am watching it with a first-time viewer (who, fortunately, is already hooked) offering the “vicarious pleasure” of the “opportunity to re-experience first viewing and the pleasures associated with the ‘discovery’ of the fan object” (Williams 2015: 148). But I must confess I wasn’t expecting to find the series so affecting, and to have such a strong emotional attachment. Perhaps it is because I am now 20 years older than the first time that I saw the show and am better equipped to understand the context and implications of what the characters experience. Maybe it is because it is so inextricably caught up in my own sense of personal and professional identity that going back feels like revisiting moments from my own life, my own career trajectory. Such connections are not uncommon for long-term fans since “fictional narratives […] offer powerful conceptions of emotional/experiential authenticity by which fans come to measure, appraise, or otherwise make sense of their own developmental and/or maturational processes” (Harrington and Bielby 2010: paragraph 6.2). Or it could simply be the relief of the escapism from the political moment in the UK and US in a version of politics that “indulged in an innocence that became unmoored from anything like reality even during its run – and when viewed in 2020, plays like a utopian sci-fi” (Armstrong 2020). Such reactions were particularly pertinent as the US Presidential election drew closer and as I continued to watch episodes of the series as voting day approached and took place. As we still come to terms with the results, and the aftermath of Donald Trump’s refusal to concede to President-Elect Joe Biden, the drama of The West Wing seems to pale in comparison, appearing like a relic from another world, albeit a world many of us might long to escape to.
The return to the safety of the DVD box sets offers one set of affordances, and it is precisely the physical form of media that offers this certainty, rather than the uncertain and transient availability of the show on streaming platforms (Kelly 2020). However, the reunion episode offers others. That the HBO special is not a new episode, but instead a re-staging – a replay – of an existing instalment offers an uncanny form of repetition of a familiar text. The lines, plot and actors are, with the exception of Sterling K. Brown, the same; the return of the of the actors “provides a parallel return for the characters who fans are attached to, functioning as literal reminders-in-the-present of the narrative world” (Williams 2015: 179). In previous discussion of the return of Twin Peaks (1990-1991; 2017), I noted how “changes in the physical appearance of a favourite character may threaten fans’ sense of ontological security, highlighting both their own co-presence with aging characters and undermining their original views of what characters look like” (Williams 2016:58). In the case of The West Wing, however, the “embodied presence” (Garner 2013) of the actors mirrors my own aging alongside them, working again to entwine my own life-course with this mediated object.
Key to my experience here then is that, unlike my return to long dormant shows like Jonathan Creek (although never say never!) The West Wing offers both past and future. It is not entirely ‘done’ by dint of the election special; it offers an emotional bulwark against the fear of that which is truly gone. There may never be another full series, but The West Wing universe – its hyperdiegesis or extended storyworld – continues. Its characters live, not in fresh stories or scenarios, but in the loop of the recreation of an installment from 2002, now made new in its deployment as a call to vote, and an affirmation of the importance of democracy, in the here and now of 2020. The era of the Trump Presidency could never have been imagined in the series’ original run, but here the show is called upon to do political work, to return from the dead and to reanimate an old episode. In this moment, the series is not entirely ‘post-object’, functioning instead as a form of zombie text that replays and poaches from itself, looking simultaneously backwards, at the current moment, and ahead. Perhaps, then, “some fan objects are immortal, able to continue an almost eternal life through either transmedia resurrections or via continued discussion and endorsement by the surrounding fan communities” (Williams 2015: 204).
My revisiting of The West Wing is what I imagine the experience of returning to favourite television has been like for many people during the lockdown. As we face a Winter still dealing with the pandemic, and as moving in and out of lockdowns becomes a way-of-life, we must accept that “There is no ‘back to normal’ and there is no knowing or predicting a way ‘forward’ either; external events move at breakneck speed, and yet also, in the different lived realities of lockdown, unbearably slowly” (Hearn and Banet-Weiser 2020: 2). For me, the reappearance of The West Wing has been an unexpected return to the past, to a series that has resonated with me across my life-course, and characters that I loved. In its public reworking of an old episode to make something new, and in my own personal and private fannish rediscovery, the show offers a sense of ontological security and a conduit for affective responses to the current moment, permitting an emotional outlet for feelings that I cannot find an alternative, appropriate way to express. My journey through the boxsets will continue, a source of constancy and solace in a world that again is changing. As the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris offers a new glimmer of hope for American (and global) democracy, the spectre of Trump’s refusal to admit defeat looms large. The next few months may not offer an easy transition of power. However, as many others have done throughout the pandemic (and the political turmoil of the past months), I will continue to find emotional consolation in television.
Rebecca Williams is Senior Lecturer in Communication, Culture and Media Studies at the University of South Wales. Her publications include Theme Park Fandom (2020, University of Amsterdam Press), Post-object Fandom: Television, Identity and Self-Narrative (2015, Bloomsbury), Torchwood Declassified (2013, I.B. Tauris), Everybody Hurts: Transitions, Endings, and Resurrections in Fandom (2018) and Fan Studies: Method, Research, Ethics (forthcoming) with University of Iowa Press.
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