My wife and I have very different tastes in TV programmes and films, but one series that we both love is The West Wing. We are currently re-watching the whole thing from episode one, and most nights, prefer that to whatever else is showing. It is without doubt one of the best things television has ever done. The characters are complex and engaging; their relationships with each other realistic and entertaining; and the political storylines are intelligent, thought-provoking and after more than a decade, as pertinent today as they were then. To assess the quality, one has only to compare with the currently running Madam Secretary – a similar concept but executed with about as much conviction as a hooker on a cold night. The characters are wooden; the acting is dreadful, and the storylines are puerile. The latest episode involved a Philippines President putting his hand on Madam Secretary’s bum; her punching him on the nose; and the ensuing events. By contrast, we then watched a West Wing Episode in which President Bartlett struggled with his conscience over whether to authorise the probably illegal assassination of an Arab country Minister responsible for supporting terrorism but out of reach of lawful justice. I rest my case.
Bartlett is a Roman Catholic. In the same episode, we see him supporting a Church fundraising event, but in earlier episodes he was depicted as railing against his God for allowing his Presidential best intentions to be thwarted at every turn. The moment when he lights up a cigarette in Church and then deliberately crushes it on the floor was a powerful symbolic gesture. At that moment, he was like the Jewish people in the centuries after the Babylonian exile – devastated that their God seemed to have deserted his covenant with them. I guess over two thousand years ago, they might be excused for their naivety, but it never ceases to amaze me that people today still seem to expect to strike bargains with their God. Bartlett is supposed to be a Nobel Laureate, yet his concept of a deity is as unsophisticated as the prophets of old. If there is a God – and I don’t for a second believe there is – surely his relationship with humanity would be a little more, well, sophisticated. The kind of issues Bartlett struggles with are replete with moral complexity, and ambiguity. That is what makes him watchable. Why then does he believe in a deity who recognises none of that; for whom black is black and white is white, and the only rule for life is ‘do what I say or else’. And when what He says is, effectively, ‘murder anyone who does not share your religious beliefs’, I am left utterly depressed that anyone should regard such a deity as worth a moment’s notice, let alone worship and praise.