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The West Wing walked so The Bear may run

The West Wing walked so The Bear may run

How The West Wing’s depiction of the “mundane” paved the way for The Bear.

It’s not difficult to see why The Bear is such a lauded series. The FX show, which chronicles the quest of gifted chef Carmy Berzatto (played by Jeremy Allen White) to transform his recently deceased brother’s sandwich shop into a proper restaurant, has not only been praised by many but also boasts ten Primetime Emmy Award wins for its first season, and four Golden Globes wins in 2024 including Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Television Series Musical or Comedy for Jeremy Allen White, and Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy for Ayo Edibiri. The show has undoubtedly captivated audiences with its tremendous writing, stellar cast, and very realistic portrayal of what happens in kitchens.

It isn’t really too surprising nowadays that a TV show that revolves around a chef and his staff would be critically acclaimed, or at least one that doesn’t have Gordon Ramsay in it. But years ago, that would have been a hard sell. Pitching a show today about a chef trying to set up a restaurant isn’t exactly easy, but it would have been near impossible then. 

It would have been impossible—if it wasn’t for a certain TV show released in 1999 called The West Wing.

How The West Wing left a legacy for shows like The Bear

(Image: Warner Bros.)

The West Wing may not be as popular a 90’s TV show as Friends here in Asia, but there’s no doubt that it had some influence on the shows we now know and love. The series came about after its creator, writer Aaron Sorkin, wrote a film called The American President. Despite its title, it’s actually a romance, where the eponymous president, played by Michael Douglas, falls for a lobbyist during his re-election year. 

The American President’s success proved that there was an audience interested in projects with a political setting. Unlike The American President, however, The West Wing wasn’t going to have a president who fell in love. It was simply going to be a show that revolved around the day-to-day lives of the White House staff.

The question everyone had: “Is anyone going to watch this?”

Characters at the centre

(Image: Warner Bros.)

Seven years, seven seasons, 26 Emmy nominations, and four consecutive Oustanding Drama Series Emmys later, The West Wing is considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time. How did a series about the everyday lives of ordinary people become so beloved?

Some would argue it was politics, but back then, there were only a few, if any, political TV shows. Some might guess there was action but fans of the show would be quick to point out there was little to none of it in its seven years. Fans of Aaron Sorkin also know that his writing is the centrepiece. Episodes were verbose and verbally driven with numerous “walk-and-talks”, which would become iconic, even when Sorkin departed after Season 4. 

Perhaps some would point to the comedy, which is in some way true. But The West Wing wasn’t a sitcom like The Golden Girls or Home Improvement. From President Bartlet’s famous impassioned speech in the church to Josh Lyman’s PTSD, the show dealt with some very serious issues. In fact, it may have been one of the very few shows in the early days that showed its characters dealing with their mental health issues and seeing a psychiatrist—in the 2000s! There were short bursts of humour but The West Wing wasn’t comedy.

So what was it then? Aaron Sorkin has a guiding principle when writing his characters, “You have to make them as if they’re making their case to God as to why they should be allowed into heaven.” The characters, through it all, were the focal point of everything. The politics, the White House, the presidency? Everything was secondary.

A West Wing fan may perhaps recall some of the principles in governing that President Bartlet adhered to or may strive to the ideals held by the characters in the show, but they would no doubt remember how Leo McGarry was there for Josh during his PTSD, how the staff pranked Toby Ziegler by making the president seem like he was forgetting things days before a debate, and how Josh and Donna had that regular adorable banter for years before ending up together. It was the characters’ humanity—their joy, grief, and anger—that pulled viewers in.

The West Wing proved that it didn’t matter what the setting was, what the genre was, whether it was funny or not. What mattered was if the audience would care about the characters. 

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Welcome to the “mundane”

(Image: FX)

The result? Years later, the floodgates were opened for “mundane” shows based on the real lives and experiences of people. Grey’s Anatomy was released in 2005 and is still running with 19 seasons in its belt. The Office is a beloved show not only for its humour but because of its characters. Mad Men revolved around an ad agency. The Newsroom, another Sorkin project, had four seasons all about, well, a newsroom. Succession was about a rich and conniving business family. And The Bear, of course, is about a chef and his kitchen.

No outer space. No impossible missions. No otherworldly supernatural entity. Just people.

The “mundane” had become entertaining. Office jobs were riveting. Scenes behind a kitchen became the thing we tune into every day. Arguments in boardrooms were as exciting as the latest superhero TV show. But if it wasn’t for The West Wing which proved that the “mundane” could be as entertaining as the next soap drama or action series, we wouldn’t have shows like The Bear. The West Wing proved that for us, nothing is too mundane when we care deeply about the characters. 

The story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Bangkok

(Main and featured image: FX)

Source: Prestige Online

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