Fake Presidents usually throw me out of stories.
As a longtime comic book reader, I’m used to buying fantastic and unbelievable premises. Aliens that look like humans? Sure. Super powers? No problem. Time travel? Bring it on. But fake Presidents? Nah.
I’ve been thinking about why this is, and I’ve concluded that it’s just too much of a break from reality. Generally speaking, I think that if you’ve got real world elements in your story, they should work closely to how things work in the real world. If the real world aspects are accurate and convincing, it helps you buy the outlandish stuff that much more. On the whole, I can suspend my disbelief pretty easily. I can watch fictional senators and governors without thinking twice. After all, who can name every congressman from every state? But knowing who the President is is such basic, everyday knowledge that I usually can’t make the leap into believing in President Fakey McMadeupname for whatever show I’m watching. It’s such a constant reminder of “Hey — This isn’t REAL!” that it spoils the illusion.
When I saw Iron Man 3, every time President Matthew Ellis was onscreen it took me out of the movie. It’s tough for me to buy William Sadler as the President when I can remember him from Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Even the name “Matthew Ellis” is so damn generic that it just screams “FAAAAKE!!!” to me.
But I’ve also got a weird double standard about this. I don’t have any trouble accepting fake Presidents when they’re the center of the story. The Aaron Sorkin / Rob Reiner movie The American President has been a favorite of mine for years. It’s one of those movies that I have to watch to the end whenever it’s on TV.
And lately, I’ve been enjoying the new show Designated Survivor on ABC. It stars Kiefer Sutherland as a minor-level Cabinet Secretary who suddenly becomes President when a terrorist attack kills most of the U.S. government during the State of the Union Address. It’s a nice mix of pulpy and political, and it’s wonderfully suspenseful.
But when it comes to fictional Presidents, it really begins and ends with The West Wing.
My buddy Zaki Hasan (go read his movie reviews at Zaki’s Corner, folks!) posted on Facebook last week that The West Wing and Star Trek: The Next Generation are essentially the same show. They’re both optimistic at heart, filled with good people sincerely trying to do their best (Zaki hashtagged it “Competence Porn,” which I think sums up the appeal nicely). The more I thought about it, the more similarities I saw. They both take place in alternate timelines. They’ve both had Michael Okuda design graphics for them. And they both do lots of walk and talks through hallways.
But the really fun part is finding parallels between the characters. I had a great time on Zaki’s page batting around which West Wing characters correspond with which TNG characters. Although both Leo McGarry and Sam Seaborn ended up stumping me, I’m pretty proud of the other pairings we came up with.
President Bartlet is Jean-Luc Picard. Commanding voice. Nerdy passions. Intelligent. Diplomatic. Can solve most any problem just by speechifying for a few minutes.
Josh Lyman is Will Riker. As one of the commenters on Zaki’s thread put it, “So confident, and yet such an idiot.” They both fancy themselves ladies’ men, but are unluckier in love than their reputations would suggest. They’ve both had to work with exes and have an ongoing sexual tension with one of their coworkers (In Josh’s case, these are two separate characters. In Riker’s case, they’re one and the same).
Toby Ziegler is Worf. Good at his job despite despising everyone he works with. Makes suggestions that are rarely listened to. Has kids over the course of the series. Perpetual scowl. Awesome beard.
(BTW, it’s totally in my headcanon now that Toby went to go work at Deep Space Nine after he got fired over that whole space shuttle thing.)
Abbey Bartlet is Beverly Crusher. Redheaded doctor who is romantically involved with our fearless leader. Unafraid to read him the riot act when he screws up. And if you include the alternate future of “All Good Things” or the TNG novels into your personal Trek continuity, Crusher and Picard even end up getting married and having kids.
C.J. Cregg is Geordi LaForge. As Zaki put it, they both run the machinery that keeps the place functioning, but suck at relationships. C.J. has a seemingly-impossible romance with Danny Concannon, a reporter in the White House press pool, while Geordi falls in love with a hologram of Dr. Leah Brahms, one of the designers of the Enterprise, who turns out to be married in real life.
…Okay, Geordi probably wins in the “Doomed Relationship” category.
And now that I think of it, Geordi’s promotion from Helmsman to Chief Engineer is about as odd of a career path as C.J. being promoted to Chief of Staff after serving as the White House Press Secretary.
Charlie Young is Wesley Crusher. Young protégés of the lead character who earn the respect of their mentors. Tragic backstory involving a parent dying in the line of duty. Overwhelmed upon entering the Oval Office / Bridge in their very first episode. And every once in a while, they get to save the day.
Donna Moss is Deanna Troi. Unstated but barely-hidden love for their coworker. At times startlingly ignorant about the places where they work (“Can I ask you a question about the budget surplus?” / “What’s a containment breach?”).
Ainsley Hayes is Ro Laren. New female character introduced with great fanfare who appears only sporadically thereafter. Antagonistically friendly with the main characters. Soon becomes a regular on another TV series.
Will Bailey is Data. This was another one of Zaki’s calls. Both feel inadequate around their colleagues despite almost-supernatural skills.
Mrs. Landingham is Guinan. A trusted confidant outside the normal chain of command who has a long personal history with the President / Captain. Gives him valuable counsel that he can’t get anywhere else, even occasionally appearing as a disembodied spirit to do so. Has a mysterious past that is only semi-delved into.
Mandy Hampton is Tasha Yar. Attractive yet vaguely obnoxious. Disappears after the first season and is hardly missed (Did TNG have a “Yarville”?).
Zoey Bartlet is Robin Lefler. Has an unresolved romance with Charlie / Wesley. Played by an actress who becomes much more famous later on.
Glen Allen Walken is Captain Jellico. Assholish interloper who takes over unexpectedly and changes the way everything is run, pissing off the regulars in the process.
Lord Marbury is Q. A magical, delightfully infuriating pixie who pops in every year or so to aid / frustrate our heroes.
And lastly, in the world of The West Wing…
Republicans are Pakleds.
Happy Election Day, folks! Be sure to get out & vote. See you next week.