The West Wing: The Next Generation

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.

Matthew Ellis Iron Man 3

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.

Designated Survivor ABC TV Kiefer Sutherland

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.

Jed Bartlet Jean-Luc Picard West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Will Riker West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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).

It should be noted, however, that Riker is to chairs as President Bartlet is to jackets.

Toby Ziegler Worf West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Beverly Crusher West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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.

CJ Cregg Geordi LaForge West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Wesley Crusher West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Deanna Troi West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Ro Laren West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Data West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

Will Bailey is Data. This was another one of Zaki’s calls. Both feel inadequate around their colleagues despite almost-supernatural skills.

Mrs. Landingham Guinan West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Tasha Yar West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Robin Lefler West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Captain Jellico West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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 Q West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

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…

Republican Pakled West Wing Star Trek Next Generation TV

Republicans are Pakleds.

Happy Election Day, folks! Be sure to get out & vote. See you next week.

22 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    Ha, I think I usually have the opposite take. Put a real President (or someone in shadow who looks exactly like a real President) and it takes me out of the story every time, because how the writer uses that President always gets political. I can’t buy Clinton, Bush, or Obama’s take on super humans having to fit the story and political climate in story, no more the real world politics intruding.

    But man, I couldn’t agree more how every fictional President seems to have the most non-descript, generic name. I’m sure there’s been a President John Smith somewhere, sometime. Though the most realistic one might have been Lex Luthor.

  2. John Trumbull

    Ha, I think I usually have the opposite take. Put a real President (or someone in shadow who looks exactly like a real President) and it takes me out of the story every time, because how the writer uses that President always gets political.

    I always kind of liked that bit, because then you can always pretend that the person in shadow is the current President.

    1. M-Wolverine

      I like it when it’s vague, but usually the silhouette is obvious, and the writer can’t help put some speech affectation to signify someone in particular. Anything that helps makes the story timeless is a good thing.

      1. John Trumbull

        Anything that helps makes the story timeless is a good thing.

        I don’t know. I’m of two minds about that, as I think that pop culture is ALWAYS a product of its time, whether it intends to be or not. Even when a piece doesn’t have specific contemporary references, you can usually tell when it was produced by the things it chooses to emphasize. So in some ways I think always trying to make something timeless is a fool’s errand.

  3. Peter David had what I always thought was a genius idea for explaining Mandy’s absence. C.J. would run into her in the hallway in the final episode and say, “Hey, haven’t seen you in a while, where you been?” And Mandy would say, “Meetings,” and keep going. and that would be it. They didn’t do it, but they should have.

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Ha! These are great – and I swear, as I was scrolling down and still reading the entries, it occurred to me that Mrs. Landingham is a Guinan analog before I got to that part of the post.
    By the way, on Ziegler/Worf, and the whole point about making “suggestions that are rarely listened to,” you could easily add, “but always should be” (especially true of Worf).

  5. Simon

    I dunno, what about some need-to-know rule of thumb?

    I’d think using real leaders should usually feel better for stuff overtly set in some time period (past or present), but worse for contemporary fiction (going for relative intemporality or neutrality). Though using an unnamed, shadowy “President” should be better than a fake name, when possible.

    – “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.”

    Isn’t “A man can’t fly” such basic, everyday knowledge too? And isn’t there some kinda of double standard at work if that doesn’t spoil the illusion too?

    – “But I’ve also got a weird double standard about this.”

    Another one?

    – “I don’t have any trouble accepting fake Presidents when they’re the center of the story.”

    Good, so you didn’t let some misplaced literalism rob you of LETTER 44 or EX MACHINA?

    (Tangentially, I can’t help thinking of the interesting behavior of so many people in matters such as political. Some seem perfectly willing to suspend disbelief beyond belief, buying even “2+2=5” from their pet politico, while exhibiting a remarkable intolerance for even “2+2=4” from the other lizards, heh.)

    1. John Trumbull

      Good, so you didn’t let some misplaced literalism rob you of LETTER 44 or EX MACHINA?

      Since EX MACHINA isn’t about a President, and doesn’t involve a fake person as President at any point in time, that would be a “No.”

      Reading comprehension. It’s not just for breakfast any more.

        1. John Trumbull

          I play the cards I’m dealt. If you start out by being sarcastic, snarky, or condescending to me, don’t be surprised if I respond in kind.

          If you have an intelligent comment (like yours above, M-Wolverine), then I’ll treat it with the respect it deserves.

          It’s almost like if you’re polite, you get treated politely. Funny how that works.

    2. Isn’t “A man can’t fly” such basic, everyday knowledge too? And isn’t there some kinda of double standard at work if that doesn’t spoil the illusion too?
      That’s pretty much the definition of “suspension of disbelief.” I’ll let a scholar explain it:
      Here’s Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor of the Cambridge University edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Dr. Bruccoli is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of literature at University of South Carolina and a leading authority on Fitzgerald. On the subject of accuracy, Dr. Bruccoli says, “Factual errors in fiction distract readers who spot them and may undermine confidence in the work and the author.* Many careful readers hold that if an author cannot be trusted in details, he may not be trustworthy in larger matters.”

      Dr. Bruccoli goes on to explain the two types of errors that occur in fiction, external errors (those regarding the actual world in which the work is set) and internal errors (those involving the fictional world).

      In the world of comics, we can call continuity problems “internal errors”; if a given issue of Superman says that Clark Kent’s middle name is “Joseph” and another says it’s “Jerome”, that’s an internal error. If the story were to refer to the Prime Minister of the United States, that would be an “external error.”

      The same principle applies to the concept of suspension of disbelief; if the story says a man can fly, we go with it. If it says the US has a Prime Minister, we have to be given some reason to accept it — it’s an alternate timeline, set in a distant future, or some other reason why the world isn’t the one we know.

      In the same way, if Barack Obama appears in a comic, we’re going to be unduly focused on whether he’s written correctly, he’s staying “on model,” as it were, and that focus can interfere with the immersive nature of the story if it’s not done right.

      * Bruccoli, “Getting it Right: The Publishing Process and the Correction of Factual Errors–With Reference to The Great Gatsby,” Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin, 21, no. 3-4 (1991), 41-60. Quoted in Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby, The Authorized Text, Scribner Paperback edition (2003), p. 192.

  6. My favorite take on a real president in comics has to be Mike Grell’s use of Ronald Reagan in JON SABLE: FREELANCE. We never see the man, his name is not used, but between a panel of him eating Jelly Bellies and some snark about Bonzo, we know exactly who it is and how Sable feels about him.

  7. Jeff Nettleton

    My favorite fictional president was Jerry Grail, the ex-pro wrestler turned president, in Tim Truman’s Scout. He turns out to be the final monster that Emanuel Santana (Scout) must take down, and is a mixture of Ronald Reagan, Dusty Rhodes, and a few others. He is succeeded by his Vice President, a drug-addicted woman who was kept compliant via feeding her addiction. She is then murdered by her vice president, ex-snake oil evangelist Bill Loper, before Rosanna Winter takes things in hand. Great series, great characters; little heavy on the gun worship.

  8. Simon

    @John:

    My point, exactly. (So, tangentially, I rest my case and win my bet.)

    @Jim:

    That’s a good point about real Presidents, but how does it apply to the rejection of fake ones? If the story says a man can fly and Joe Mumble is POTUS, isn’t it easier to accept or reject both? And if one cherrypicks, wouldn’t most people find it more reasonnable to accept a fictional President and reject a flying man?

    But accepting a flying man while rejecting a made-up President, doesn’t that seem harder to justify? I mean, understandable as a pet peeve, but harder to justify as The Way Stories Should Be? (And that’s before going into dating a story that could be more timeless or archetypal.)

    @Jeff:

    About interesting fictional prez, let’s not forget The Beast and The Smiler in TRANSMET! Aren’t they kinda eternally recurring archetypes?

    1. If the story says a man can fly and Joe Mumble is POTUS, isn’t it easier to accept or reject both?

      Not at all. The general premise of almost all fantasy, from Achilles to Harry Potter, is that the story takes place in what is basically the real world, except for the fantastic elements. If we know going in that the story is a fantasy, we’re preconditioned to accept the fantastic elements as they are given. A fake President breaks the spell, just as much as a real president acting out of character.

      And if one cherrypicks, wouldn’t most people find it more reasonnable to accept a fictional President and reject a flying man?

      Not if you’re intentionally sitting down to enjoy the adventures of a flying man. Context counts.

      It’s worth noting that one of the reasons Marvel comics were so much more popular than DC back in the ’60s was that they were set in “the real world”; readers preferred Spider-Man swinging over New York to Batman swinging over Gotham City. Having real city names made it more real, more believable, gave the stories more weight and a sense that what happened might have some consequence to it. That’s something I heard a lot at the time.

  9. Simon

    @Jim:

    – “A fake President breaks the spell”

    That’s where I think suspension of disbelief is supposed to play, as with most other unrealistic elements. Probably a matter of perception, but mine would be that most people “sitting down to enjoy the adventures of a flying man” would accept more easily a fake President than a real one.

    One possible reason being that it won’t import unneeded real-world politics into an escapist fantasy? Another, that you’ve already swallowed something bigger? (And it may be easier to believe a man can fly when you don’t contrast it with too much gritty realism.) Possibly more, depending on people.

    Maybe it’s a perception difference between mainstream audiences and the ~0.1% of superhero readers? (Especially those who want everything to “matter” and “count”?) How many superhero movies or series have used a real President?

    1. I think usually they just go with an unnamed President. In Superman II, when the President kneels before Zod, he’s never identified as anything other than “Mr. President.” Even though he doesn’t look like Reagan, we accept the blandly generic guy. Hearing him called “President [Whitebread Name]” is what would trigger the disbelief, I think.

      I think the effect is less bothersome for the hardcore superhero readers, because they are conditioned to understand that the story takes place on Earth-90210, which just so happens to look exactly like the real world except for (a) the constipated mesomorphs punching each other and (b) specific details like who the President is.

      1. John Trumbull

        I think usually they just go with an unnamed President. In Superman II, when the President kneels before Zod, he’s never identified as anything other than “Mr. President.” Even though he doesn’t look like Reagan, we accept the blandly generic guy. Hearing him called “President [Whitebread Name]” is what would trigger the disbelief, I think.

        Yes, I think that’s a good example. And even E.G. Marshall’s fake unnamed President was pretty Reaganesque. Just the hair alone is evidence of that.

        It probably also helps that I saw Superman II when I was 8 or 9 years old. Nostalgia helps you forgive a lot.

  10. Suppose you’re reading your favorite issue of Hyper-Man, and there’s a scene where the story and characters say he’s in Megalopolis, but the art shows the Chrysler Building and Statue of Liberty; isn’t that going to disrupt your immersion in the story? Your brain knows those things are in New York, and it gets jarred by being told they’re in some fictional place. Your brain also knows who the President is, and hearing him called “President Torkelson” or whatever produces the same effect. It calls your attention to the fact that the President isn’t right, just as much as calling him the Prime Minister would catch you up and throw you out of the story.

    1. Simon

      @Jim:

      Yes, we can at least agree that it’s usually better when possible to have an unnamed Prez. (Whether a named one is better as real or fake, historical or fictional, seems more complex and personal. Maybe not unlike those pictures where people prefer to see the outline of one vase or two faces?)

      – “Suppose you’re reading your favorite issue of Hyper-Man, and there’s a scene where the story and characters say he’s in Megalopolis, but the art shows the Chrysler Building and Statue of Liberty; isn’t that going to disrupt your immersion in the story?”

      Personally, no. Not any more than the sort of wink or joke you can routinely see or read in the backgrounds of many comics. But I’m used to sci-fi, uchronia, and other parallel worlds. (Besides, is your immersion disrupted when a scene is set in Tokyo, and you suddendly notice the Eiffel Tower? Heh.)

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