Definitely Not The Opera

The West Wing Cast: Source:

From 1993 to 2016, CBC Radio One aired a weekly Saturday afternoon show focusing on aspects of pop culture. There were regular contributors to the show  – which was called Definitely Not The Opera (DNTO) because it aired opposite Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Stereo.

 Over the early years I was asked to be a contributor to DNTO about TV shows.  Recently I came across an article in Variety about The West Wing – one of the best TV shows in the past 25 years – reporting that the cast will reunite for the first time in nearly two decades.

“A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” will debut on HBO  this fall. It will feature a theatrical staging of the “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode from the show’s third season . The special is meant to raise awareness for When We All Vote, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization co-chaired by Michelle Obama which was founded to increase participation in every election in America.

Checking my files, I found I had done a DNTO piece on The West Wing about the Bush Gore presidential election. It proved interesting to read the piece about The West Wing and compare it to the forthcoming election – which might be titled “The End of the World As We Know It” –  (apologies to REM). With a little fine editing by my friend Kevin Burns, here is the original piece which aired on November 11, 2000.


Definitely Not The Opera – for November 11, 2020

Well, for better or for worse, the people of the United States have just elected a new president. In the infamous Gore/Bush contest, George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote to Al Gore but still managed to beat him in the electoral college.

One odd thing about all this is just how wrong the polls got it.  Throughout the campaign the candidate leading both Bush and Gore by at least 70 points in the polls was Josiah Bartlet – a Liberal democrat.

Who’s Josiah Bartlet? If you watch any tv, you’d probably recognize the name as that of the President – played by Martin Sheen – on The West Wing -the highly praised and popular TV show about the fictional presidency of Bartlet and his hardy band of loyalists.

The key word in all this is “fictional”.  In the West Wing we’ve been given a well crafted show that is a precious fantasy.  A decent, funny, intellectual man runs the USA, surrounded by decent, funny, intellectual men and women.

Unfortunately this bears little resemblance to the reality that the last few years has revealed to us about the White House and the mores and morals of the President and his staff.

But this fictional aspect is part of the appeal. We know next to nothing about the real workings of the White House – few people do unless they’ve actually worked there – but we like to think that what we see in The West Wing is actually what happens in the White House.  Why?  Because it looks like the people there really care about the big things.

In The West Wing whole shows are dedicated to issues of capital punishment, the appointment of a supreme court justice, racial issues, and the burial of a homeless Korean war hero.

In reality the recent presidential debates centered on basically two issues – prescription drugs and health care. Why? Not because they are important – they are – but because almost the majority of voters are those over a certain age whose major concerns are medication and health care.

Americans want their leaders to be strong and compassionate, moral men and women who are dedicated and committed to causes – like President Bartlet on the West Wing. They want the guy who can do the job – not the guy they’d most like to have over for dinner – which was said in one of the final debates.

The West Wing has constructed a reality that can never be. The people of the USA like President Bartlet because he is the president they want but will never have and that is why they watch the show in such great numbers. To be fair it is one of the more interesting shows on television. The problem arises only when we confuse media world with real world.

It used to be that we judged a person’s ability on what we were told. But new statistics show us that when a person delivers a message on television, the spoken word accounts for only 7 percent of the impression left on the viewer. Appearance and body language account for the remaining 93 percent.

It was sixty years ago that style won over substance in the area of politics. In1960, Richard Nixon, the Republican who had served two terms as vice president, debated John F. Kennedy, a relatively unknown senator from Massachusetts.

On radio, many listeners thought Nixon had won the debate. The camera  revealed a different story. It saw a sneaky-looking, sweaty Nixon. It saw a cool, witty, handsome, confident Kennedy. The crucial difference was that Kennedy’s advisors knew the impact television would have, and Nixon’s did not.

Television has taught US politicians that how they look is as important, if not more important, than what they say. Is the same true in Canada? Think about the recent election debates in Ottawa. Are we – like the people in the USA – going to elect our prime minister based on what we saw? Is the election going to be decided by who got the better photo-op – Stockwell Day in his wet suit or Jean Chretien on a scooter.

Are we going to go for style over substance – image over word.?

Well, that’s up to the individual voter – just remember that Canadian politicians know as well as their American counterparts just how well equipped the media is to construct an image that is not necessarily real.

For definitely Not The Opera, I’m John Pungente

John Pungente, SJ, the editor of igNation, is currently doing research with Monty Williams, SJ for a third book in the series "Finding God in the Dark".

  • Roger Yaworski
    Posted at 08:17h, 04 November Reply

    Thanks John.

  • Jim Radde
    Posted at 10:46h, 04 November Reply

    I was not one who ever saw The West Wing. Thank you for reminding
    us of the impact appearances can have over content. I’m afraid we
    are in for four more years of rule via Twitter and prevarication.

  • Mary .C.Johnston
    Posted at 11:51h, 04 November Reply

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Similarly this present u.s. election was not about substance it was a personality competition. I loathe President Trump and all he represents. However he is definitely the most dynamic TV personality. He makes no sense most of the time in fact his outrageous comments beg to be requoted for just that reason . So like Fred Flintstone he has an enormous following of likeminded individuals who admit why they Vote for him is because “ he talks like us” Television could be such a power for increasing our intelligence and knowledge but seems to instead be a showcase for increasing idiocy and idolizing of the most inflammatory personalities .

  • Eric Jensen
    Posted at 13:38h, 04 November Reply

    W had a little help from the judiciary, as I recall. I wonder if Trump will as well.

  • Lorella D'Cruz
    Posted at 08:03h, 05 November Reply

    I enjoyed your piece immensely, John. Yes, unfortunately style often wins over substance. Not that I think Trump has much to offer in the way of style OR substance. An inveterate liar, misogynist and megalomaniac devoid of moral compass, he has managed to dupe millions of US citizens. In the absence of West Wing reality, this is a timely reminder to us all to exercise caution before accepting the word of political shysters peddling fake news (a phrase incidentally not coined by Trump). We have only ourselves to blame if we are indiscriminate in casting our own votes in our own country in due time.

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