David Russell

The West Wing soars
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West Wing soars in ratings: Canadian viewers have embraced Hollywood's version of office politics at the White House

The Vancouver Province. March 22, 2000

by David Russell
Special to the Province

More than a million Canadian viewers earnestly watch The West Wing, which stars Martin Sheen as the president in that Pennsylvania Avenue power house.

Does Canada's love for a series about American politics show that our own federal politics are too dull to entertain us?

How many Canadians could even name the part of the Parliament Buildings where the prime minister's office is located?

The answer is the Langevin Block, which isn't nearly as romantic sounding as The West Wing. Or how about naming the last five U.S. presidents versus the last five Canadian prime ministers? Test yourself.

They are presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon versus prime ministers Campbell, Mulroney, Turner, Trudeau and Clark.

How many did you get in each country?

Canadian politics doesn't really lend itself to romanticized stories of political power like its American counterpart.

True, the prime minister wields considerable influence over Canadian affairs. But no one calls him "commander in chief." He doesn't get to veto legislation brought forward by MPs and most of his decisions must be approved by Parliament.

On The West Wing, the nation's leader demands action. No royal commissions, no question period. The president has spoken -- let's get a move on.

In Parliament, the prime minister's decision would be followed by the calling of cabinet, committee meetings, three votes in the House, three in the Senate plus royal assent. Yawn.

Dramatize that and we'd all change the channel before the first commercial.

There is something compelling about a president who outwardly demonstrates concern, takes a stand, has human foibles but who cares about his country. The West Wing can make even the Canadian viewer feel patriotic about the U.S.

We're proud of Canada, sure. We'll sing the national anthem at hockey games. But fly a flag? Get misty at a military procession?

The West Wing's patriotism -- fictitious though it is -- is infectious. Watching the show, I'm ready to enlist in the U.S. military just for the eventual funeral and folded flag for my widow.

Then, of course, there's the language barrier. At least The West Wing's writers aren't constrained by having to produce plots in two official languages. In Canada, the closing credits alone would take up half the show's time.

If CTV ever takes a crack at The Langvin Block, I hope they can draw Canadians to our politics the way The West Wing has drawn us to U.S. politics. Otherwise, we'd rather watch the action in the White House.

The West Wing airs tonight at 9 on CHEK and KING.

Copyright 2000 by David Russell