stay tuned

Is The West Wing Sexist? Your Pressing TV Questions Answered

Photo: CW, NBC and USA

Welcome to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s new TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons will answer your questions about what to watch, when to watch it, whom to watch it with, and how to feel about the whole thing.

How do I stop feeling shame for watching shows on the CW? Please advise. —Erin

I get this question in various forms a lot. “Oh, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but my guilty pleasure is a dumb show on the CW,” people always say sheepishly. (It’s always Supernatural, by the way, and they are always very surprised when I guess it. Walk in the light, Supernatural fans! It is okay!) Cut that crap out right now. I’m ashamed of some of the bad choices I’ve made, and I feel guilty about times in my life when I hurt someone, times I’ve lived with less integrity than I want to. But feeling shame about having seen every Gossip Girl? Hell, no. Disabuse yourself of the concept of guilty pleasures, because that puritanical garbage has got to stop. Pleasure’s pleasure. Watch Supernatural and Reign and Arrow and Top Model if you like them. Life’s hard enough, and shame never got anyone anywhere good.

Of all the seemingly very likable/watchable USA Network shows (Suits, White Collar, etc.), which one should I watch first? @abbygardner

Suits. I liked the first two seasons of White Collar okay, and I was a total Psych devotee for many years, but Suits is the way to go here. I didn’t love the pilot, though; I’d say start at episode four or five and cope with the confusion, and then once you’re into it, go back and watch the early eps. Suits is a perfect example of a cable show that’s a little bit better than it has to be. The dialogue is snappier than you’d expect, the production values just a smidge higher, the writing and plotting savvier than just any old procedural.

Doctor Who — I think maybe it’s just my television sensibilities, but I can’t do it. I like some campy things, but it’s just too goofy. I know so many people who are in love with it. And I’ve seen “Blink” and I liked it, but when I’ve tried to watch other episodes, I couldn’t hold out. Is there a way into the series or is it just not for me? I loved Peter Capaldi so much on The Hour and I would love to watch more of him, but I’m not sure I can handle it. —Kevin

I’m with you. Doctor Who is a terrific show that I simply cannot get into. I’ve watched 20 or so episodes, too, so it’s not for lack of trying. It’s just too campy for me. Like … Cassandra, the talking sideways vagina made out of pizza skin? I cannot. I tried getting more into the emotional side of things, digging way in with Rose and the Tenth Doctor (and even crying my eyes out “Journey’s End”), and still it just never sat right with me. I took another swing with the Eleventh Doctor, trying to invest in Amy and Rory and Riversong and everything, but every time the real emotional resonance hit, some supposed-to-be-scary Dalek would roll in bleating “exterminate,” but all I could see was a cruddy stray shopping cart in a parking lot. The show just doesn’t click for me. Obviously the Peter Capaldi episodes haven’t aired yet, so I can’t speak to them in particular, but if you’re not feeling it, you’re not feeling it. We can’t have everything.

I have a solid few months of maternity leave coming up. I want to get a lineup of shows together that I haven’t seen but my husband won’t care (too much) if he misses. (And that I can pause a lot to deal with nursing, changing diapers, interacting with my child, etc.) The major gaps in my viewing history are The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Buffy. If I do Buffy, do I need Veronica Mars, too? What else should I be going for? I also like the little one-season-wonders as palate cleansers between big binge-watches. Assume no Netflix/streaming besides HBO Go, but willing to buy/borrow DVDs as needed. —SarahAreBee

First of all, congratulations on the impeding arrival of Baby AreBee. Second of all, my guess is that Mad Men, The Sopranos, Buffy, and Veronica Mars are going to be a little too much show for you during maternity leave. All four of those shows are designed for devoted, serious viewing, and it’s possible that your energies will be focused elsewhere during this time. (Or maybe not! There’s no one right way to be on maternity leave!) I asked a few of my friends who are parents what they watched on their maternity and paternity leaves, and they generally recommended gentler series, and several of them mentioned that they barely remembered most of the content of said shows. (Again, not true for everyone! You don’t have to take my word for it, etc.! If this is going to be a very concentrate-able time for you, go ahead and watch Mad Men!) Many new parents find instances of violence, particularly violence against children, to be tough to watch in those first few months, too, which is why I might steer you away from the current list you have. With that in mind, my No. 1 recommendation is Gilmore Girls. No violence, very loving relationship between a parent and child, and absolutely as snappy as Buffy, but without any real mythology. GG is also easier to jump in and out of, so if you can’t remember exactly what happened on the previous episode or perhaps dozed for a moment or two, you’re not really going to be too lost. If you want something a little darker to scratch an antihero itch, those first few seasons of House are incredible, but again, pretty easy to fade in and out of (and just skip the episodes about sick kids). And as far as HBO Go palate-cleansers are concerned, Bored to Death is your jam. Smart, funny, distinctive, and even in its most cynical moments, there’s a strain of joyfulness and playfulness that comes through. A few months from now, if you don’t remember the exact details of the characters, you’ll remember you at least had a good time hanging out with them.

I want to start watching Adventure Time, but it’s such a massive undertaking I don’t even know where to begin. Tips? @jamie__pm

Seems kind of obvious, but start at the beginning. Or start with season three, episode five: “Too Young.” Not for any real reason, I just really like that episode. Jump around for a while, and then once you’re hooked, go back and dig in from the get-go. Adventure Time has an incredibly consistent hit rate, so it’s hard to go too wrong.

My question is on the topic of Aaron Sorkin and misogyny. I didn’t watch The West Wing while it was airing, but started watching recently, sometime after I watched the first season of The Newsroom. While The Newsroom was airing, I read — and concurred with — a lot of criticisms of the misogynistic treatment of female characters as shrill or bumbling or incompetent or otherwise somehow inferior to their male colleagues and superiors. Then watching The West Wing with this in the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop seeing the same things happening in that show! So my question: Am I crazy for seeing all this misogyny? Like, did The Newsroom make me paranoid and I’m seeing things that aren’t there in TWW? Or is it possible that both shows are misogynistic, and The Newsroom is just more blatant about it; or that since The Newsroom came out a decade later, after TV audiences had seen a number of legitimately strong female characters on other shows, that the misogyny is more obvious by comparison to the rest of TV than it was in 2000? (Or did people think The West Wing was misogynistic when it was airing and there just isn’t a huge internet record of it?) —Jean

You’re not crazy. The portrayals of female characters on TWW often leave a lot to be desired, and many of the male characters say and do things that make my skin crawl. I am as devoted to Josh Lyman as any Lemon-Lyman fangirl, but I distinctly remember shuddering the first time I heard him declare to Toby, “Sam’s getting beat by a girl!” (And no, episodes like “The Crackpots and These Women” do not help; the opposite of being degraded isn’t being revered — it’s being seen as a fully complex human being.)

The big difference between TWW and Newsroom isn’t their respective eras, though. It’s everything else on the show. Many of the male characters on TWW are casually sexist and many of the female characters are presented as ditzy; they are also funny and smart and vulnerable and passionate about good government. The stories have both moments of levity and moments of seriousness, and I legitimately want everyone to be happy and fulfilled. I would vote for Bartlet. I would vote for Sam. I would vote for Andi. On The Newsroom, the misogyny feels more entrenched, plus the characters themselves are not richly developed. Take the chronic woman-hating away from season one’s Will MacAvoy, and all that’s left is a well-cut sweater and a one-liner about the NFL. I would not watch News Night. I would not work for Mackenzie.

I love The West Wing. I’ve loved that show for 15 years; I used to tape the episodes as I watched them, and then immediately watch them again. I’ve seen my favorite episodes probably 30 times, and I’ve ripped the director commentary tracks as MP3s so I can listen to them when I take long walks. It’s possible to both love the show and to recoil at its misogyny. We’re allowed to like problematic things, or to like something but not like every single aspect of it; you can have a favorite album but have a least-favorite song on it. If I hold out for a show with perfect gender politics, I’ll never be able to watch anything ever. So if the sexism on TWW bugs you to a point that you don’t like the show, I understand, and I can’t really fault you. But if you’re looking for permission to be both bothered by some aspects of the show and to enjoy other aspects of the series, well, permission granted.

To submit your own questions, you can email, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned. If we didn’t use your question this week, we still might use it down the road.

Stay Tuned: Is The West Wing Sexist?