Surveillance Summer Watch, The West Wing: A discarded disease

If you’d like to check out previous posts in this series, visit the Surveillance Summer Watch page.

With upfronts and a slew of finales, I’ve only watched three episodes of The West Wing since my last post, but I wanted to post now because one of those episodes introduces a character beat that I have an extremely personal connection to and couldn’t help but comment on now while I had some free time. In episode 12 of the first season, “He Shall, from Time to Time…” it is revealed that President Bartlett has┬árelapsing-remitting Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Not only is this an effective character moment that takes a serious disease seriously, but even moreso for me. My mother has had MS since right after I was born and really only remember her in that way. So obviously the Bartlett reveal hit me pretty hard.

However, I actually already knew that Bartlett had MS before I started watching this summer because I can recall my mother following the series during its original run specifically because of the president’s condition. To this day, I can remember my mom having phone conversations and even old-school online chats with fellow MS-infected people about The West Wing and how it was so interesting — and kind of weird — that there was a character on a major broadcast television series that shared their condition. And they weren’t alone. The MS Society commented on the series’ portrayal of the disease back in 2001, noting:

“For the first time on national television or even in film, the public encountered a lead character with both an MS diagnosis and the hope for a continued productive life. Because [The] West Wing is a fictional drama and not a medical documentary, writers could have greatly distorted MS facts to further their story line [but did not].”

This statement was made a few more seasons into the series, and so I’m excited to see how The West Wing integrates the condition into the story further down the road. But as someone who consumes a lot of media, I can honestly say that President Bartlett is the only major fictional character with MS that I can recall — and that’s such a shame. I don’t want to get up on my soapbox, but MS is a disease that affects somewhere between 250k and 350k people and it seems like it should be represented even just a little bit on television.

Perhaps what’s even more sad is that I know why MS isn’t shown on television or even in film more often — it’s not deadly. Though the disease can completely disrupt and nearly destroy the lives of people afflicted with it, it rarely kills them. My mom’s condition has consistently and somewhat quickly deteriorated over time — meaning it’s not relapsing-remitting like Bartlett’s — so that she is now more or less bound to a wheelchair, but aside from that, she’s healthier than most 53-year old women. I guess for most executives or producers, that doesn’t make for good television or film. If a character has a disease, it better deadly, damn it! Cancer! HIV/AIDS! Crazy accidents! That’s what makes for good drama. You can’t introduce a disease that slowly damages one’s body, but doesn’t kill them! What is the point?

Moreover, I’d also like to suggest that because MS can affect so many different parts of body, producers assume it’s too “complicated” for the general audience member. Some people go blind, some people lose the ability to walk and some people live just fine. Just as a disease needs to be deadly, it needs to do a specific set of things that creates the highest amount of drama. MS doesn’t do that.

Anyway, that’s my rant. It’s my hope that Bartlett’s MS led more people to check into the disease and what it really does to people in the real world. Because aside from his story here, there’s a good chance that viewers had never seen any fictional MS-afflicted folks on their screens before. And that’s a damn shame.

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