When “The West Wing” entered its fourth season, in late 2002, Aaron Sorkin, its creator, writer and producer, was forced to abandon the show following increasing personal problems, including an arrest for possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms. This was almost fitting because the premise of the show, that in an alternate America there was a good and wise king who could save us – Jed Bartlet, a middle-aged white man from New Hampshire (Martin Sheen was a fatherly 59 when he debuted in the role), a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, devoutly Catholic and, most importantly, liberal and Democratic – was already a pipe dream.
But by the end of 2002, with the disastrous invasion of Iraq looming under President George W. Bush, who was not much like Martin Sheen or Jed Bartlet, it was for many a painless comfort.
“Irresistible,” the new political comedy written and directed by Jon Stewart (released June 26 for streaming), tries to pick up where “The West Wing” left off but it is cold comfort. What is so striking about it, where it can otherwise be tepid, is that now, post-Trump, in the summer of COVID and George Floyd, it feels like a time capsule, a message from another, hallucinatory era – even though it began production just a year ago.
Steve Carell is Gary Zimmer, a top Democratic campaign operative fresh off a lead role in the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2016. But then another Jed Bartlet is found: retired, middle-aged Marine Col. Jack Hastings, played by 69-year-old Chris Cooper, a farmer in the fictive town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Zimmer sees a clip of Hastings at a town council meeting sticking up for undocumented immigrants and is convinced he’s found the antidote to Trump and Trumpism in “the real America,” echoing the restive search in the media after 2016 to explain Trump’s success (which never did pan out).
Zimmer goes to Deerlaken, where a lot of business ensues having to do with the brash D.C. insider out of water. He convinces Hastings to run for mayor, a campaign Zimmer will manage with all the tricks of his trade. This is the Democrats’ chance for a restoration. Then GOP operative Faith Brewster, apparently modeled on Kellyanne Conway, shows up, backing the incumbent mayor.
As Zimmer and Brewster flirt, lie and connive, tens of millions of dollars are poured into one little race. The twist ending wants you to believe the top strategists for both parties are soullessly amoral and what is ruining our politics is largely big money – which is not so much of a twist. Naturally, neither the pandemic nor racism are touched upon because these are more recent issues, although racism is hardly new. It’s older than the nation.
You could say this kind of faux nostalgia for “The West Wing” or Camelot or the New Deal just doesn’t work under such changed circumstances. Plenty of critics have seemed almost horrified by what once were bedtime tales. They have tended, rightly, to treat “Irresistible” as a movie caught out of time. What worked yesterday is embarrassing today – and this poses a conundrum.
Will it work tomorrow? For what is Joe Biden’s candidacy in 2020 but a summons to return to yesterday, to some hallucinatory normalcy? Trump calls Biden “Sleepy Joe” and Democrats say they would not mind being able to get a good night’s sleep knowing Joe (or Jed) is in the White House. Granted, most seasoned Democrats would look like restoration candidates going up against Trump; almost anyone would; but the idea that there is no going back after the disruptions we have seen is squarely at odds with the way this election is framed – which is more like “The West Wing,” if not irresistible.