Television reflects society: the arguments, the obsessions and general sense of the world.
The West Wing was a supremely optimistic vision of how politics should be done. There was lots of tension between the opposing camps but also moments where they acknowledged their strengths and weaknesses to work together for a common aim. The staffers on the West Wing had the best of intentions and a righteous anger about what was wrong with the world.
It is unlikely the show would be commissioned now.
While it was running, 24 came along. A fast-paced action thriller with gloriously ludicrous plot lines, you might be forgiven for thinking it had little in common with Aaron Sorkin's sophisticated drama. But Jack Bauer's battle was not just with terrorists: it was with a power structure that led to corrupt politicians manipulating the system for their own ends.
Then there was Deadwood, a show that challenged everything you thought about the West aside from the view it was violent. According to some historians, the Wild West wasn't that wild at all. Of course, Deadwood wasn't about then, it was about now. As historical and fictional figures clashed with saw raw power exerted for self-interest.
There was also The Sopranos: again looking at power, greed and violence.
The watershed for showing how society works has to be The Wire. It was a watershed for television as well. It couldn't have come without the shows that had gone before it including Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and Homicide: Life on the Streets but it went beyond the constraints of its genre and chronicled American society: the police, industry, politics, eduction and the media.
Every television show since stands in its shadow.
Now we have Boardwalk Empire and Hell on Wheels. You can not get further from Sorkin's cornball. Both shows look at real events and deal with corruption, crime, business and politics. They tell a very different story to the Frank Capra view of Washington D.C. and small town life.
It doesn't matter whether these depictions of American life are accurate or not. What is interesting is that there has been such a sea change: from sweetness to cynicism.