The West Wing
This will be the first of the My Shows series of blog posts, where I talk about some of my all-time favorite television shows. I start with what could very possibly be my favourite television series, The West Wing.
The West Wing is the brain child of acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin whose recent credits include The Social Network and Moneyball. Sorkin managed to put magic into words, while the terrific cast and crew were able to take that magic from the words and put it on screen. What resulted was a deeply layered show about our hopes and dreams of what the American Presidency could be. This was a show full of wit, charm, and drama. It was centered around fully developed characters who were usually smarter than they should be and who were brilliantly acted by a cast which included Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Shiff, John Spencer, and of course Martin Sheen as the big kahuna.
Most people who haven’t bothered to watch The West Wing seem to have this perception of the show as a stuffy, boring drama about politics. On the contrary, this series is perhaps the best series to almost perfectly balance between high drama and hilarious comedy. There are far more laughs in these scripts than you would expect. And its smart humour too, with tons of witty, sharp dialogue. Thats not to say there aren’t a few slapstick moments with people falling off chairs, but even then they still manage to be classy.
And yes, it is a show about politics, but it isn’t your everyday C-Span politics. Sorkin and company accomplished the monumental task of making politics both interesting and exciting. There is some pretty neat behind-the-scenes stuff going on as Josh Lyman pushes his bosses agenda around Capitol Hill, or when Sam and Toby plan the newest election campaign strategy. But you never feel bogged down in the details since there is so much pithy wit repartee and occasionally heartfelt drama to keep things fresh.
Another feature of The West Wing which attracts me so much is how detailed and layered this world is. Yes, they have the main staff members, but they have also developed a whole network of secondary characters who form the framework of an authentic fictional world. From Nancy McNally the NSA and Fitzwallace the chairman of the joint chiefs, to a whole range of senators and congressmen, to complex foreign relations, which is an amazingly constructed world.
Here’s a look at each of the series’ seven seasons.
Season 1 – The show’s freshman season started off with a bang, winning the Emmy for Best Drama (the first of the four in a row it would win). It found its stride very quickly and I remember falling in love with it instantly. Yet season 1 is still much more light-hearted and innocent in comparison to the rest of the series when you look back at it. This isn’t a bad thing, since it helps us grow for and like these characters before it starts throwing some serious drama at them.
The pilot is simply great as far as pilots go. It showcases the wit in the dialogue and the refusal by the writers to dumb down the political side. The episodes are consistently strong, with some highlights being Mr. Willis of Ohio, Take this Sabbath day, and of course the gripping season finale What Kind of Day has it been, which had be gaping at the TV screen when it was over.
Season 2 – The sophomore season of West Wing is perhaps its strongest. The humour and drama seems to be refined here to a perfect pitch, beginning with the heart-pounding aftermath of an assassination attempt, a crisis in Columbia, and finally a legal crisis regarding the President’s undisclosed MS. Great episodes include Noel, The Leadership Breakfast (which has the funniest opening of the show’s history), and Two Cathedrals, the latter being perhaps the West Wing’s strongest episode period, its directed so brilliantly.
Season 3 – The West Wing doesn’t lose any steam going into season 3 as the West Wing staff has to deal with the fallout of the President’s hearings due to his undisclosed health issues. Later in the season things start getting a little darker as they deal with both foreign and domestic terrorism, including a great storyline with Mark Harmon guest-starring as CJ Cregg’s bodyguard after she receives death threats. We also start into the re-election campaign, which is always great stuff to watch.
Season 3 isn’t noticeably outstanding when wedged between the excellent second and fourth seasons, but it is just consistently great. Highlight episodes are 100,000 airplanes and Posse Comatatis, the season finale.
Season 4 – This was the last seasons for both creator/head writer Sorkin and Rob Lowe as the indelible Sam Seaborne. Lowe’s leaving got more press, but it was Sorkin’s departure which threatened to affect the show more. But boy, did they give a great season to go out with. We start off with the president’s re-election campaign (which of course he wins) and moves into a humanitarian crisis in Africa, Sam running for Congress (and eventually leaving the show), and finally an incredibly dramatic conclusion as the president’s daughter Zoe is kidnapped.
Yes, the kidnapping may seem far-fetched considering how close to realism the show usually is. But trust me, just watch those two last episodes of the season and you will soon realize how little you care about how far-fetched it is or not, they are so good.
Season 5 – With no Sorkin, many wondered how the show would hold up in season 5. Well, the show’s writing quality does drop off a bit, there’s no denying that. But it certainly doesn’t fall to any dramatic proportions and in fact in relation to many other shows on air at the time, it was still some of the best TV going. It took a while for the West Wing to find its legs, but at this point the actors are so comfortable in their roles that we soon realize its still the same Josh, the same CJ, the same Toby, and the same Bartlett.
Highlights of this season would be Slow News Day and The Supremes, both some of the best stand-alone episodes the show has had.
Season 6 – Season 6 is perhaps the weakest of the shows seven seasons, but that’s like saying you’ll order the least expensive steak on a menu of the finest steaks at a high-class restaurant. The show started off weak, and had me worried about the future of the show, especially when they pulled the trick of Le’s heart attack, which felt to me like pandering to an audience who wanted a shake up. But they actually dealt with it very well. the big shake up came later, which Josh Lyman left the White House to groom his own candidate, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), for the next election. It was hard for me to part with Josh, but he was only gone from the White House, not the show, and in fact as the season moved into its second half, dealing with the Democratic Primary campaign race, things started to get really good.
Season 7 – And then we come to the final season, and wow, did they ever knock me out with this one. Season 7 gave West Wing a whole new energy and excitement as the whole year dealt with the presidential election race between Josh and Matt Santos and Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick. Getting a complete behind the scenes look at both sides was very exciting and the entire campaign was a real rush. if only real elections were this much fun.
Meanwhile, we get some really great stuff at the White House, with CJ really coming into her own as Chief of Staff and Martin Sheen showing us how confident and authoritative Bartlett has ended up becoming in his eight years in office. This last season finished things off so well, I was ecstatic that my favourite show never jumped the shark and ended off with the same gusto with which it began. The finale wasn’t anything overly dramatic, but it was a really nice way to say goodbye. but its the penultimate episode when CJ tries to decide her future that is the highlight of the great last season.
Ranking of the Seasons:
Favourite Character – With a long list of so many wonderfully developed characters, like the charming Sam, the struggling CJ, the gruff Toby, and of course the president himself, I have to go with Josh Lyman as the best of the bunch. Josh’s character remains consistent throughout the run of the series. He’s idealistic, he’s smart and very good at what he does, yet he’s also arrogant and cocky which can get him into a lot of trouble. His relationship with his assistant Donna is one of the cornerstones of the show, and it can be easily argued that Josh is perhaps the central character of the entire series.
Final Thoughts – If you have never seen this fantastic show, please don’t let the fact that its about politics dissuade you. Yes there is a lot of complicated political storylines in each episode, but you don’t need to follow them to enjoy the banter and amazing characters. Yet if you do follow them, you are in for a real treat, as the experience of watching will become that much richer for you. Each episode is like a finely woven tapestry of plot, drama, characterization and comedy. The West Wing is certainly one of my top 3 shows of all time, and may very well be sitting at the top of the list.