TV Review: THE WEST WING – THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON
15 – 22x42mins. approx. – 1999/2000
Created by: Aaron Sorkin
Executive Producers: Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme, John Wells
Starring: Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Janel Moloney, Dulé Hill, Moira Kelly
Okay, okay, so I'm a little late to the (political) party – ten years, in fact – but while the UK was going election mad these past few months (emphasis on the mad; need I say more than “bigotgate”?), I avoided all things parliamentary and turned my attention across the pond to the fictional Democratic administration of newly-elected President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen), as depicted in Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning nose around the White House: The West Wing. Y’know, for topicality’s sake. And escapism… ahem.
I will openly confess that politics is not “my thang”, which is not to admit that I am ignorant of how our country is run, just that I do not feel suitably versed to form an accurate or objective opinion on so grand a matter, hence my initial reluctance to start out on this seven season, 154 episode journey detailing the inner workings of a government far larger than (little) Britain’s. Despite the high praises being sung by @ThomDownie and @StaceBannister (not to mention the armful of Emmy’s the show took home over its run), I was worried I would sit through hours of impenetrable politic-babble lost, confused and bored senseless, running for an encyclopaedia with every mention of the Federal Reserve or the Bill of Rights!! But when Play.com offered the entire 44-disc collection for a bargainous £34.99, who was I to turn down an opportunity like that?
And, boy, am I glad that I didn't, for my fears of drowning in a sea of political jargon were instantly allayed by the amiable, inviting and comfortable tone of the show, which you would image would be at odds with the pressure enacted upon Bartlet and his overworked staff and the breakneck speed with which they talk, (power) walk and do business; but these are well-rounded, likeable human beings, albeit with stressful, 18 hour jobs, and you become enthralled in their lives, their loves and their mistakes. Sure, each episode is centred on a bill, a budget, a poll, a meeting or the State of the Union – they are at work, after all – but fundamentally, The West Wing is more about the people behind the policies than it is about the policies themselves.
The main players bringing the drama and the humour to the White House, in no particular order, are: Communications Director Tony Zielger (Richard Schiff), his Deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Press Secretary “CJ” Cregg (Allison Janney), dedicated Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), wise-cracking Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Media Consultant Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) – more on her later – and the President’s young personal aide, Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), who becomes romantically involved with his bosses daughter, Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), much to an extremist group’s displeasure… Phew, that’s quite a cast, but they are so well written that they don’t remain strangers for long. Even President Bartlet conceals a soft, charming, overly-protective father beneath the spiky, brash leader of the country, while Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) is the only character I couldn't warm to, although he is sidelined so often that you forget he's even batting for the same side. Politically speaking.
Due to the hectic nature of the show, certain plot strands are introduced only to seemingly fizzle out for a large chunk of the season, then to rear back into focus later – Sam’s questionable befriending and plan to “reform” prostitute-come-student Laurie (Lisa Edelstein) and the career-crippling revelation of Leo’s pill-popping past, for example – whereas some arcs, such as Leo’s daughter Mallory’s (Allison Smith) potential romance with Sam, and enthusiastic reporter Danny Concannon’s (Timothy Busfield) patent-but-sweet determination to hook up with “CJ”, are bubbling away but still unresolved even after 22 episodes. But then that is life, and I found that aspect of The West Wing refreshing; it gave the (clearly intricately-plotted) series an edge of unpredictability; it wasn’t guaranteed that every plot point would be wrapped up in a tidy bow, or that it would even be given any screen time at all, but you were always certain that whatever subject was up for dissection – no matter how tragic, serious or trivial – you would be gripped, even when all plans go out the window and all hell breaks loose, such as in the tense, chilling and jaw-dropping season finale. Needless to say, Aaron Sorkin makes damn sure we’ll be back for Season Two.
Somebody who isn’t back for the sophomore year, however, is Mandy Hampton, the show’s most obvious misstep. Introduced in a blaze of controversy after defecting from ‘the other side’, Mandy all but vanishes towards the tail end of the season, reduced to a couple of throwaway lines an episode. It is a prime example of how American dramas are constantly evolving, even during the season, and clearly Aaron Sorkin was not happy with how the character fit into the ensemble cast. Nothing comes of the possible friction she could have caused to the team as Josh’s ex-girlfriend, and even when I thought she was finally going to get a big storyline to tackle (the leaking of her Republican memo outlining the President’s weaknesses), the potentially career-destroying mistake – which could have been a big exit for her character – is hushed up and trails off, with Mandy still sticking around to no real purpose. The last cause she fought for? Trying to import a replacement panda for Washington zoo... says it all, really.
Essentially, even in its debut season while most shows would still be finding their feet, The West Wing is confident and well crafted drama, superbly balancing the staffer’s torrent of duties with their turbulent private lives to create a winding, exciting and restless show which is personable without being soppy, hilarious without being slapstick, demanding without being dense, dramatic without being grave and intellectual without alienating or dumbing down for politics dunces (such as myself). I don’t think I have laughed as much at a show as I did when seeing Josh (a wonderfully congenial chap) waking from a hangover at his desk – mid-meeting – wearing full fisherman attire, or witnessing “CJ” attempting to speak having been anesthetised by the dentist. Whoever said politics was boring?! Oh, right… oops!
CR@B Verdict: Even a decade on, Aaron Sorkin's frantic ensemble drama is still a masterclass in perfectly-paced politics played out by finely tuned, well rounded human beings. Sharp, compelling and intelligent, yet warm and witty, too: Season one of The West Wing certainly gets my vote!