Television Nostalgia – The West Wing – The finest television drama ever created?
Of all the television shows I have watched over the years few have impressed me quite as much as The West Wing and it has become one of my top two favourite television programmes of all time (the other being The X-Files, which I grew up watching and therefore will always love). In case you haven’t yet watched it (and I would say why on earth not?!), The West Wing centres on the lives (personal but mainly professional) of the key staffers in The West Wing of the White House, who over the course of seven seasons we grow to know so well and love. The main characters are Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, his deputy Josh Lyman, communications director Toby Ziegler, his deputy Sam Seaborn and press secretary CJ Cregg. Surrounding them are their assistants (especially Margaret and Donna) and the President’s staff, in particular his secretary and also his personal aide Charlie Young.
The series was conceived as one that would focus on the individuals who work in the most powerful building in the Western world with the President rarely seen. However the casting of the supremely talented Martin Sheen changed this very early on. President Bartlett became as important a character as every other and he played the part to perfection – witty, dry-humoured, intelligent, compassionate, firm, comedic and serious. He is very much a President but also a husband, father and human being. There are so many superb dynamics within the show, whether it’s Leo and Bartlet, Josh and Donna, CJ and Toby, MR and Mrs Bartlet, Sam and Josh and many many more.
The West Wing’s success was not just down to its cast, who as an ensemble remain one of the most interesting and memorable in television history, but also because of the quality of the writing (led by creator and executive producer for the first four years, Aaron Sorkin), which was not only intelligent, but brought a style of drama to television that had not been seen often. The walk and talk tracking shots became one of the show’s calling cards and up until then had only been something I remembered seeing in the long-running medical drama E.R (whose executive producer John Wells was also part of The West Wing from start to finish).
The West Wing doesn’t dumb down the plot , issues or dialogue for its audience and instead challenges you to pay attention, yet the political world in which it lives became one of the most exciting and interesting worlds on television (and, as the high ranking of President Bartlet in polls proves, better than the real thing for many viewers)! I concede that season five was weaker overall than those that had gone before, but I personally enjoyed the change of direction that followed, where time was split between the Bartlet White House and the campaign trail for the upcoming election. It introduced fresh characters (the brilliant Kristen Chenoweth as Annabeth Schott, Jimmy Smits as Santos and Alan Alda and Vinick in particular) and allowed established characters to move forward and develop.
Add to that one of the best couples on television in the form of Josh Lyman and his assistant Donna Moss, whose flirtatious friendship had audiences wondering for years whether they would ever realise how in love they actually were. It was also fantastic to have so many strong female characters in a political series – CJ Cregg is fantastic (strong, funny and a little bit barmy), Donna sharp in wit and mind and an equal to her boss, Mrs Bartlet (played to perfection by the superb Stockard Channing) who was the one person to put the President in his place, to name but a few. Not to mention the incredible range of guest stars who cropped up over the years including John Goodman, Glenn Close, and Matthew Perry as examples.
The series also covered topics that were current or have happened since. During the shutdown of the US government in 20**, I couldn’t help but wonder whether anyone had suggested that President Obama stride up the road to the Capitol! The election campaign from the final season also saw an elder statesman against a younger Democrat from a minority group (admittedly in this case Latino) before Obama’s name became known worldwide.
For me, The West Wing has everything you could ever want in a television series – strong characters, interesting plots, intelligent dialogue and a mix of humour, tragedy, tension, romance and excitement. I was truly sad when I reached the final episode and it is one of the few series I can rewatch from beginning to end with as much pleasure as I did the first time (and I have many friends who do the same)! In fact it seems common for fans of the series to regularly return to it and start at season one!
So, in line with other posts of mine, here are my favourite episodes of this truly exceptional series:
1. In The Shadow of Two Gunmen (season 2)
The opening two parter of season two is without a doubt my favourite story of the series. Kicking off from where the season one finale ended we see the staff dealing with the shock of the shooting and learn that both the President and Josh have been injured (the latter severely). As medical staff work to save Josh, we are taken through flashbacks to see where it all began and how CJ, Sam, Toby, Josh and Donna all came to work for Leo on Jed Bartlet’s campaign. It also has some of my favourite scenes, particularly when Josh arrives at Sam’s law office after seeing “the real thing” in New Hampshire.
2. Two Cathedrals (season 2)
From the season opener to its finale, Two Cathedrals is another favourite and one that regularly tops most fans’s lists of favourite episodes. It gives us a greater insight into President Bartlet’s adolescence as he prepares for an incredibly difficult time in his life and Presidency, facing the loss of a friend and an unknown future following the revelation to the world of his illness. It also has two of the best sequences in television, the first being Jed’s angry outburst within the cathedral as he rages at God in Latin and the second as the President heads to the press conference, flanked by his loyal staff while the song Brothers in Arms plays. Wonderful, powerful and rarely beaten on television.
3. The Crackpots and these Women (season 1)
An early episode that sees Josh having a crisis of conscience when he realises he is the only senior staffer to have been given a card, which in the event of a nuclear attack gives him a spot in the President’s bunker. It also introduced Leo’s hilarious Big Block of Cheese Day as we see a series of quirky characters present their cases for government attention. Plus who doesn’t love the moment Jed uses all the power of his office to force his staff to come round for chilli!
4. Tomorrow (season 7)
A bittersweet episode, as it marked the end of the series, as President Bartlet makes way for a new President. I will always be sad that Toby wasn’t in it but at least his character was given a happy ending, as Bartlet’s last official act as President is to sign his pardon. Plus the emotional reference to Leo was wonderful and brought a tear to my eye.
5. 2162 Votes (season 6)
The sixth season finale saw us find out which Democrat would go on to face Arnold Vinick in the following year’s election campaign as Josh and the Santos campaign went head to head with Will and Donna’s campaign for the Vice President. I found this episode to be truly exciting when I first watched it and wished my own political system could generate in me the same sense of interest as this fictitious race did! Plus Santos’s speech is brilliant.
6. 20 Hours In America (season 4)
This two part season opener was a nice change of pace for the show, as Josh, Toby and Donna miss the motorcade and have a ridiculous journey across rural America back to Washington DC. In true West Wing style however the humour is also interspersed with an added level of emotion as a tragedy at a high school sees Bartlet give one of his most moving speeches (one which Sam has to write for him in the car to the event).
7. Shutdown (season 5)
This episode stands out in season five. Josh has been cast out of favour and the government has been forced in to shutdown. It takes Mrs Bartlet to ask where Josh is and once back, it’s his superb idea to walk to the Republicans on the Hill. The moment the opposition appear to see him and realise the President has been and gone is one of the best moments of the entire series. Nice work Josh!
8. Gaza / Memorial Day / NSF Thurmont (season 5/6)
This set of episodes are on my list for the simple reason that they contain some of the best Josh and Donna moments of the series. The peace talks storyline feels rather unrealistic but the shock of Donna’s accident in Gaza and seeing how much it affects Josh is fantastic for anyone like me who was rooting for this couple. The man flies across the globe to be by her bedside for goodness sake!
9. In Excelsis Deo (season 1)
I think all the Christmas episodes of this series are wonderful in different ways but this one sneaks ahead of the others. It perfectly blends comedic moments (as we see the President attempting to go Christmas shopping), sweet moments (as Josh chooses Donna’s gift) and moving moments, through Toby’s involvement with a deceased homeless man, whom he discovers was a veteran and whom he feels the need to help honour.
10. The Stackhouse Filibuster (season 2)
This episode taught me something new about American politics (I now know what a filibuster is!) as well as giving us a glimpse in to the personal lives of CJ and Josh as they write to their parents during a never-ending night at the White House. I also love that it is Donna who saves the day by realising why amending the Bill in question is so important to Senator Stackhouse.
11. 17 People (season 2)
17 people begins the build up to the emotional end of season two, as Toby is the 17th person to learn of the President’s secret illness. Watching him ponder what is going on as he bounces his rubber ball over and over builds the tension brilliantly. This more serious strand of the episode is also lightened by Josh, Donna, Sam and Ainsley trying to make a speech funnier, plus Donna and Josh’s lovely traffic lights scene.
12. Noel (season 2)
The second season Christmas episode focussed on Josh’s inability to cope with the trauma of being shot and this delicate story concerning his PTSD and therapy was sensitively written and acted. We also see again the bond between Leo and Josh as Leo tells him the story of a man down a hole. It brings a lump to my throat.
13. Election Day (season 7)
The election day two part story from the final season was a wonderful mix of humour, tension, excitement and unexpected sadness. We see how far Josh and Donna have come since their time at the White House, together with some lovely moments between Santos and his wife. Josh’s final words of thanks to his boss are also so very poignant. Plus for Josh and Donna fans the teaser sequence is utterly brilliant. I think I cheered the first time!
14. Transition (season 7)
Otherwise known as the long overdue return of Sam Seaborn! I was very irritated not to see Sam in the previous episode Requiem, as it just seemed unrealistic that he would be absent. However I see that his absence meant that the wonderful scene towards the beginning of Transition allows Josh to repeat his actions from when they first joined the Bartlet campaign – barging in to Sam’s office saying he needs him. Sam was the only person who could have made Josh see sense at this point, as he starts to unravel and I longed to have more episodes with Rob Lowe back. It reminded me just how great the early years were!
15. Debate Camp (season 4)
This episode contains yet more flashbacks from the early days of the team’s time in the White House, in between practice at Camp David for the upcoming Presidential debate. It’s nice to see the team prepping Bartlet for this key event, but the flashbacks are also a joy, as we see CJ memorising the press room’s seating plan and Donna thinking there are missiles under the Rose Garden!
Episodes that I almost added include Bartlett For America, Pilot, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet, Hartfield’s Landing, King Corn, Requiem, Impact Winter and Faith Based Initiative. You see this is the problem with The West Wing. It’s so fantastic that almost every episodes calls out to be included!
SO if you haven’t ever given it a try I urge you to do so. You won’t regret it and you’re guaranteed to be adding another show to your list of favourites. Oh and for those like me who long for new episodes, here is the 2012 ad campaign for Briget Mary McCormack featuring a few familiar faces! http://youtu.be/v52FLMOPSig
Plus here’s a couple of my favourite clips:
- an example of real friendship: http://youtu.be/ZQJ6yqQRAQs and
- President Bartlet making it very clear that he is in charge! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhGk6eF65Fo&feature=share&list=PL242A7FFD3B18EDD6&index=10
Admit it, you’re reaching for your DVD box set right now aren’t you?! I’d love to hear some of your favourite episodes so feel free to comment.