The West Wing premiered in the fall of 1999. Although I never watched a single episode until 20 years later, I remember this time period well. I was making some heavy-duty career moves and literal physical moves to another state while my personal life was unraveling. While I had enjoyed creator Aaron Sorkin’s work on the films A Few Good Men and The American President, I never felt that I had the time or motivation to get caught up in fictional drama during this time. Plus, I had never learned how to record anything on a VCR when I wasn’t in the room at the same time. And, I had other priorities.
I knew about the series, of course, and would remain aware of it the entire seven seasons in was on the air. Having missed leaping onto the bandwagon at the beginning, I relegated the show to the growing list of those I would one day get around to watching.
Time moves faster as you get older, and years became decades. 2019 was the year I began watching the show. Only 13 years after it went off the air. Following what has now become a familiar pattern, this was facilitated by all of the seasons being available on Netflix.
Chances are, you already know all about this show and how you feel about it. Or, if you’re a Johnny-Come-Lately (or Never) like me, perhaps you’ve considered watching the series now. If you think you might, go ahead a stop reading this post now. I don’t feel that revealing the events of a twenty-year-old television show falls into “spoiler” territory, so I’m probably going to talk about events that you would rather experience first-hand yourself.
The first season of The West Wing drops the viewer in medias res early in the first term of President of the United States Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). The drama revolves around an ensemble cast performing as Bartlet’s family, senior staff and advisers, plus many recurring side characters. The immediate setting is kinetic and the camera almost always seems to be moving. Sorkin did not invent the “walk-and-talk” film and television storytelling technique, but he certainly popularized it. The White House set for this show must have been massive because the characters are always walking through its corridors and rooms with the camera following them, without obvious cuts, while they are engaged in animated conversations.
I don’t mind admitting that the first episode left me confused. I didn’t know who all of the characters were, or what their jobs were supposed to be. And Sheen, arguably “the” star of the series, doesn’t appear until the final scene of the episode, albeit in an effectively dramatic fashion.
His first line is a recitation of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no God before me.” As cheesy as this may read to you, it is, as I said, effective.
The confusion is effective from a storytelling perspective as well. It adds to the realism of the setting and imparts a dramatic tension that may otherwise have been missing. This is not a show with a lot of explosions and car crashes going on—at least, not on-screen. This is a character-driven drama where all of the characters are talking most of the time. Sometimes at the same time. The quick pacing and camera movement keeps this show from being a series of static talking head scenes.
I know this will seem like a weird association to many of you, but the series itself reminds me a lot of Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy. Until I read the books the second time, I didn’t realize that most of the events of the story were being told to me rather than shown. The majority of Asimov’s scenes were characters talking to each other, telling each other what has happened. What I’ve watched of The West Wing does the same. While this seems to violate that sacrosanct “Show, Don’t Tell” storytelling rule, it works remarkably well within the constraints of this series. The real story is about the characters and their reactions to things that are happening in the wider world outside of the White House. It’s not necessary to have a scene showing the president driving his bike into a tree, or rafts of Cuban refugees in Miami, or Syrians shooting down military aircraft. We’re “told” that these things happened and Sorkin trusts that the viewers can conjure those images in their minds from the bank of images we’re fed by the media every day.
As I got further into the season, I learned the names of the main cast of characters and their job titles, as well as getting to know a bit more of their personalities. In addition to President Bartlet, the characters around whom all the major storylines seem to be woven are the following: Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Deputy Communications Director; Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Communications Director; Leo McGarry (John Spencer), WH Chief of Staff; C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), WH Press Secretary; Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), WH Deputy Chief of Staff; Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), Personal Aide to the President; and Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), Media Consultant. If you consider that each of these characters has assistants, acquaintances or family—many of whom are recurring characters themselves—you will understand how the cast quickly grows too huge to list anywhere but on an IMdB page.
Honorable mention must go to Janel Moloney as Josh Lyman’s assistant, Donna Moss; Kathryn Joosten as the president’s executive secretary Mrs. Landingham; a very-young Elisabeth Moss as Zoey Bartlet, the president’s youngest daughter; and Tim Matheson as the much-maligned Vice President John Hoynes. And so many others.
While there are huge serialized elements to the storytelling, we get episodic stories-of-the-week as well, about votes on particular bills, gaffes committed by the White House staff, various Secret Service goings-on, a state dinner, a new nomination to the Supreme Court (Edward James Olmos), political fundraising, polling, and others of similar themes.
I’m not trying to downplay the specifics of the 22 episodes that make up this season. I’ll freely admit that if there are people who are less politically savvy than I am out there, they have my sympathy. If it wasn’t a subject covered on Schoolhouse Rock, I remain blissfully ignorant about it. For that reason, I find the various political activities less interesting than the people involved in them. It’s the same way I overlook pseudoscience gobbledygook on science-fiction shows.
This is a political fantasy. I know that. Jed Bartlet is an idealized American President, the same way Michael Douglas was in that Sorkin movie. As presented in the series, it is what I wish politics were actually like at its best; it’s what I’m afraid it’s actually like at its worst. Special interests, backroom dealing, party politics, political lobbying—that all has the ring of truth as well.
The season ends on a cliffhanger, an attempted presidential assassination, we’re led to believe. As the finale ends, we’re not certain who’s living, dead or otherwise.
Normally, I wouldn’t care for this type of emotional manipulation. However, as I write this review, I’m already part of the way through Season 2, so I know what happens. You’ll have to keep watching (or reading) to find out yourself.
Firewater’s Hail-to-the-Chief Report Card: A+
I realize that I probably shouldn’t give this series my highest grade right out of the gate. But, it’s just that good.