Sure, I’m late to the party. Not even fashionably late, just “late.” A couple of decades after the fact, I’m finally watching The West Wing, which—-I’m happy to say—actually lives up to all of its hype.
Of course, the word “hype” suggests the promotion or publicity of something upcoming or current. Maybe there’s a different word to describe all of the praise heaped upon something so far in the past. No matter. I need to move on before I get stuck in a time warp.
Do you remember doing the time warp? Ah … I’ve digressed enough. Moving on.
Reputation. Maybe that’s the word I was groping around for. Yeah, that’s it. This show lives up to its reputation.
My conservative friends think I’m a liberal. My liberal friends think I’m a conservative. I think that means I’m right where I need to be. I once completed some sort of questionnaire or quiz about my personal political leanings. Probably online, so we can be assured that it was 100% accurate and scientifically objective. It pegged me as a Libertarian-leaning Centrist.
I’m not sure if that’s an accurate assessment. I’m not even completely sure what that designation implies, although I suspect that it means that whoever I vote for is guaranteed not to get elected.
I seldom write about politics. The topic seemed unavoidable when writing about this series, so I thought I’d front-load it. In some quarters, this series is routinely dismissed as “The Left Wing,” some utopian fantasy vision of the liberal left. This version of the American presidency is sometimes called too idealistic, too Capra-esque. As one who identifies as neither Democrat nor Republican—who perhaps may be borderline apolitical—I don’t really have a horse, donkey or elephant in this race. At its best, I think The West Wing is everything I wish were true about American politics. At its worst, I think it represents what it really is.
Does the series seem to favor the Democratic party? Yeah, probably. But, the characters in this drama about the White House staff of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet aren’t presented as being without flaws. And the Republican characters aren’t all evil caricatures. Politics, in general, seems to be presented as a messy business, frequently underhanded and disingenuous. That seems like an accurate portrayal.
This is a character-driven series. There’s a lot of talk and darned little on-screen action. The personalities of our main characters, and the relationships between them, is what makes the series highly watchable. As in any good story, our characters aren’t allowed to lead a completely trouble-free existence, so stuff happens to heighten the drama. But, the stuff that happens is always interesting.
Right off the bat, I have to point out that Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), the White House media consultant who appeared throughout Season 1, inexplicably vanished from the series by the time Season 2 began. What’s probably worse, I didn’t immediately notice her absence. No explanation for her sudden disappearance is ever given. As far as I know, even Congressman Gary Condit went unquestioned. None of the other characters ever mention her name again that I’m aware of.
Mandy’s not the only television character to ever disappear from a show. Chuck Cunningham, anyone? Anyone? He was Richie’s older brother for the first season or two of Happy Days. He was later retconned into nonexistence. When I looked into what happened to Mandy Hampton, I discovered that she’s not even the only character this happens to on The West Wing. In fact, any character who disappeared from the series was said to have “gone to Mandyville.”
The season opens with the conclusion of the Season 1 cliffhanger, which was the Roslynn assassination attempt. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was presumably the target. As it turns out, he was shot. So was Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who was even more seriously injured. The true target was Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), Personal Aide to the President, who had begun dating the President’s youngest daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss). The would-be assassins were white supremacist’s who objected to a black man dating the white daughter of a sitting President.
Naturally, the first part of the season deals with the aftermath of the assassination attempt and Josh Lyman’s recovery. In one memorable episode, Lyman is forced to talk to psychiatrist Stanley Keyworth (Adam Arkin) because he hasn’t fully dealt with the trauma of being shot. Bradley Whitford energizes any scene he appears in on this show, in my opinion.
Not that any of the other actors on this show are duds. Far from it. Whitford is just one standout. Martin Sheen’s folksy smartest-man-in-the-room President Bartlet also comes more to the fore in this season, and the man is conducting an acting clinic every time he appears on screen. Richard Schiff‘s irritable Toby Ziegler, who mumbles a lot for a Communications Director, also demands your attention, as does Allison Janney‘s spunky White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg. The late John Spencer as Bartlet’s friend and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry can communicate more emotion with his eyes and careworn face than ten other actors can with words and wild gesticulations.
I could go on, and probably should, because every member of the cast is worth gushing about. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Deputy Communications Director, is probably my least-favorite character. And, I think he’s terrific, if that tells you anything.
I really noticed the absence of Mandy Hampton when Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) was introduced to the show. Ainsley is a Republican who is brought on as a White House counsel. At first, she seems to be just a foil for Sam Seaborn. Then it becomes apparent that she’s there to provide a voice for the underrepresented Republicans in this Democrat-heavy series. I liked the character during the season, but thought she was woefully underused (much like Mandy, come to think of it). She’s originally from North Carolina, so I know the accent isn’t faked (faulty Southern accents are one of my pet peeves, you know). Since Procter later appeared on CSI: Miami, I don’t think she’ll be a permanent fixture on the series, but hers was a refreshing voice. Hopefully, she won’t just vanish to Mandyville.
John Larroquette makes a single appearance as Lionel Tribbey, Chief White House Counsel, but is later replaced by Oliver Platt as Oliver Babish. Both actors are known commodities, of course, and both give excellent performances.
Much of the latter part of the season deals with President Bartlet’s MS becoming public knowledge after Vice President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) conducts himself in a manner that causes some to doubt that the President will be running for reelection. Hoynes was one of a select few who knew about Bartlet’s MS. It seems that the President had promised First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing) that he wouldn’t run for reelection. As the season comes to an end, the President is forced to deal with that question from both a public and personal perspective.
The drama is ratcheted up as all of the White House staff find out about the President’s MS. It becomes a question of whether or not the President lied to the public, since his diagnosis was never disclosed during the campaign. If this weren’t high-stakes enough already, the President then has to deal with the sudden death of his executive secretary Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joorsten), who dies in a car accident in the season’s penultimate episode.
All of which leads to a Season 2 cliffhanger. Will the President seek reelection? Smart money says yes, but the viewer is left hanging as the season ends.
My words in this post aren’t sufficient to communicate how great this series was, and still is twenty years later. Only two seasons in, I’m already regretting that there are only five more to go
Firewater’s Let-Bartlet-Be-Bartlet Season 2 Report Card: A+
Yeah, it’s that good.