The Sorkin Education Begins.
I recently finished The West Wing, coming to the show through a recommendation from my boyfriend and quite a few others. I had missed the show when it was “on air” originally, and never went back to watch it. To be honest, politics have never really interested me that much and I wasn’t exactly jumping over myself to watch a show about politics in the White House.
Speaking as someone who has now watched all seven seasons of this series written by Aaron Sorkin, I must admit how very wrong I was for judging the show based on such a generic viewpoint. Yes, there are politics in this show, but the show is so much more than that, and the writing is amazing. Plus, the political side of the show falls squarely in line with my own political beliefs as a registered Democrat.
I have made it a point to avoid certain topics in my blog, because the intention of my blog was always to write about things I enjoy, that others would as well, but in such a way as to be unifying and non-confrontational. So I have avoided writing about religion, politics, and social commentary. Of course, with a show like The West Wing, it is difficult to discuss the show and not discuss politics or what it is about the politics of the show that I like or can relate to. For the first time, you will get a glimpse into my political ideals, to a certain extent, all because of The West Wing. I feel that’s really saying something about this show and the effect that it has had on me.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me provide a quick breakdown of what the show is about and who is in it. Just in case any of you reading this have not seen the show yet and will be intrigued to watch it based on this post. Often, my TV show reviews are spoiler free, but I feel I am safe with spoilers for a show that has been off the air since 2006, and has also been through syndication. However, I will keep the major spoilers to myself, as I think I can properly discuss my thoughts and feelings on the show without them, and still leave some intrigue for those wanting to dive into this fantastic show.
As I mentioned before, this series was created by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the screenplay for A Few Good Men and The American President, and more recently The Social Network and Moneyball, as well as the TV series’ Sports Night and The Newsroom. His brilliant writing is equal to the talented cast chosen to read his words of dialogue.
Sorkin’s writing is smart, serious, funny, sarcastic, and satirical. It has emotional depth and yet is still relate-able. Then you have the cast, who I fell in love with both individually and as a whole representing the Bartlet administration. You have Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet, Stockard Channing as First Lady Abigail Bartlet, Allison Janney as Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, John Spencer as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, Bradley Whitford as Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, Richard Schiff as Communications Director Toby Ziegler, Rob Lowe as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, Dulé Hill as Personal Aide to the President Charlie Young, Janel Moloney as Assistant Donna Moss, and eventually Joshua Malina as Campaign Manager/Speech Writer Will Bailey.
There were many more great characters in this show, but to list them all would not only take up a lot of space but also time. I also want to focus specifically on the characters that had the most impact on me as a viewer and a fellow democrat. So as you may have gathered, this show is about a democratic administration in the White House and everything that entails. From campaigning to elections, law making and vetoing, speech writing to condolence notes, this show covers a variety of aspects of what it means to work in the highest office in the nation. While the role of the president is a large portion of the show, the bigger picture focuses on the staff and cabinet working in the White House.
The easiest way to start out my discussion about the characters that affected me the most, would be to discuss my favorite character of the series, Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford. I loved his humor and sarcasm, his affection for his friends and co-workers, and his dedication to not only his boss, Leo, but the President as well. While Josh is my favorite, so many of the other characters are tied for second place. I loved Toby’s passion, Leo’s big heart, and C.J.’s strength. President Bartlet is the ideal President; firm, principled, compassionate, devoted. After seven seasons, you find yourself completely invested in what goes on in this White House and what happens to the characters you have come to know and love.
Before I get into my overall thoughts on the series as a whole. Let me discuss some of my favorite episodes:
Seven Episodes of Note from Seven Seasons of The West Wing
1. The Crackpots and These Women
From Season 1, we have the 5th episode titled “The Crackpots and These Women”. This episode is centered around Leo’s Big Block of Cheese Day, also known as Total Crackpot Day thanks to Josh. It’s a day where representatives of different organizations can appeal to the White House for funding. It’s a fun episode that pokes fun at some of the things our tax dollars could be used for. But it also gives the viewer a closer look at the Bartlet family, by introducing the youngest of first daughters, Zoey, and has the President cooking chili.
2. The Stackhouse Filibuster
In Season 2, we get episode 17 titled “The Stackhouse Filibuster”. In this episode, Josh finalizes a $6 billion health care plan which he is certain will pass on the senate floor, only to have 78-year-old Senator Stackhouse filibuster on the senate floor for 8 hours straight after Josh ignores his request to add to money for autism research. This ruins everyone’s plans for the weekend, including Josh’s. The great thing about this episode is the perfect use of exposition to reveal everything to the viewer, in the form of various White House Staff members writing emails to their families describing the day’s events.
3. The Indians in the Lobby
Season 3, offers up a Thanksgiving episode, episode 8 “The Indians in the Lobby”. While this shows the light-hearted side of the show, this is also the same season where Sorkin wrote a special episode for 9/11, episode 1 “Isaac and Ishmael”. The episode was written right after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, right before Season 3 was set to air, and was accompanied by a special message from the cast where they explain that the episode does not follow previously established storylines but is in fact a standalone. Now, “Indians in the Lobby” on the other hand, is this season’s Thanksgiving episode. Two Stockbridge-Munsee Native Americans hold a sit-in, or in this case a stand-in, in the lobby of the White House refusing to leave until they get an answer on an application that was submitted 15 years ago. This episode tackles some interesting topics, while still remaining fun, with the President calling the Butterball Turkey hotline.
4. The Long Goodbye
Season Four was a bit harder to narrow down, and I had a three way tie. Largely due to the fact that one episode introduced the nerdy but lovable Will Bailey played by Joshua Malina, while in the other we said goodbye to Sam portrayed by Rob Lowe. But ultimately winning out was my favorite of the season episode 13, “The Long Goodbye”. C.J. returns to Dayton to visit her father and give a speech at her high school reunion. We find out that her father has Alzheimer’s and is getting worse. I lost my Oma last year who suffered from Dementia and while the diseases are not exactly the same, they do share similarities, which is why this episode affected me. I could relate to C.J. easily.
5. No Exit
Season 5, episode 20, “No Exit”, sheds light on the procedures should a bio-hazard attack occur inside the White House. The President, his aide, and his secretary get hustled away into quarantine when a bio-hazard alarm goes off. The rest of the White House is locked down by the secret service until the threat can be assessed. It forces awkward conversations between the staff and some funny moments in the quarantine room.
6. In the Room
Season 6, episode 8, “In the Room”. This episode has the famous magicians Penn and Teller perform at Zoey’s birthday party in the White House. During their performance they pull off a trick with a controversial element, which sparks a heated debate. I actually got the opportunity to go to a Penn and Teller show last year, my first time seeing them in person. I have liked them as magicians for a while, so I really enjoyed their cameo in this episode.
7. The Debate
Season 7, episode 7, “The Debate”. In this episode, we get a live debate, literally. The entire episode it setup to mimic an actual televised debate. The debate was then aired live twice, once for East Coast viewers and once for Pacific Coast viewers You can tell that the cameras used are different than the stationary cameras in the studio, and they filmed everything in front of a real audience. At this point in the season, I was also completely hooked by the election and the candidates, and the authenticity of the show. So much so, that I was actively talking back to the TV during the episode, agreeing and disagreeing with the candidates about their platforms and issues. I was actually getting worked up to the point where I had to remind myself, out loud, that this was not a real debate and not a real election. That’s how well this episode was performed and shot, because it just didn’t feel like a TV show, it felt like a real event.
Now there were easily so many more great episodes that I loved, which I decided to skip because of major spoilers.
Overall though, this is an amazing show. My only regret is that I did not get into it sooner. I completely understand now why everyone I know who has seen it, puts together a strong campaign to get you on board. It has won numerous awards and deservedly so. I also now get all of The West Wing references that Lin-Manuel Miranda incorporated into his hit musical Hamilton, being a big fan of The West Wing. I’m looking forward to his episode of The West Wing Weekly, a podcast about The West Wing hosted by Joshua Malina who played Will Bailey and Hrishikesh Hirway of the award-winning podcast Song Exploder. Yes, if this review wasn’t proof enough of how much I loved this show, I am now hooked on the companion podcast as well. They are already up to Season 6, so I have a lot of catching up to do.
I have to admit, I had little interest in politics before. Beyond the basics, I found the intricacies of politics to be boring and complicated. After watching the entire series, I am certainly not an expert, but I feel I have a much better understanding of how the political machine works in Washington DC. So whether you are interested in politics, or looking for some political insight that is cleverly displayed but still easy to follow, and you have never given The West Wing a chance, do yourself a favor and check out the show.
Don’t debate yourself on this, hurry on over to Netflix while it’s still available.