5 reasons The West Wing is worth another visit

Sunday, May 1, 2011 Permalink

Okay, so here I am tempted to just say: 1. Josh; 2. Josh; 3. Josh; 4. Josh; and 5. Sam, but that would be wrong.  And just a little pathetic; a label which has (however) thus far has prevented me from shaming myself publicly.

However, having decided (on a break from revisits to Deadwood and Sunnydale – home of Buffy) to dust off my West Wing DVDs I was instantly reminded of how bloody much I loved that show.  I bought the DVDs as each series became available, impatiently waiting for each of the 7 seasons to be released.  As a result I have mismatched cases and the early ones require about 4 cases per series, all of which adds a bit of flavour and proves my devotion to the show.  I think.

From the moment In inserted the DVD and the Pilot episode commenced it was like I was experiencing a visit from an old friend. I suspect I watched, rewatched (and rewatched) the DVDs when I first bought them, so early seasons of the show are ridiculously familiar.  I can’t quite recite the lines (which I can do for the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice) but I know exactly what’s happening and it doesn’t matter one iota cos with The West Wing, it’s all about the journey.

I agree with many others, that the show did falter during Seasons 5 and 6 (when creator Aaron Sorkin left), but ended strongly with Season 7. However, even at its weakest, the show offered up quality drama, which didn’t involve police, law firms, doctors or forensic scientists. Other than a few parodies of politics and government, shows about politicians and their administrations are few and far between. As a result, when it premiered in late 1999, The West Wing brought something new and fresh to our screens. And it didn’t treat us like idiots.

I’d be surprised if there are viewers out there who haven’t seen the show, but in the event there are, here are some reasons to play catch-up. For those who are already fans, here’s a reminder of why we watched it – despite (here in Australia) being seriously messed about by television programmers moving it about week after week.

1. Aaron Sorkin is obviously a genius. The show’s writing is brilliant. In some ways the storylines or plots of the show are irrelevant and the clever and witty banter is what separates it from the crowd. I suspect it’s harder than it looks to create the rhythmic dialogue that the show became famous for. I read that the show also became known for its ‘walk and talk’ camera takes: where the camera follows characters down a hallway or into a room while they are talking. Frankly, the show was all about the dialogue. Their words and language gave us a sense of who the characters were.

2. Which brings me to the ensemble cast and their performances. Week after week. Year after year. Even when the show’s plots and writing wavered, the acting continued to be strong. The central cast of characters were so ridiculously brilliant – and sometimes so arrogant – that they could have been unlikable, but for their flaws. Not only did I admire them, but I wanted to be them. I wanted CJ’s almost perfect recall in press briefings; I wanted Sam’s nerdy intelligence; Toby’s sarcastic dry wit; or Leo or Josh’s savvy. The fact that their personal lives were fucked up didn’t worry me. I wanted to be them if I could be that smart and funny. Oh… and if I could work in the White House.

3. The President you’re proud to have. Apparently Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet was supposed to be a minor character, but the critical and public reaction to him and his performance meant that he became as pivotal player as one would expect the leader of the free world to be. A trivia-mad former Economics professor, the President was sometimes grouchy but always humane. His leadership (under the guiding hand of his BFF and Chief of Staff, Leo) developed in fits and starts, but he pulled no punches. From the Phoenix-like “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” and ensuing episodes; the debate in “Game On” that won him his second term in office; and his demolition of conservative and controversial talk-show host at an event in “The Midterms” (S2 Ep 3) (below). 

Bartlet: I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs: I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr President. The Bible does.

President Josiah Bartlet: Yes it does. Leviticus.

Dr. Jenna Jacobs: 18:22.

President Josiah Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.

4. They are always the good guys (even when they’re not). Dubbed ‘The Left Wing’ by one columnist, the show was perceived by many to portray the ideal liberal administration. Although the political lobbying and trade-offs resulted in the administration’s policies shifting to the centre, our favourite characters were passionate about the sensitive stuff.  The show tackled issues like homosexuality and gays in the military, hate crimes, terrorism, sex education in schools and drug use.  Even the President’s own Catholicism didn’t stand in the way of his support for many of these issues.

5. And we arrive back at Josh. Like a gazillion other women (and some men, I suspect) around the world, I wanted a Josh. A smart, funny self-deprecating man with a sense of right and wrong and who was just a little fucked up about stuff. Of course I realised I was entranced by a fictional character, and although Bradley Whitford was attractive enough, I didn’t run out to see him in his other works (which I did, for example upon discovering Richard Armitage). No, what I loved about Josh, was Josh… who I read was given increasing airtime as a result of his popularity. And what made him more popular than Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn (Lowe being more attractive in real life) I just don’t know. His diffidence perhaps; but whatever it was… that character worked.

“When I get back you’re gonna argue with me and we’re gonna argue about the things that I want to argue about; and you’re gonna do your best not to annoy me too much.”

Josh to Joey Lucas in Mandatory Minimums (S1 Ep.20)

I suspect it’s too late now but a spin-off featuring Josh as President Santos’ Chief of Staff would have been a nice idea.

There are, of course, many other things I love about the show. I think of Emily Procter’s Ainsley Hayes and John Larroquette’s Lionel Tribbey in the White House Counsel’s office. The changing of the guard in Season 7 and introduction of Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos and his presidential campaign. The beautifully handled issues handled poignantly like the death of Mrs Landingham in the “Two Cathedrals” episode.

My list could continue. But I’d be interested in hearing from any other fans:
What are your favourite things about The West Wing?

  • Trish
    May 1, 2011

    1. CJ
    2. CJ
    3. CJ
    4. CJ
    5. CJ

    I developed quite a crush on Allison Janney. She can do no wrong. I was SO thrilled when they made her Chief of Staff. And I loved her happy ending with Danny. And the scene with the Thanksgiving Turkey. All of it, actually. She was just such a fantastic character.

    • rockafellaskank
      May 1, 2011


      No crush on CJ for me (I was loyal to my Josh!) but I just loved the way she absorbed news and facts as she was heading into a briefing and then just spewed them out to the waiting journos. I do wonder if there are real life White Houses Press Secretaries who are that amazing… or if there was a bit of creative licence used (I know they based her character on Dee Dee Myers, but not sure how much!).

      Also loved the happy ending with Danny.


  • Belinda Pollard
    May 4, 2011

    I knew there was a reason I liked you.

    1. Josh was the babe of the show, without a doubt. I don’t know why, and I shouldn’t have to explain it. So there.

    2. Nine were morons in the way they played fast and loose with the loyalty of the show’s following But what else is new? They despise the following of any show, I think it’s framed on the wall in their programming department: We Despise Anyone Who Actually LIKES One Of Our Shows. They have written procedures for how to move a show all around the schedule to bewilder and irritate an audience, and then suddenly drop it altogether. *concludes rant, wipes froth from mouth*

    3. The dialogue is brilliant, but when I am really tired, I seriously can’t keep up with it. This is not a flaw in my IQ. I just have slow ears late at night.

    4. Recitation of the dialogue in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice is a recognised and approved team sport in my neighbourhood. Wear your nicest bonnet.

    • rockafellaskank
      May 4, 2011

      Hee hee Belinda. I agree. Sam was the ‘more attractive’ (and I appreciate his nerdy beauty now more than I did when it first aired), but there was something amazingly endearing about Josh. And I SO agree re Channel 9. It’s the only time I’ve contacted a TV station to complain about programming etc. I’d stayed up or set my video and then it wasn’t on or was delayed or something. Argh! Was the beginning of the end (for the show on Ch.9).

      Perhaps your adoration of P&P is like mine – Mr Darcy-related…. I’ve had it on DVD for years and must be due to pull it out again. I had it on video before then and DVD makes the ‘fast forwarding to the bits I like’ so much easier, ie:
      1. original meeting (at ball)
      2. ball at the Lucas house
      3. ball at Mr Bingley’s
      4. all scenes while Elizabeth visited Charlotte & Lady Catherine’s (declaration of love etc)
      5. OBVIOUSLY the ‘coming out of the lake scene’ and subsequent scenes at his house and lakes district
      6. scene when he reappears, they go for walk and he proposes.

      That’s it. And although I say I make light of P&P, I did read all of Jane Austen’s work a few years ago, and found myself quite entranced.


      PS. Did a Jane Austen blog a year or two ago. http://rockafellaskank.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/reading-jane/

      • Belinda Pollard
        May 6, 2011

        With Pride and Prejudice, I am a purist. No Skipping Ahead. I sit through all six hours. I suspect my favourite of all the scenes, despite the undisputed attractions of Colin Firth, is the one where Lizzie confronts Lady Catherine in the garden. “Take THAT, you old bat!” (couched in much more ladylike terms, of course)

        As an aside, did you notice Lizzie and Darcy were BOTH in The King’s Speech?? It’s only just occurred to me.

        As for Channel 9, they have THREE stations to stuff up now. Which they are doing, with characteristic enthusiasm. I’ve discovered I like the old As Time Goes By, but I usually only get half an episode, or none, because I’ve recorded it and Nine has done a shonky on the schedule at the last minute. Again. Still. Never mind, there are people in the world with real problems to deal with I guess…

        • rockafellaskank
          May 7, 2011


          We must have similar taste… I have the “As Time Goes By” boxset (9 seasons I think). I watched it when it was on ABC years ago and (like early Ab Fab, Black Books, Big Bang Theory) find it is a comedy that is just as funny 10th time around!


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