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?