The fact that The West Wing managed to gain such a large amount of popularity is still a remarkable and strange feat. A political drama that’s more political than drama, The West Wing gives as much attention to the political issues faced by the characters as it does to their personal lives, and refuses to drastically dumb down the jargon and level of debate (though it would be ridiculous to assume there is no simplification). It first aired in 1999, when television was at the verge of a dramatic sea change. Today, it can be seen on Netflix Instant.
But it’s most daring decision is to not depict the White House senior staff as devious, backstabbing opportunists, instead choosing the far less glamorous picture of a group of people trying to do their job. One of the greatest things about the show is its refusal to satisfy our temptation to see our government in the most cynical light possible, instead emphasizing the fact that the people running the White House are, more or less, trying to find the way to best serve their country, and screwing up sometimes.
The West Wing has no main character, and almost everyone in the ensemble cast gets equal attention. The highest rung on the ladder is, obviously, the president, in this case Josiah Bartlet, a friendly, grandfatherly sort of man played by the illustrious Martin Sheen, who seems like the president you always want the president to be. However, since the show mainly focuses on the staff, Bartlet is not seen as much as other characters, and has a less interesting character than most of them to boot.
Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is gruff and work-obsessed, but kind, with a past of alcoholism and a struggling family life. Under him is John Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who brings a sarcastic impulsiveness to the stately atmosphere. Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is stiff and reserved, his deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is idealistic to a fault, and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) is the only one who’s relatively sane.
Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, is a well-known screenwriter, having written the scripts for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball, and cult TV show Sports Night. For The West Wing, he brings the idiosyncratic style he is famous for. Characters bounce small sentences back and forth with alarming rapidity, forcing the audience to keep up. The urgency of situations is shown physically by having characters rush through hallways, often with nowhere to actually go. Sometimes the camera will follow a character down a hallway and see them begin and end multiple conversations before the shot is over. This method is essential to the success of the show, as it would otherwise be comprised of mostly talking heads.
What is so immediately engrossing about The West Wing is just how real the problems the characters deal with are. The characters are as detached as they are precisely because they know every action they take will have grave consequences for the rest of the world. This is, of course, made more consequential by the fact that they cannot do anything that Congress won’t let them do, and they are forced sometimes to do some backhanded negotiating, sometimes more than may be necessary. But this only adds to the realism; these are complex characters with real flaws, who make mistakes that make sense, and who might not always be trying to do the right thing.
However, if there is one flaw with the show, it is the president himself. Though the other characters are neurotic and complex, President Bartlet seems like the basic archetype of what a president “should” be. He is incredibly intelligent, stately, and filled with little anecdotes that contain some kind of profundity. He is serious when he needs to be, but is usually casual in that way old men are. He likes things like Greek literature and classical music. In other words, he is more presidential than any real president has ever been. And it will bother you.
As stuffy and bland as a political drama might strike you, the first season of The West Wing was actually wildly fast-paced. It begins immediately and never stops, never letting things move at a relaxed pace, because, of course, that is the pace of the real White House. Events spring up and re-occur, they interrupt each other, and they end abruptly, but it is all done with meticulous construction. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this season was one of the best TV experiences I’ve ever had. Here’s to six more.