The West Wing takes us behind the scenes in the White House as US President and Nobel Prize winning economist Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet and his senior staff fight the good fight in their attempts to drive positive change amidst the minefield that is the American political system.
The West Wing, 155 episodes, 1999-2006.
I just found out the Times is publishing a poll that says a considerable proportion of Americans feel that the White House has lost energy and focus, a perception that’s not likely to be altered by the video footage of the President riding his bicycle into a tree. As we speak the coastguard are fishing Cubans out of the Atlantic Ocean while the governor of Florida wants to blockade the port of Miami. A good friend of mine is about to get fired for going on television and making sense. And it turns out that I accidentally slept with a prostitute last night.
It’s just another day at the White House as President Jed Bartlet‘s (Martin Sheen) senior staff fire-fight one distraction after another, both political and personal – some of them entirely of their own making.
The shape of things to come
It’s been eight years since we said goodbye to The West Wing, but rewatching the pilot episode from 1999 it feels like only yesterday that Aaron Sorkin‘s stylised view of the beating heart of the White House leapt on to our screens. Even for those of us with no more than a passing familiarity with the workings of the American political system, Jed Bartlet and his fast-talking, whip-smart team of advisors represented an idealistic portrayal of how we would want those running the most powerful nation in the world to behave.
All the series’ Sorkinesque trademarks are firmly in place in this pilot episode. Each member of the senior staff in turn receives an early morning page containing the cryptic message ‘PotUS in a bicycle accident’ summoning them to the White House, rapidly showing us individual character traits, from the abrasive Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) to the earnest Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe). Leo McGarry (John Spencer) embarks on a lengthy walk-and-talk with Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) – much of it a single continuous tracking shot – which efficiently maps out the geography of the West Wing for viewers. And the dialogue is as razor-sharp as it is machine gun-fast.
Aside from Bartlet’s personal aide Charlie Young (Dulé Hill), who is not introduced until the third episode, season one’s entire principal cast is present and everyone but C J Cregg (Allison Janney) has a meaty role to play. CJ is reduced largely to the role of comic relief here, playing second fiddle to both Donna (Janel Moloney) and Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), the latter of whom was dropped after the first season after her character never really slotted in.
Initially Sam, the youngest and most idealistic member of the senior staff, is positioned as the show’s nominal lead, with ongoing storylines initiated here which provide him with not one but two love interests in call girl Laurie and Leo’s daughter Mallory. There’s also a close bond of friendship established between Sam and Josh that continues to run until Rob Lowe’s departure from the show in season four.
Bartlet himself is absent from all but the final few minutes. Sorkin’s original concept was for this to be the President’s sole appearance in the series to place the focus of the show on the senior staff. However, he realised that excluding the President would restrict the show’s dramatic opportunities. Martin Sheen’s performance and the sheer force of Bartlet’s seething rage at the episode’s denouement underline just how correct Sorkin was to change his mind. Bartlet would go on to endure a shooting, the kidnapping of his daughter Zoey and the effects of multiple sclerosis in setting a benchmark for intelligence and idealism that no real world President could ever hope to match.
The series ran for seven years, taking Bartlet to the end of his second term in office before handing over to a fictional successor, Matt Santos, who became the first ethnic minority President of the US. The character was reportedly based on a then little-known Illinois state senator who, two years later, in a case of life imitating art, became the first real-life American President from an ethnic minority: Barack Obama.
The West Wing remains my favourite TV show of all time. With a set of characters I came to regard almost as a second family, it provided a rare and detailed insight into the intricate workings of American government (several stories were based on real events), turning the dull and often depressing world of politics into something uplifting and consistently entertaining. There has never been a show quite like it. There may never be again.