Once every so often, you find a TV show that transcends the standard fare, and that achieves the extraordinary. For me and many others the first four seasons of The West Wing did just that. I remember one commentator being astounded that policy wonk issues could form the basis of a successful hour-long drama. But that observation misses the point. It wasn't so much the stories that grabbed the viewer, it was the incredible pacing and dialogue. Watching a West Wing episode was not only a pleasure for those who thrive on snappy repartee, it was also a challenge. Creator-writer Aaron Sorkin paces his stories along so fast, you better pay close attention, or you'll miss something good. He's also not afraid of poking fun at his own [political] side. My favorite line, from season 2, episode 1:
Josh Lyman: Mr. Secretary, the Democrats aren't going to nominate another liberal academic former governor from New England. I mean, we're dumb, but we're not that dumb.
Former Secretary Leo McGarry: Nah. I think we're exactly that dumb.
Anticlimactic though it may be, here's my take on the series:
The Good: Seasons 1 through 4 -- everything. Many of the actors in the show are Sorkin regulars. For instance, Martin Sheen [President Bartlet], played Chief of Staff McInerney in the Sorkin-penned The American President, while Joshua Malina was not only in the former, but also was a featured player in another Sorkin TV show, the interesting but ill-fated Sports Night. This show was one of the few -- if not the only -- that actually stopped regular production after 9/11, retooled with a script Sorkin had dashed off in, like 48 hours, filemd an entirely new episode dealing with incipient anti-arab fears rumbling since the attack, and had the show on the air within, like two or three weeks after 9/11. Thus, instead of blithely carrying on with their story arc, they simply pushed it back a week, stopped, and presented their own ode to the world as of September 2001. I don't know that I've ever seen such a thing coming out of series TV before, and certainly not since.
Overall, the casting, using many actors you've seen before in supporting or character roles, is uncannily perfect, from Sheen as the president, to Brad Whitford, as Deputy Chief of Staff Lyman, to Richard Schiff, who often steals the show as curmudgeonly Toby Ziegler. I could highlight just about any cast member; they all work in their roles. And, as it should be, The west Wing has made them stars in their own right.
The stories are, well, riveting. As alluded to above, the genius of Aaron Sorkin is his ability to do it with lines like, "I need Section 202 of the National Securities Act of 1947." The West Wing is the perfect example of "getting there is
all the fun. Or, it's not the result; it's the process.
Now, while I freely admit I'm a Democrat, and the show is about a Democratic administration, I posit that viewers of any political bent would enjoy this show, by simply ignoring the substance they don't agree with. That's what I did in various episodes where I disagreed with the obvious political or ideological point the writers were making. It's the process, not the result, after all.
The Bad: Well, maybe not bad, per se, but certainly not as good as years one through four, are the five through seventh seasons. Apparently, Sorkin was turning out genius writing by holing up in a hotel, loading up on crack, and churning, baby, churning. Apparently NBC got tired of this relatively uncertain way of getting scripts,
severed its relationship with Sorkin, and placed ER's John Wells in charge of the shooting match. Seasons 5 through 7 are OK, but just don't hold up well to the first four. I thought the writing became a little more preachy in seasons 5 and 6; I don't see that Sorkin would have taken the same tone or direction. Nevertheless, it was still damn good TV. The seventh season was largely taken up with the faux presidential campaign to replace the outgoing Bartlet, and the show returned to almost-Sorkin form. Again, we really didn't know whether the Democrat [Jimmy Smits] was going to win, or the Republican [Alan Alda] would take the presidential prize. The writers cannily made you like both the candidates, and left the result up in the air just about as long as the Bush-Gore result was undecided. Frankly, I still was sorry to see the series end, just when it was getting interesting again.
The Bottom Line:Seasons 1-4: Five Flicks. Perhaps the best series television [drama] ever made.
Seasons 5-7: three Flicks. Still good, but still a pale shadow of the sartorial glory that was the first four years of The West Wing.