Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bingeing The West Wing

It has become apparent that viewership, searches, hashtags, and other social media attachments of the NBC television show The West Wing have been on the rise in 2017. People have found it to be a good escape, and others are discovering what good television it was - and is even now - when it ran from 1999 to 2006.

I first watched the entire series run back in 2012, and I'm glad that I returned to it. Knowing a teensy bit more about politics, television, and writing, I am noticing so much more this second time around.

The West Wing was created by Aaron Sorkin, and he ran the show for the first four seasons with Thomas Schlamme and John Wells, but Wells took over sole executive producer duties at the start of season five. Sorkin was the brainchild of many of the first four season's scripts, and many suggest that season five and following was a sharp decline in The West Wing's quality. I was skeptical about the latter three seasons until I watched them.

Yes, those seasons aren't the crisp machine that came from the Sorkin administration, but they're not terrible, either. The episodes that focus on the 2006 Presidential election in particular are fabulous.

If you have never watched The West Wing, do yourself a favor and watch it. If it's been a while, the entire series is on Netflix. And yes, watch it all the way through - it wraps itself up perfectly.

Here's a bit of a breakdown (spoilers if that's a big problem for you!):

Season 1 (1999-2000) - note that this is pre-9/11 politics

Summary: It's year 2 of President Bartlet's (Martin Sheen) Democratic White House administration with a Republican Congress. It's mostly an introduction of its primary players, including Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford, be still my beating heart), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), Presidential Go-To Charlie Young (Dule Hill) and Press Secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney). Sam gets involved with a high-end call girl, CJ struggles with doing her job and dealing with a flirting White House reporter (Timothy Busfield), we get a hint of President Bartlet's health battle, Leo needs to deal with a leak that reveals to the nation that he is a recovering alcoholic, and the President's daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss) starts college, dates Charlie, and their courting becomes the target of white supremacist guns at the end of the season. (Who could forget the whole summer of 2000 seeing promotional ads on NBC with the voiceover "Who's been hit?! Who's been hit?!")

Best Episode: "In Excelsis Deo" is definitely the best. Toby gets called about a homeless veteran's death on the Mall because his card is in the dead man's donated coat, and proceeds to find the man's brother and give him a veteran's funeral at Arlington, while "The Little Drummer Boy" plays in the background and the audience sobs. I made the mistake of watching this episode while on the treadmill - it was hard to finish the workout.

Dark Horse: "Five Votes Down" had a giant walk-and-talk at the beginning of the episode that was something to behold. Then we see White House politics at work as staff members try to work with Congress to turn some votes in their favor.

Season MVP: Janel Moloney wasn't even supposed to go past one episode of this series, but her chemistry with Whitford pushed out Josh's planned romance with Mandy (Moira Kelly - remember her?) and promoted Moloney to costar in season 1 and series regular for the rest. And thanks to her, fans were craving a Josh-Donna romance and squealed at every stolen glance or cute remark for seven years.

Season Two (2000-2001)

Summary: It turns out that President Bartlet and Josh were shot - Josh's injuries were much more severe. We see how the core group formed in the early stages of Bartlet's canidacy when he was still Governor. The President hires a Republican (Emily Procter) as part of his legal counsel. The biggest issue of the season is that Bartlet's MS secret finally comes out and all hell and legalism breaks loose. Will the President run for reelection? He wasn't going to. But then something happens to Mrs. Landingham...

Best Episodes: "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" (two episodes) are great, because the actors do a great job not only showing them in crisis after the shooting, but transform themselves into their pre-election youths before they knew each other. This is also the first episode to do flashbacks - something they start doing a lot more in later seasons.

(My) Dark Horse: I have to mention that this is my dark horse because most people consider "Two Cathedrals" to be the perfect hour of television. I have issues with parts of it, but I can't deny that last ten minutes, when President Bartlet has his conversation with Mrs. Landingham and then gets that look on his face. Between that and the music they chose for the ending, it was brilliant.

Season MVP: I give it to Martin Sheen - he has a lot of great moments this season.

Season Three (2001-2002) - you can definitely tell the post-9/11 politics showing here

Summary: Turmoil from the President's MS reveal tumbles out as a legal matter and everyone gets involved - especially Leo and Abbey, the latter of whom needs to suspend practicing medicine as a result. We hear rumblings of the Republican Presidential primaries. This is also the season where there's some actual romance and not just Sam being a flirt. Josh starts dating Amy Gardener. CJ gets targeted by a stalker and gets a security detail, and after the whole thing has blown over and CJ wants to start a relationship with one of the men (Mark Harmon), he is shot during an attempted armed robbery. Then at the very end of the season the President engineers the assassination of a Qumari defense minister who also is a terrorist.

Best Episode: "100,000 Airplanes" is one of those near-flashback episodes that I have seen this show do often. We start at the end of the State of the Union, and then go backwards to see how it was put together as Sam explains it to a reporter (who happened to be his ex-fiance). By the way, The West Wing uses time titles as much as Law and Order.

Dark Horse: I like "Manchester" where it takes all the principal cast and throws them into New Hampshire for two episodes.

Season MVP: Allison Janney has a bunch of standout episodes throughout the season. She definitely earned all those Emmy nominations and wins.

Season Four (2002-2003) - this was Aaron Sorkin's final season

Summary: We finally gear up for the election (note that The West Wing Presidential elections are staggered from the real-life Presidential elections) and everyone is involved in the campaign. President Bartlet is reelected and inaugurated. Sam mistakenly commits himself to filling a Congressional seat that was won by a dead man, thanks to the ruthless work of the dead man's campaign manager Will Bailey (Joshua Malina). Will is recommended by Sam to fill his position at the White House. The Vice President gets caught having an affair and decides to resign. The third season Qumari assassination frequently rears its ugly head throughout the season. Zoey graduates from Georgetown but is immediately kidnapped, causing the President to invoke the 25th Amendment and temporarily step down from office.

Best Episode: "Game On" is brilliant. This is the President going into the debate against Governor Ritchie, the Republican nominee for President. I love the scene right before the debate begins, when Abbey cuts off the President's tie, causing mayhem as they race to get the President to the podium while also  getting the man a new tie. This rush of adrenaline gears Bartlet enough to start the debate off with a bang and dominate from start to finish.

Dark Horse: Pretty much anything that revolves around the election, like "20 Hours in America," "Debate Camp," "Process Stories," and "Inauguration." I personally like "Election Night" for the excitement of people going to the polls and then finding out who wins in the night. (Especially the dead guy in the California 47th.)

Season MVP: Toby Ziegler as a father? It ends up happening, and Richard Schiff makes sure it's believable. His pining for his ex-wife and his season-long proposal of marriage to Andie is heartbreaking to watch. The guy can't get a win.

Season Five (2003-2004)

Summary: Since the VP had resigned, the Republican Speaker of the House, Glenallen Walken, becomes President for two episodes until Zoey is found. The Presidential administration suffers from stagnation because the President doesn't want to push anything, until the Republican controlled House of Representatives try to push their budget agenda and the President declares a shutdown of the government. A new Vice President is found in Colorado Congressman Bob Russell (Gary Cole, who is brilliant at being dull), and he plucks Will out of the White House to be his Chief of Staff. Several members of Congress, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos), and Donna head to the Middle East on a fact finding mission, but they end up being the target of a bombing that kills Fitzwallace (no!) and seriously injures Donna. Josh rushes to meet Donna at a military hospital in Germany while the President is spurred to start peacekeeping talks between Palestine and Israel.

Best Episode: "Shutdown" is a lot of fun, because the normal White House buzz is gone. Politics and procedure have never been so entertaining, between the new Speaker of the House's insistence on budget cuts while the President walks to Capitol Hill and looks like the bigger man amongst the squabble.

Dark Horse: I really enjoyed "The Supremes." For a few episodes they made it clear that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is getting a little senile in his old age. But it's one of the younger Associate Justices that suddenly dies. Josh suggests Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close) even though she is extremely liberal, then has the idea of giving the Republicans the opportunity to nominate a very conservative justice and persuade the Chief Justice to step down, allowing Baker Lang to be Chief Justice instead. The fun part is when the Republican nominee, Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner) and Baker Lang spar. They don't agree, but they are so good at defending their points in a respectful manner that you just want to sit with popcorn and listen to them in session. Can everyone have discussions like they do? Please?

Season MVP: Bradley Whitford's small "Donna?" after he hears about the bombing in Gaza makes any Josh-Donna shippers weep. When she gets a blood clot and has to go to surgery, Josh is there. Even though both their faces are covered, you can see they are both terrified by just looking at their eyes.

Season Six (2004-2005)

Summary: The core cast starts to unravel as election season begins. Leo suffers a massive heart attack at a summit where the President brokers peace between Israel and Palestine. CJ is chosen to take over as Chief of Staff, which is a genius move. She gets assistance from the Deputy Director of the NSA, Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) who knows way more about international security than CJ does. Donna leaves Josh because she's sick of being stuck as his assistant and not moving up in politics. She ends up being hired by Will in Bob Russell's Presidential campaign. Josh gets wind of Republican Senator Arnold Vinick's (Alan Alda) Presidential aspirations and gets frustrated with all the Democratic choices. At Leo's urging, he picks his top guy: Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) who is about to step out of politics for good before Josh comes along. We see Vinick dominate the Republican primaries while Santos struggles to emerge from higher profile Democratic canidates. In the end, the Democratic National Convention is insanity, but Santos emerges as the nominee.

Best Episode: My favorite episodes of the season were definitely everything concerning the election. In the middle of the season, the episodes alternated between on the campaign trail and in the White House, and I was more invested in Matt, Josh, Donna, Will, and Arnold's campaigns than any little things happening in D.C. "2162 Votes" brought it all to a head, and throwing crazy aspects into the Democratic Convention, like inability to get a nominee on the first few ballots, a potential nominee emerging from the floor and throwing everything out of proportion, and the final plea from Santos made it incredibly exciting. In the end, we're exhausted, and we want to grab a beer with Josh, Donna, and Will and just enjoy the balloons as they drop from the ceiling.

Dark Horse: "La Palabra" is more excellent politics. Which canidate is in which state? Are they going to the other states? Why is Hoynes staying in New York? He did what? I love it.
I'm throwing another episode here, "King Corn," where we see one day in three different campaigns in three different segments of the episode. We see Donna with Russell's campaign, Josh with Santos', and Vinick with his own. It also introduces Patricia Richardson as Vinick's campaign manager, and she does a great job. Vinick is the only one to not cave to the pro-ethanol rhetoric of Iowa, and everyone thinks he's a better guy because of it.

Season MVP: It's a tie. It was amazing watching Allison Janney's CJ try to fill the giant shoes of the Chief of Staff. It was hard, and then it was easy. There was really no one else who could have taken on that role. And then Bradley Whitford's Josh has three different segments during the season: concerned friend (or more?) to Donna when she's recovering from her injuries, disenchanted White House Deputy Chief of Staff as the primaries heat up, and frenzied campaign manager for Matt Santos. We thought Josh was ruthless in the White House; then we saw him on the campaign trail!

Season Seven (2005-2006)

Summary: At the end of last season high security information about a NASA shuttle leaked from the White House, and we discover that Toby was the leak. He is fired. Pretty much no one from the core cast likes each other anymore, which is really sad. Will is taken from the VP's office to fill in Toby's job, while Donna sneaks behind Josh's back to get hired in Santos' campaign run. Santos and Vinick have episodes on where they stand in a bunch of political topics and have a debate that was run live on NBC back in the day. Will and Kate start dating, and it's adorable. There's a nuclear meltdown in California, and it's discovered that Vinick pushed for the power plant back in the day. His numbers plummet and he and Santos are now tied - news that Donna brings to Josh and they kiss in celebration. FINALLY!!

Best Episode: I really enjoy happy episodes, and "The Cold" is happy in many ways. Josh and Donna finally kiss (and they don't make us wait - they kiss before the opening credits!), Will and Kate are just so cute together, the President brings Leo back because he needs his assistance, and the Santos campaign celebrates because Vinick has a cold. But there's sad moments, too. Sheila backs out of the Vinick campaign, which is depressing because she was my favorite in that core. The President also informs both canidates that there's world troubles and a lot of their campaign promises are going to need to be shelved because of them.

Dark Horse: "The Last Hurrah" barely has any series regulars, but it's still a lot of fun. Vinick doesn't end up in the unemployment line! He ends up with a fulfilling job in government!

Season MVP: It's a tie between Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, of course. The episodes do a great job not to promote Santos or vilify Vinick. Both are shown as vunerable, and their fleshed out characters make watching the campaign a lot more interesting than the stuff going on in that other place where we get the title of the show.


The series, for the most part, is a cut-and-dry political show. Sometimes it goes down the outrageous path (kidnapping, leaks, etc.) but stays as real as possible. I can't watch other DC shows like House of Cards, Madam Secretary, or Scandal because they seem out of context with reality. The West Wing really feels like history that could have taken place fifteen years ago (and what some people wish had taken place fifteen years ago).

If you are feeling disillusioned with current politics, pull up this show. Then grab your Goldfish crackers, bring the finest muffins and bagels in all the land, and talk around your big block of cheese in the foyer, because after viewing you'll be inspired to make your own America as optimistic and hopeful as we find on this giant gem of a show.

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