The West Wing: Originally broadcast from September 22, 1999 to May 14, 2006
First things first - it's impossible to talk about every single thing that makes The West Wing great without babbling on for hours. In fact, we'd probably struggle to do it with a single episode. The West Wing was one of those rare shows where everything just comes together - the writing, the casting, the direction.
Let's talk about the characters, first of all. You might think you know your favourite, but as soon as the name has left your lips you'll be remembering other people who fit the bill just as well. How can you choose between Sam (Rob Lowe) and Josh (Bradley Whitford)? CJ (Allison Janney) is my favourite, for sure... but wait, what about Toby (Richard Schiff)?
That's without even going into the wonderful Donna (Janel Moloney), loveable Charlie (Dulé Hill), fabulous Leo (John Spencer) or poor Mrs Landingham (Kathryn Joosten). And we haven't mentioned the President yet. Can you believe that Jed Bartlett was originally meant to be just a minor part of the show?
In fact, Jed - such a marvellously drawn character, played brilliantly by Martin Sheen - was the President we all wished we had. All of the characters were a dream - hard-working, optimistic, caring. They weren't boring enough not to have flaws, of course, and you could question their decisions. But ultimately, they had good intentions.
Perhaps that's one of the reasons for The West Wing's success - it was a comforting, reassuring fantasy where politics does what it's supposed to (or at least tries). Sure, Sam was supposed to be the focus, but how could you avoid examining all those other rounded, exciting people? You just couldn't.
The chemistry between the cast fizzles - they feel like real friends (who have real fights) - but it's also fun to spot all the guest stars. Watching back now, it's a thrill to see everyone. There's Matthew Perry! Jane Lynch! Alan Dale! Connie Britton! The list may not be endless, but it goes on for a long time.
Casting only gets you so far, though, so it's gratifying that they had such wonderful scripts to get their teeth stuck into. Aaron Sorkin's style is stamped all over the first season of The West Wing, which managed the very difficult task of mixing emotion and drama with sharp, witty humour (that could genuinely have you clutching your sides.) We got one-liners and brilliant physical comedy, too. And can you imagine The West Wing without the spectacular walk-and-talk?
So we got the sentimentality, and the problems involved in various political issues (it always surprises me how skilfully The West Wing can make the driest of topics thrilling). We got silly episodes - the fun big block of cheese day; Toby, Donna and Josh getting stranded in the country; countless, countless others - and then we got emotional sucker-punches.
The West Wing is fantastic at the big, dramatic speeches, but it does quiet emotion just as beautifully. Like 'Noel', when Josh - suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder - is asked repeatedly by a therapist: "How did you cut your hand?" until we get the horrifying answer. 'In Excelsis Deo', as Toby and Mrs Landingham mourn a homeless veteran. And we can go no further without mentioning the sublime 'Two Cathedrals' - the grief, anger and shock conveyed beautifully by Sheen.
As well as all of that, The West Wing never shied away from going hell for leather with the drama. Whether it was that season one finale - oh my God - or a kidnapping or a bomb or the President having MS, The West Wing knew how to use the shock factor. Still, it all seemed brilliantly real - and the little moments ('Let Bartlet Be Bartlet') made the show what it was.
It shouldn't be forgotten, either, how brave the show could be. Not only did it wear its heart on its sleeve, but it never, ever decided to dumb down. For a primetime, network show, this was something else - we were all sucked in to watching a drama about tiny political clauses.
This is a series that showed its President shouting Latin in a church. Latin! On primetime! The West Wing was always taking new risks, whether it was filming an episode as if it was a documentary or screening a live election debate. Whether or not you think it worked, this is impressive stuff - an episode in which we watch two actors bounce off each other, comfortable enough in their characters to do it all in one take - no second chances. It's astonishing.
Sorkin left The West Wing after four seasons, and while it's often agreed that the quality dipped, it remained some of the best television around. And it's a credit to the writers how surprisingly prescient it was, too. Time for a new president - enter young, relatively inexperienced Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). It's even been claimed that Santos was based on then-rising star Barack Obama - watching this election race now, the similarities are kind of unnerving.
It would be easy to write this off as a coincidence, but that would be unfair to the writers, who had consistently been smart and well-informed. Perhaps we need them in the White House after all.
We could genuinely talk about the wonder of The West Wing for hours - it's not every show that wins the Emmy for 'Outstanding Drama Series' four years in a row, after all. There's so much more we could say. But let's turn it over to you. Grab the boxset and let us know your favourite West Wing moments!
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