New year, new-old show to review! If you haven’t heard of The West Wing, did you enjoy your fifteen years in a dark cave on Mars with no TV? But if you’ve heard of it and never watched it, I urge you to give it a try, and watch along with me as I review the whole thing from start to finish (I expect to complete this task somewhere around 2030, by which time I will be dictating these reviews to my house robot while watching 3D holograms of the show that play out two inches from my face).
Before the credits have rolled, The West Wing has given us drinking, casual sex (with a character later revealed to be a sex worker) and recreational pot-smoking. It’s hard to escape the feeling that someone, somewhere, panicked that no one would be interested in a show about politics and decided they needed to spice it up a bit. As so often happens with pilots, this turned out to be completely unrepresentative of the series as a whole, though it’s fun enough in its own way.
Much more representative is the credit sequence itself, which takes place over the very first West Wing pedaconference (the walk-and-talk scenes the series was famous for). Leo complains about the spelling in the crossword, Donna asks what’s going on for the benefit of the audience, Josh bumbles around apologising for his latest screw-up and CJ is generally awesome. This single impressively long take that follows Leo through the West Wing to his desk is basically the series in miniature.
Season One of The West Wing has a giddiness to it that later seasons lack, a general sense of excitement at simply being in the White House that was gradually eroded over time. That’s probably a good thing, as the sheer volume of self-satisfaction on display in Season One would have become utterly unbearable if it had gone on for ever. On the other hand, there is something rather wonderful about this feeling of joie de vivre. These people are stressed and over-worked (watch CJ assuring a cute guy that 5am to 6am is ‘her time’) but they also have pretty amazing jobs, and they know it.
Of course, Josh spends this episode worried that he’s about to lose this fantastic opportunity over a moment of foolishness on television. This is largely another sign that we’re watching a pilot episode for a show still finding its feet. There’s no way, even twelve episodes down the line, anyone would ever contemplate firing Josh over something so small, no matter how angry the Christian Right were. But for now, in this moment, it’s a serious problem and the constant threat of unemployment gives Josh’s story a sense of gravitas largely lacking from the other plots drifting around the episode.
The West Wing was originally conceived as the story of the White House staffers (particularly Sam and Josh), with the President making regular but sporadic appearances. That flew out of the window in the face of Martin Sheen’s mesmerising performance as President Bartlet. Helped by the best opening line for a character in the history of television (see the quote above) only Sheen could deliver that awful speech about the tomato and somehow make it seem inspiring rather than trite and ridiculous. He’s the show’s best asset, and they know it.
Neither the episode nor the show is perfect and some recurring issues are already apparent here. For one thing, I would imagine it can be hard to take if you don’t happen to be a left-leaning liberal type with a healthy respect for religion but a dislike for religious extremism. Since my personal political and religious beliefs tend to tally pretty neatly with President Bartlet’s on everything except foreign policy, this isn’t a problem for me, but the series is undeniably politically cliquey. And Sorkin’s oh-so-clever writing goes to fairly ridiculous lengths to get the desired effect sometimes – for example, great as Bartlet’s first line is, the set-up requires a Christian activist to forget the First Commandment which seems, at best, unlikely. But for me, the payoff is worth the slightly daft set-up.
Overall, this episode is a delight. It’s funny, fast-paced and just cheesy enough to get away with the lashings of idealism being thrown around. Yes, perhaps it’s a little too pleased with itself and a little more optimistic about politics than most of us. But it delivers that optimism with such wit and verve it’s hard not to get swept up in it.
Bits ‘n’ pieces
- Sam’s officious and barely comprehensible description of his job, including reference to ‘your tax dollars’, to a group of primary school children is both hilarious and a neat introduction to the main characters and what they do.
- Josh and Donna have that kind of chemistry that just appears out of nowhere and cannot be ignored, right from the moment Donna tells him all the girls think he looks hot in a particular shirt.
- Making Mary Marsh, the unpleasant woman from the Christian Right who was offended by Josh, anti-Semitic as well seems a step too far. She’s a person, not a comic-book villain.
- The way the comedy plot about the President riding his bicycle into a tree eventually dovetails with the plot about the Christian Right is very neatly done.
- I have not mentioned Mandy. I choose to ignore her as far as possible. I’m not sure whether it’s Moira Kelly’s performance or the way the character is written, but she grates like fingernails on a blackboard.
Toby: “We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle Series L-1011. Came off the line twenty months ago. Carries a Sim-5 transponder tracking system. And you’re telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?”
Sam: “He’s not my friend, he’s my boss. And it’s not his name, it’s his title.”
Sam: “President of the United States.”
Leo: “The president, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop.”
Mallory: “You’re the White House Deputy Communications Director and you’re not good at talking about the White House?”
Sam: “Ironic, isn’t it?”
Van Dyke: “If our children can buy pornography on any street corner for five dollars, isn’t that too high a price to pay for free speech?”
Van Dyke: “Really?”
Bartlet: “On the other hand, I do think that five dollars is too high a price to pay for pornography.”
Bartlet: “Mrs Landingham! What’s next?”
Televisual brilliance from the start. Four out of four broken bicycles.
Juliette Harrisson is a freelance writer, classicist and ancient historian who blogs about Greek and Roman Things in Stuff at Pop Classics.