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The West Wing: Pilot

“I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other God before Me.”

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.”
Laurie: “POTUS?”
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?”
Bartlet: “No.”
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.


  1. Nice review, Juliette. It reminded me that one of these days I really should get around to watching the rest of the series. I only got as far as season four.

  2. I watched the show during its original run when I was a little older than the fourth graders Sam was talking to and I liked it then. Loved it now. So glad you're doing these Juliette! I love that the show is on Netflix Instant.

    Oh, and can I just say, WOW on the beepers. Really? Was this THAT long ago?

  3. I live on Planet Earth, with one TV and a ludicrously high speed internet connection.....But I've never watched it. Yes, I've heard about it. So much good stuff out there, here and then. On this continent an on the others.

    I'm adding this one to my "potentially to be watched" list...

  4. My ex-boyfriend had a beeper when we were going out... I'm gonna stop sharing now!

  5. Juliette, I am so happy that we're adding TWW to our site! Being one of those bleeding heart liberals that relates to this show, I have to admit that I was so upset with what the Bush administration was doing that I couldn't bring myself to watch a single episode of The West Wing while it was airing. I became a fan just a couple of years ago when Dan and I went through the entire series in the space of a couple of months, and now you're giving me an excuse to rewatch it.

    Bartlett is an exceptional character, and I'm so glad they immediately saw his awesomeness and increased Martin Sheen's involvement with the show. Did you know that Martin Sheen led anti-war marches in Los Angeles during the Bush administration?

    But as much as I love Bartlett, CJ is my favorite character and I loved the way she was introduced in the brief scene in the gym. LOL funny.

  6. Billie, I love that you couldn't stand to compare he-who-must-not-be-acknowledged-to-have-actually-been-president to Bartlett.

    Martin Sheen is incredibly politically active, which I love. Have you seen him on the Colbert Report? http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/415114/june-11-2012/martin-sheen

  7. I knew Martin Sheen was very politically active before The West Wing, hadn't heard so much about more recent stuff. I love him, he's fantastic in everything. I went to see Spiderman basically for him and Andrew Garfield.

  8. Oh, man. The West Wing is probably still my most favorite series. My favorite season was season 2, but I adored TWW. Josh was my favorite character. My favorite episode? "Noel."

    So happy that you're reviewing this awesome series!


  9. I am so excited that you are reviewing this show, Juliette. One of my favorites of all time, I have watched the entire series several times. Re-watching the pilot just now was like reconnecting with some old friends.

    I must confess that I view Aaron Sorkin in the same vein that a number of people on this site view Joss Whedon. His ability to write a fully fleshed character, warts and all, and his ability to have that character say such great things just leaves me astonished. Even watching this pilot again just now (and this was probably the fifth or sixth time I've seen it), I listen in awe to some of the exchanges. And, it still makes me laugh out loud.

    For me, the Josh/Donna chemistry was evident as soon as she brought him that cup of coffee. I also love the fact that someone as smart and handsome as Sam doesn't know when women are looking at him. What a great character beat.

    Fantastic review! And, what a great excuse to watch this show all over again.

  10. Thanks everyone!

    Kathy, Noel is the episode that got me into the show! I'd seen the pilot but then nothing until I caught that one when home for Christmas. Two Cathedrals is my favourite though.

    Chris, I think Sorkin and Whedon are very similar (it's so weird seeing Bradly Whitford in Cabin in the Woods - you can tell how close their styles are suddenly!). I love both and I have similar problems with both, though Whedon doesn't accientally slip into patronising sexism as often as Sorkin and Sorkin doesn't feel like he's being manipulative as often as Whedon (though he's just as tricksy with the sudden character deaths!)

  11. Thanks for this. I watched originally but just finished watching all of the DVD's yesterday! all 7 seasons. it was so amazing! I lived for it during the Bush years as the parallels universe that I wished to be in. So many of the topics are current with some great things that have passed

  12. Hi everyone!
    Long time reader and fan of the site, first time poster here. I've gotta say, it was this review that made me finally decide to watch this series, and it's become my new favourite. I've seen most of the episodes these past two weeks, and the show is simply brilliant, especially first four seasons. So thank you, Juliette, for pointing me in that direction, it was sooo worth it. Can't wait for your next review!

  13. Aw, Malutje, I'm so glad, thank you! So happy to have brought another into the West Wing fold :) Review of episode 2 should be up soon - I'm alternating between The West Wing and Voyager, and it's a busy time of year work-wise right (so many essays to mark my brain is melting out my ears, plus some Book revisions - exhausting!). Hopefully the next review will be up within the next week.

  14. Where's the next episode review????

  15. It's coming as soon as I can, I promise! I'm sorry for the long delay - my workload at the moment is a special kind of hell (it involves proof-reading and indexing my book, writing and delivering lectures, huge piles of marking, an oral paper, a written paper, a field trip, a visit day and also a wedding and hen night, which are at least the fun parts!)

  16. So, I'm following everyone's advice and giving TWW a shot.

    I'd seen the pilot before and didn't love it. Not much has changed since then: it seems a little too smug and self-congratulatory for me. But, judging from the comments here, I'll soon come to love the characters.

  17. Now that 2019 has rolled in (and a Happy New Year by the way), I am aware – shocked even - that TWW is now 20 years old!

    I only came to notice the show when Channel 4 (UK terrestrial TV channel) started broadcasting it in the late 00s. However, it was the pilot that introduced me to CJ and co, but an episode from season 3 – who’s name I forget now. But it was sufficiently interesting for me to tune into the show on a weekly basis back then, and by the airing of season 4 (by which time the show as a whole had finished by 2006), I decided to do away with all the waiting around and just bought the DVD boxset and spent the following 2 months almost locked in my room watching 4 or 5 episodes per night, so engrossed had I become with American politics (I like politics anyway, more so British politics. But it was quite fun, and also eye-opening to get to grips with the machinations of American politics)

    I have since had 3 or 4 boxset marathons with this show, and on every occasion I have learnt something new and enriching. I don’t necessarily go along with its left-leaning politics, which seemed to shift ever-so-slightly to the centre ground when Sorkin left and John Wells mishandled the much maligned season 5; but the show as a whole remains one of my favourite TV dramas ever.

    So now that the show is approaching its 20th birthday, I have decided to pay another visit, starting with the Pilot. And I must confess when I first watch this back in the day I had grave misgivings about how the show would progress given that it felt like a Rob Lowe vehicle – more so with the opening scene and him eventually ending up in bed with a high-class hooker. I felt this was going to be another soap with only an inconsequential segment devoted to hard-core politics. And it was just as well the writers decided to give POTUS, Martin Sheen for more screen time than originally planned otherwise I would have probably given season 1 a miss.

    The Pilot also introduced us to Mandy – probably one of the worst-written characters in serious drama, and her introduction of driving a Beemer at speed, running red-lights while jibbing on over her mobile phone, as well as given some attitude to a traffic cop really set the level of hatred I had for her.

    But the episode as a whole wasn’t too bad, although it does feel a little too smug with itself while at the same time overdosing on the touchy-feely there but for the grace of God go I! And of course as the seasons progressed this episode looks like it plopped in from a completely different show.
    But with the Pilot safely tucked away I will look forward to yet another season 1 indulgence for 2019.


    (apologies for the really LONG comment. I guess I got carried away)

  18. Diane C, never apologize for a lovely comment! They're never too long, as far as I'm concerned.

  19. Thanks Billie. Although having re-read my comment I really should have done some proof-reading beforehand, duh!

    I will also continue to post comments on Farscape on this forum, but at present I am all geared up for politics and the long-running, will they won't they Josh/Donna & CJ/Danny Thing :)

  20. Diane C, I'll look forward to reading them, then.

  21. Every time I thought to rewatch the West Wing the last four years I couldn't bear to because it felt to painful what with The Loser infesting the White House. Now it's time for it once more. First time I've seen this in years, and it's better than ever.



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