Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The West Wing

One way condensing my thoughts on a show into a single post after I've seen the whole thing is problematic is when that show lasted for 155 hour-long episodes over the course of seven years. There's just a lot to talk about. There's an easy way to sum it up, though. The West Wing is my favorite multi-season network drama of the last decade. Take away all the qualifiers, and it's still probably one of the twenty best shows ever made. It combines fantastic writing and direction with possibly the best ensemble cast ever assembled for a long period of time, and the balls to approach actual politics rather than creating false conflicts and ignoring party distinctions. Plenty of shows have revolved around political maneuvering to drive their plots, but they always have something else to entertain the audience. In The West Wing, the politics, and the characters who engage in them, are the fun part.

The show has two distinct eras; the four seasons where Aaron Sorkin produced it and essentially wrote it by himself, and the three seasons after he left. Before his departure, the show was wittier and more overtly liberal, often serving as a mouthpiece for his own ideas, but always being exciting. Also Rob Lowe was there, and his character was fun. After the two left, the show struggled a bit, having to deal with the leftovers of a silly plot thread (I wonder if Sorkin intentionally left a big mess to clean up knowing he was leaving) and not being sure what to do for an entire season. But its move to a more centrist perspective, allowing conservatives a voice and even a few likable characters, was a worthwhile change, and the plot determining who would replace Martin Sheen's President Bartlet after he left office breathed new life into the show before it could get stale.

The show is known for its rapid-fire dialogue and distinctive filming style, where rather than sit in a room discussing the matters of the day, the characters would trade barbs while making their points and walking somewhere through the labyrinth of the White House's many offices as the camera followed them. It a solid approach that wouldn't have worked without the great cast, which changed over time but retained a solid core for most of its run. Martin Sheen plays the President we all wish we could have, a man who's smart enough to run the country but likable enough to get elected to do so (please read nothing political into that statement). I still remember how in awe I was when he first entered the show near the end of the first episode, having been built up as a great titan of a man, and surpassing those expectations. He was somehow one of the only regular cast members not to win an Emmy, but it's certainly one of the best roles any actor could have, and he nailed it.

The rest of the main cast is mostly people helping decide policy and present it to America, from his chief and deputy chief of staff, to his press secretary, to his director and deputy director of communications (speech writers). Everyone is good, but a few who deserve pointing out are John Spencer, who plays Bartlet's right hand man and best friend, and unfortunately died before the show ended; Bradley Whitford, who somehow makes a whiny blowhard into a truly likable and sympathetic figure; and Allison Janney, who brought a much-needed strong feminine presence to the boy's club that is American politics. Janel Moloney's Donna is also a good character, though she mostly serves to get other characters to explain certain delicate political positions for the audience early on. The cast grows as the show goes on (and a couple characters leave), with two of the biggest additions being Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits as the two candidates to be the next President, a plot that comes on strong in season six and dominates season seven. I preferred Alda's performance, though both are good at getting across certain specific points the show wanted to make, and the live debate episode they carried together was one of those rare silly TV stunts that actually worked.

The show premiered before overarching serialized plots began really dominating critically acclaimed television (The Sopranos was just starting around the same time), so a lot of the time an episode would just introduce a few problems for a few different groups of characters, and they would all be resolved by the end. That approach is still fine when the writing and acting are as good as this show's, so it didn't really stick out, and they got better and better at introducing longer term story ideas as the show went on. An arc involving a medical condition that Bartlet hid from everyone is possibly the best achievement of the show's entire run. If there's one issue that crops up, it's the show's unfortunate tendency to make characters it no longer finds useful completely disappear without any mention, which seems lazy. It's especially noticeable when a regular character vanishes between seasons in the middle of a story, even though the cliffhanger finale and the continuing premiere take place on the same day. I imagine watching the show a second time would reveal a treasure trove of characters that I had forgotten even existed in the first place, that just left without a single line to explain it. The show is constantly pushing forward though, and if this was the price to pay for the consistency of its writing and the characterization of the people that do stick around, it was worth it.

I can't imagine a show this polarizing and intelligent premiering in the modern political climate, which is a shame, because even if you don't agree with a show's ideas, it can be worthwhile to see another side of a familiar debate. Lots of times the show would just experiment with fringe theories, throwing stuff at the wall and letting the viewer decide what stuck. If I had to pick one show to have an actual influence on the way world events were looked at in its wake, it would probably be The West Wing. And I guess that's a testament to how interesting it is. So many shows require sex or violence or something gimmicky to get people to watch, but The West Wing was a success just being itself, and that's commendable.

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