1) This is a show about a US presidential administration. Lesser shows would have opened with Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) winning the election. Creator and writer Aaron Sorkin drops us in on average day in the West Wing. Not just mid-term, but mid-today’s-issue (the president has ridden his bike into a tree and his deputy chief of staff (Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford) has been provoked into an ill-advised quip about God on TV). In just the first few minutes the distinctive tone is set – the mix of manoeuvering, intelligence, gravitas, humour, dedication to duty, smart-assery and snark that West Wing aficionados love with a passion.
2) The dialogue. Really this should be at number one, but common sense dictates that I explain what the hell the show is about first. Sorkin’s dialogue is perfection. I could fill page upon page with writing so good I want to frame it and hang it on my walls (I won’t, but pop over to the West Wing page of Wikiquotes when you’re finished here to get the general idea). The West Wing is a wordy show, but each and every word has earned its place, and in just three short lines in that first episode you can get the entire atmosphere of the show. (Chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) walks into the West Wing and is greeted by a member of security: “Nice morning Mr McGarry.” Leo: “We’ll take care of that in a hurry, won’t we Mike?” Mike: “Yes sir.”)
3) The people. From the president’s personal secretary (the superb Mrs Landingham, played by Kathryn Joosten) via Joey Lucas, Donna Moss, Charlie Young and Abbey Bartlet to Josh, Leo, press secretary CJ (Alison Janney), Toby (White House communications director, played by Richard Schiff) and Sam (Toby’s deputy, played by Rob Lowe), all feel absolutely, utterly real. There is not a hint of acting going on. These are top-rate actors totally inhabiting believable characters. Because although they are smart, witty, passionate people – they are also, occasionally, wonderfully, humanly dumb too. They disagree, they argue and then they find solutions and make up.
4) The constant assumption that the viewer does not need to be talked down to. Sure Donna (Josh’s assistant) is on hand to ask questions that anyone not intimately familiar with government administration might have on our behalf. But we are never patronised. They expect you to keep up, and you do.
5) It’s more than a fantasy of liberals running the world’s last superpower (though I can’t deny that it’s lovely to imagine a world where politicians are not motivated by power and money for their chums). The religious extremists get skewered, but the Republicans are not all Black Hats, anymore than Democrats are exclusively White Hats.
6) It has more heart than my favourite Time Lord. The West Wing is about a passionate team of writers, actors and crew putting their hearts into making a TV show about a passionate team of political people doing their best to improve the lives of ordinary people.
For all these reasons, and too many to list here without boring all but the most obsessive West Wing nerds, this is my favourite TV show ever (yes, beating Doctor Who and Ashes to Ashes). And now, I’m off to watch it again…
Posted by Jo the Hat