Joy of Sets: The West Wing

Ah, The West Wing… How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

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


Filed under Drama, Joy of Sets

7 responses to “Joy of Sets: The West Wing

  1. inkface

    Indeed there is soooo very much to love, but Alison Janney as CJ Cregg is such a gorgeous, kick ass Press Secretary, I just have to wave a little flag for her and for Mrs Bartlett, AKA Rizzo, AKA Stockard Channing. And for the late great Mrs Landingham too..

  2. Qwerty

    Oh yes. So many marvellous moments. Off the top of my head: Leo telling the speech writers to write 2 pages not 3. Writer: ‘But that’ll cramp my style!’ Leo: ‘Everyone’s style could use a little cramping.’ Or later, with the great Alan Alda fizzing up the screen as the Republican candidate. Him and Jimmy Smits backstage at some function, about to go on, looking at each other from their separate entrances…. Ooh the charisma. All that and CJ and Toby too! And Joey and Donna. And Josh… Must watch again.

    • Leo: [on the phone with the New York Times] 17 across. Yes, 17 across is wrong… You’re spelling his name wrong… What’s my name? My name doesn’t matter. I am just an ordinary citizen who relies on the Times crossword for stimulation. And I’m telling you that I met the man twice. And I recommended a pre-emptive Exocet missile strike against his air force, so I think I know how… [The Times hangs up on him]
      Josh wanting to tip off the DEA that a bunch of Cuban refugees have drugs so that the agents can go out and search the rafts/fruit baskets with “guns and blankets”…
      So, so many good moments. I could have written 20,000 words but thought that might be overdoing it…

  3. madmae

    I had woot canal!

    I need to get me the whole series on dvd and soon.

  4. I love The West Wing with a passion. Recently posted on my top ten West Wing moments and asked some friends for their thoughts. There must have been about 50 we could have come up with. Can’t listen to Brothers in Arms without thinking of Two Cathedrals, best TV series ever.