I became aware of The West Wing about the time it came out in 1999, but I never watched it at first, because… Because TV dramas tend to be predictably flat and predictable. And life is short. I had some other stuff I needed to do.
The first episode of The West Wing I watched was on syndication after the series was well into the second season. That’s when I perked up.
This was some really good writing—for television. The directing was well above the bar, as well, and the overall production quality was first rate. I became a fan, and I bought the first season on DVD when it came out. I eventually acquired all seven seasons and have watched everything at least once.
So, having little to do these days I decided to take up a review of the series, which has already been done by others, but without my own insight. That’s because I look for certain qualities that an entertainment professional may not consider worthwhile.
Warning, I’m not going to review all episodes—over 150 were produced. I will just work my way through seven seasons and hit the high spots. I will particularly bear down on plots and situations that deserve some critical analysis.
To start off with I am going to completely rehash the pilot, the first episode of the first season of the series. If you read through this you will get a flavor of the series, and when (if) you read the remaining posts certain things won’t need to be explained to you. First some details:
This is a political drama that features a liberal Democratic administration. The West Wing of the White House is where business gets done, and all the characters play out their rolls there. The East Wing is the residence, where the president lives, and some action is here. As you make your way through episode after episode, season after season, you will see other locales, some on the streets of Washington, some at local establishments, some in far off places. There will be political intrigue, sexual innuendo, rivalries, political shenanigans, high crimes and even murder.
Martin Sheen is President Josiah Bartlet. Sheen was not scheduled to be a regular, because there was no plan to make the president a central character. Apparently the entire series was intended as a long-running staff party. However, the president’s appearance in the first episode inspired the writers to keep him on for two four-years terms as commander in chief.
Originally the principal character was supposed to be Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe. Lowe was typically outstanding in all his performances, but his demotion to a supporting role caused him to exit the series after a couple of seasons.
Other principle characters include Bradley Whitford, as Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff. Whitford’s performance was such that he quickly became the de facto principle character. Lyman’s executive assistant is Donna Moss, played by the ordinary-looking but extremely sexy Janel Maloney. Tall and curvaceous Allison Janney is press secretary C.J. Cregg. Veteran movie actor John Spencer is the typically Irish chief of staff Leo McGarry, and Richard Schiff is Toby Ziegler, the White House communications director. Dulé Hill comes on as Charlie Young, an intellectual but street-wise high-school graduate during the first season when he is hired as personal aide to the president, and he stays throughout the remainder of the series. Other characters will be introduced during the reviews as they appear.
I mentioned the excellent writing apparent in the show, and the reason became clear when I learned that Aaron Sorkin was the show’s creator and principle writer. Things then began to fall into place. Sorkin got some notice with his hit play A Few Good Men, later a highly successful movie of the same name. He next wrote The American President a few years previous, and The West Wing was conceived as a continuation of the theme. Viewers of both the movie and the series will recognize a number of actors who made the jump from the former to the latter. For example, Sheen was chief of staff in The American President.
The first thing I noticed about the pilot was the intro. It’s called the pilot, because it was produced to test the waters for any further production. If the pilot is not received well, then a series is often quickly truncated. The pilot does not contain the famous West Wing theme music and drum roll, and there is no “Previously on The West Wing” voice over. It just starts.
It starts at night in a bar in Washington, DC, and Sam is having a conversation with a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. They are arguing over whether the president was going to fire Josh Lyman. Sam notices a fantastically sexy woman sitting at the bar and looking invitingly at him. Things are going to get interesting.
Sam and Billy at the bar
Here I’m going to take some time to analyze the dialog between Sam and Billy, the reporter. It has the touch of Aaron Sorkin, even though it is possible he did not write it. In this series, which has a minimum of physical action and on-screen violence, it’s the dialog, the banter among the principles, that keeps the drama moving. This is what really what makes the series popular. That and some fairly interesting plot lines. Here’s a snatch of the dialog in the bar:
Billy: Deep background. I won’t use your name.
Sam: And you won’t get a quote.
Why are we here?
You sat down.
Is Josh on the way out?
I know he’s your friend.
I’m not talking.
Who do I call?
Just tell me who to call.
Call 1-800-BITE-ME. (pause) He’s not going anywhere, Billy.
You’re lying now.
Why would I lie to a journalist?
After a pause, Billy: Why do you keep looking behind me?
Alger Hiss came in with a pumpkin. (a pause) That girl’s eyeing me.
I never know if they’re looking or not.
Billy glances back at Miss Hot-to-trot and turns to Sam: Yeah, I think she was.
Thank you for the casual way you did that. She probably didn’t notice that.
The scene cuts to the home of the president’s chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who is apparently having breakfast in his palatial home (he’s very rich). The TV is on, and the news is reporting a railroad accident that has spilled 20,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide. Leo is reading the New York Times and is complaining about the crossword puzzle.
Seventeen across is wrong. Just wrong. Can you believe that, Ruth?
Ruth: You should call them.
Leo: I will.
Ruth is apparently the maid, who is serving Leo his breakfast.
Now here is the first writing foul-up. Sodium hydroxide is a crystalline solid and does not come in gallons. You buy it by the pound or the ton, depending on what you want to do with it.
Somebody (probably Leo’s wife) announces a phone call.
Leo: I’m in the shower.
Voice: It’s POTUS.
Leo takes the call.
The scene shifts. The White House press secretary Claudia Jean (CJ) Cregg is running on the treadmill in the gym. It’s between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. She’s trying to make conversation with a sexy guy on the next treadmill. It doesn’t work out. He informs her that her pager is paging. She tries to take the page without getting off the treadmill and takes a comical pratfall.
The scene shifts again. It’s very early in the morning in the White House, and somebody is running a vacuum cleaner. Josh Lyman is passed out face down on his desk. The vacuum cleaner doesn’t wake him up, but his pager does. He takes the page. He sees who is paging him and immediately places a phone call.
The scene shifts again. In an airliner approaching a landing at Washington Dulles Airport early the same morning the passengers are advised to turn off their electronic devices. Communications Director Toby Ziegler keeps working on his computer. When the flight attendant reminds Toby again, he says he’s almost done. The flight attendant is insistent.
Another attendant brings Toby a message.
Mr. Ziegler. A message has just been passed up to the cockpit for you. I’m not sure I got it right. POTUS in a bicycle accident?
Toby: You got it right.
Toby reaches for his phone. The attendant reminds Toby he cannot use his phone until the plane lands. Toby has an encyclopedic mind, and he reminds the attendant of the type and date of manufacture of the aircraft and questions how it could be vulnerable to so innocent a device.
The scene shifts to the apartment of Miss Hot-to-trot, Laurie (Lisa Edelstein). She’s wearing a night shirt and panties. Sam is in the shower. It’s obvious Sam had some success after he ditched Billy back at the bar. Laurie informs Sam that a message came for him on his pager while he was in the shower. She reads the message on the pager: “POTUS in a bicycle accident. Come to the office.” Sam immediately gets dressed and heads out the door with the barest of apologies. But first after getting the Laurie’s phone number. As he leaves she tells him, “Tell your friend POTUS to learn to ride a bike.” Sam tells her POTUS is his boss, not his friend, and POTUS is not his name but his title—President of the United States.
Here is what I consider a major flub in Sorkin’s plot. As the story progresses you are going to learn that Laurie is a law student. She’s a law student in Washington, DC, and she does not know that “POTUS” is an abbreviation for “President of the United States.” We can only hope she knows SCOTUS stands for Supreme Court of the United States. And more.
Now everybody is arriving at work in the White House, except Josh, who was there all night. Leo walks in through the lobby. The guard at the desk says something like “Good morning, Mr. McGarry.” Leo responds with, “We’ll take care of that in a hurry, won’t we, Mike.”
And that sets the mood for a day at the White House. All through the series there’s the impression that days at the White House are one crisis after another. Watching the daily news we have already gotten that idea. It’s the main theme of the series and allows for the creation and maintenance of multiple, often interleaving, plot threads.
Leo speaks to Josh’s assistant Donna: “Is he in yet?” Donna is stirring coffee. “Yeah.” Leo: “Will you get him, please?” Donna shouts over her shoulder, “Josh!”
They continue with a discussion of the president’s accident. Donna: “I heard it’s broken.” Leo: “You heard wrong.” The president was riding a $4000, titanium frame touring bike (borrowed from Leo) at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and hit a tree.
Leo comes into Josh’s office and asks just how many Cuban refugees have crammed themselves into fishing boats and headed for Florida. Josh disputes the statement owing to the use of the term “boats.” The Cubans are on what amounts to rafts. Leo questions Josh about details—how many Cubans, when, where? Josh has no answer to any of these. Leo observes that anybody standing on Key West with binoculars would be as well informed as the United States government at the moment. He wonders at the amount of money the government spends on its intelligence operations. The United States Coast Guard is going to have to handle the situation, and the Coast Guard works for the president. The ball is in the White House’s court. This is going to be a major item of business for the day.
They head off for a meeting. Josh inquires if the president said anything (about Josh). Leo replies the president is pissed at Josh, and so is he (Leo). Leo reminds Josh, “We gotta work with these people. And where do you get off (reference to Al Caldwell)? Al Caldwell’s a good man.” Josh says that Al Caldwell wasn’t there.” Leo tells Josh he shouldn’t lump all the Christian Right together and call them stupid. “We need these people.” Josh says, “We don’t need these people.” He continues, “We need Al Caldwell. We want Al Caldwell. We do not need John Van Dyke. We do not need Mary Marsh.” Josh and Leo part. Josh calls out, “I was right.” Leo says under his breath, “Like I don’t know that.” Josh’s day is off to a good start.
Leo walks into the president’s office. Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) asks about the X-ray. “Is anything broken?”
By now the titles are about through scrolling up the screen, announcing that this episode was written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Thomas Schlamme.
Leo strides into his own office and shouts to his secretary, Margaret (NiCole Robinson). He tells her to call the Times crossword and tell them Gaddafi is spelled with an “h.” CJ quizzes Leo, attempting to get clarification on the president’s accident. Leo has none.
From this point on I’m going to just summarize the plot. At an informal staff meeting they discuss the Cuban refugee situation that is beginning to unfold. They then turn the discussion to the matter of Josh. Meanwhile two from White Press corps are discussing Josh. The president is going to have to fire Josh.
Now here comes the critical part. Josh is alone in his office watching a video tape of the episode that got him into trouble. He’s having a disagreement with Mary Marsh, a Christian fundamentalist, and she is saying “I can tell you that you don’t believe in any god that I pray to, Mr. Lyman.” Josh is a Jew. Josh responds, “Lady, the god you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud.” Josh plays and replays this bit of the exchange.
I never understood what was so significant about the phrase, “too busy being indicted for tax fraud,” but that is the thing that so infuriated the Christian Right and got Josh into trouble. If anybody reading this can clue me in, please do.
Donna comes into Josh’s office, bringing him coffee. It turns out she has been working for Josh for nearly two years and has never before brought him coffee. She closes the door behind her and reminds Josh he has been invaluable in getting the president elected, and the president can’t fire him. Josh says that if he gets fired, then he gets fired.
Sorkin fills his plots with lively dialog that’s at the same time realistic. People say things that make sense in the setting, the interchanges between people reflect natural conversation, but at the same time Sorkin’s characters typically come off as witty and driven by natural forces. The action may not be entirely of Sorkin’s making, because action us usually the job of the directors—in most cases in the series Thomas Schlamme.
A lot of the action takes place within the west wing of the White House, and it’s fun to watch. The White House is a great presidential mansion, and a family could do a lot of living here, if only so much of it did not have to serve as an office building. Imagine this: lots of people of varied stripe working in close quarters with lots of offices, doors, desks and partitions. A popular theme in the series has a conversation involving two or even more people. As they talk they move through work areas, up stairs, along corridors, through doors, rubbing shoulders with non-participants, sometimes breaking the thread for a short exchange with a passerby. All the while the camera follows the action in an unbroken shoot.
There’s deadly serious business conducted in The West Wing. Political schemes are hatched and executed, some leading to spectacular failures. Threats both political and physical are exchanged. Off screen people die violently, and in one case the president orders the assassination of a terrorist leader, which is carried out on-camera, but at a foreign location. There is romance, flirtation and implied sexual encounters to keep viewers’ hormones engaged. Careers are made and broken. And there is comedy, sometimes slapstick. In one episode Josh has just finished asserting his authority and superiority when he sits down at his desk. Only his chair is out for repair, and Josh winds up on his butt on the floor.
The pilot, the subject of this review, is rife with fun. Here are the themes:
Sam has met Laurie at the bar and finished up the night in her bed. By mistake they exchange pagers (“These look so alike!”), and Sam gets a page for Laurie’s answering service. She turns out to be high-priced call girl who has taken an itch for Sam and has gifted him with a freebie. Sam has to get this straightened out, because the Republican Party would just love to discover that Sam has spent the night with a prostitute.
Sam gets deeper into trouble. A school class is scheduled to tour the White House, and it’s Leo’s daughter’s class. Leo can’t be there, so Sam is delegated to entertain the class. Sam arrives back at the White House after meeting with Laurie to exchange pagers, and he is immediately snagged by his assistant and told the class is waiting for him in the Roosevelt Room along with the teacher and a couple of parents. Sam asks which student is Leo’s daughter, because he wants to make a good impression (boss’s daughter and all that). The assistant is no help, so Sam is on his own.
Sam goes into the Roosevelt room, maybe out of breath from his mad dash to the prostitute’s apartment and back. He is confronted by a dozen grade-schoolers sitting expectantly at the large conference table and attended by their teacher, a slim and very attractive woman. The problem for Sam is twofold. First, he has had no time to wrap his brain around the task at hand. Second, he is expected to talk about the White House, and he knows absolutely nothing about it, except the street address perhaps.
Sam launches into a ludicrous attempt to fake knowledge about the White House when the teacher, Mallory O’Brien (Allison Smith), stops all this nonsense and pulls Sam outside and closes the door so the children won’t hear.
Mallory: I’m sorry to be rude, but are you a moron?
Sam confesses that he knows absolutely nothing about the White House, but asks Mallory’s indulgence. He tells her has is have a very rough day, and he just discovered he slept with a prostitute. Now, could she please tell him which one of the kids is Leo’s daughter, because that would help his day go so much better.
Mallory: That would be me.
Oops. Sam just told his boss’s attractive daughter that he was screwing a prostitute last night. That is so bad for Sam, and it is also so funny.
Sam explains to Mallory that he screwed a prostitute last night
This is another problem with Sorkin’s script. The absence of reality is a simply dreadful. Sam has been working for Leo in the White House for a year and a half and likely a year prior to that during the campaign. And he still does not know that Leo has a grown daughter who looks like she just stepped off a fashion magazine cover? Who is Sorkin trying to kid here?
Also, as the series unfolds viewers will learn that Sam has left a high position in a prominent New York law firm to work for the White house. And he doesn’t know past presidents of the United States? While trying to describe the White House Sam informs the students the Roosevelt Room was named after the 18th president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Every high school student is taught that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president, followed by Andrew Johnson on Lincoln’s death, followed by Ulysses S. Grant, making Grant the 18th president. Sorkin has gone vastly overboard to make Sam appear foolish, and he has also made the storyline unbelievable. Enough said about that.
More comedy and sex comes with the introduction of Josh’s ex-girlfriend. She is Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), and she is smart, dynamic and ambitious. She is also sex-on-a-stick.
Toby Ziegler has a frank talk with Josh about offending the Religious Right and losing his job. He finishes up by handing Josh a clipping from the Wall Street Journal. The clipping features a photo of Mandy along with a note that she has left a highly-paid position in NewYork and has opened a consulting office in Washington.
Josh: Who’s she working for?
Toby: I’m checking it out.
We meet Mandy. She’s driving her BMW convertible in downtown Washington with the top down, and the radio is blaring a high-energy track. She is carrying on a spirited conversation with “Bruce,” and it’s apparent she is gearing up for action. She only dials it down when a D.C. motorcycle cop pulls her over for running a red light. Now that’s funny.
Mandy and the traffic cop
More comedy: Leo is talking to two economists. He is getting conflicting advice and makes the observation that economists were put on the Earth to make astrologers look good. One economist predicts the Dow-Jones will be up 1000 in a year. The other predicts down 1000.
Leo meets with staffers to discuss a presidential challenge from within their own party, Senator Lloyd Russell. His popularity is rising among the valuable demographics. It’s starting to appear he may challenge the president in the next primary. Given all that about Russell, Josh asks, rhetorically:
Where do you go?
Leo: Put together an exploratory committee.
Josh: Who do you get to run it?
Josh: I already got a job.
Leo: For the moment.
Josh: Who do you get?
Leo: Well, if I could get Mandy to leave $900,000 a year at Lennox-Chase, I’d get Mandy.
Josh: You’d be smart.
Leo: Hey, come to think of it, do think she would be interested in his job?
Josh: You’re in luck.
Leo: Is she in town?
Josh: Just got here today.
Leo: What’s she doing?
Josh: Working for Lloyd Russell.
So, the political shit hits the fan. The White House team launches a scheme to derail Lloyd Russell’s presidential ambitions. Josh arranges to have lunch with Mandy. It’s hard to hide that some of the old spark is still there.
Lunch with Mandy and Josh
Ignoring for the remainder of this review the Cuban refugee subplot, the climax of the pilot is the confrontation with the easily-offended Christian Right.
Al Caldwell is the nice guy of the bunch. Deeply religious and completely sincere, he chides Leo in a private conversation for the administration’s lack of enthusiasm in pushing the Christian agenda. The other two are John Van Dyke and Mary Marsh, one or both of whom are associated with an organization called “The Lambs of God.” As the story develops we get the idea that given different geography and a little more firepower they might be called “The Taliban.”
Toby arranges a meeting with the three in the White House to smooth over the insult Josh has offered up. The White House team is cautioned to be nice and to keep the tone down. It starts out that way, and Josh offers his sincere apology.
Christian Taliban at the White House
Mary Marsh is not there to accept an apology. She wants an apology and political leverage:
The White House team is taken aback as their visitors begin making demands. Marsh and company want the United States Government, currently in the hands of the sitting president, to accommodate their religious views in government policy. Marsh wants one or all of prayer in the school, a war against pornography and no condoms in schools. The White House team has come only to apologize and is not prepared to play Let’s Make a Deal.
And this is the part I love the most. Everybody should know by now I am no fan of religion, let alone Christianity, let alone the Christian Right. Eventually Mary Marsh brings the discussion to a head with an address to Josh:
It’s only a matter of time with you Josh…
New York sense of humor…
They think they’re so much smarter.
Josh interrupts to remind everybody that he’s not from New York, but from Connecticut. Toby has had enough.
She meant “Jewish.”
When she said “New York sense of humor, she was talking about you and me.
Toby is from New York, and he comes from a background where being a Jew was a handicap for him. He has seen Mary Marsh all his life in various personas. Politics be damned. Toby is through being nice to people who consider Jews second class citizens. The discussion devolves into a shouting match about the Ten Commandments.
John Van Dyke states:
The First Commandment says “honor thy father.”
Toby: No it doesn’t.
“Honor thy father is the Third Commandment.”
Van Dyke: Then what’s the First Commandment?”
At long last, the president of the United States enters, walking with the aid of a cane.
I am the Lord your God, and thou shalt worship no other god before me. Boy those were the days.
Everybody is on their feet now as the president is recognized. It turns out the president has had enough of this, as well. He announces his granddaughter once made a statement that accommodated women’s right to abortion, and in return the Lambs of God sent her a rag doll with a knife stuck through its throat. The president calls a halt to the meeting with the Christian Right and invites them to find the door. I have to tell you, readers, that I cheered when I watched this segment for the first time, and I still get some lift every time I watch it again.
Anyhow, that’s the tone of The West Wing. The president and his administration are Democratic and liberal in the best sense of the meaning. The Republicans are often portrayed as hard-nosed, but often enough as sensible and level-headed. The plots dip deeply into real-world politics and the mechanizations of government. Production of the series called on the help of people who had served in the White House in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and their insight shows in the politically savvy story lines.