Remember The West Wing? It was the one critics wouldn’t shut up about before the arrival of The bloody Wire. It turned even the most hard-nosed, cynical viewers into devoted pseudo-politico-fanboys and won more Emmys than you’ve had hot dinners.
Between its debut in 1999 and its final season in 2006, Aaron Sorkin’s drama about the senior staff of the White House was – apologies here, but sometimes only a worn-out cliche will do – a TV phenomenon.
But, over a decade on, does its first season stand up to a re-watch? For all the plaudits it received, it also suffered accusations of being sentimental, unrealistically optimistic, unfairly biased towards the political left and far too clever for its own good. And this reviewer has three of those things placed very highly on her list of ‘Stuff On Telly That Gets My Goat’.
Perhaps the increasingly cynical viewing public has moved on from Sorkin’s brand of retro schmaltz to more gritty fare (cf. The sodding Wire) and The West Wing is no longer relevant. But since it’s one of the few modern series that didn’t end with, ‘guess what, they’re all dead’, perhaps it’s time Den Of Geek took another look…
We open on Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) making eyes at a woman in a bar whilst glibly avoiding giving any kind of substantial answer to the journalist he’s drinking with. Ah right, he’s the eager, witty ladies’ man then. And for now, these rather basic snapshots are all the information we get on the main characters: Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is the intellectual pedant, CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) the goofy one who falls off treadmills, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) the workaholic who falls asleep at his desk, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) the obnoxious smart-arse.
Well, to be fair, they all have a touch of the smart-arse about them. That’s more than evident by the five-minute mark. And we just don’t have time to decide whether or not they’re likeable smart-arses, because 1200 Cubans on rafts are about to arrive in Miami, recent polls indicate the White House has lost energy and focus, the President has been injured in a bicycle accident and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh may very well get fired for insulting a powerful right-wing Christian on national TV.
It’s a hell of a lot to take in, and for this reviewer, whose knowledge of US politics is about equal to her knowledge of Cantonese or the workings of an internal combustion engine, it’s a little overwhelming. There are no pauses or quiet moments of reflection here. The action and dialogue hurtle along at a cracking pace and no one even has time to stop for a chat.
(The West Wing became famous for its ‘walk-and-talk’ scenes, long Steadicam tracking-shots of two or more characters discussing the issue of the day whilst race-walking down White House corridors being all busy and important, and initially, the device made this reviewer desperate for them to just stand. The eff. Still.)
But wait, there’s more. Halfway through the episode, Sam discovers the woman he slept with the night before is a call girl, before embarrassing himself spectacularly in front of a party of schoolchildren. It’s a great little scene which shows, thankfully, how these very smart people can sometimes be very clueless (when asked to give the children a history of the building, he begins, “The White House was built several years ago, mostly, if I’m not mistaken, out of cement…”)
And for all the frenetic zipping about and endless character introductions in the pilot episode, there’s never a missed opportunity to generate a laugh. Sorkin approaches pretty much everything he writes as though it’s a ‘50s screwball comedy, and in a show that could have been dry and po-faced, it works very well indeed. Maybe, or so this reviewer thought, these smart-arses aren’t so bad after all…
Whoops, spoke too soon. For here comes Character Introduction #3,410 in the form of political consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly). She’s speeding in her convertible with girly punk-pop at full blast, wearing a ridiculous beret and haranguing some poor minion on the phone. And she’s horrendous. Self-important, arrogant and rude. Next to her, the smug-git brigade in the White House suddenly look like people you wouldn’t mind having a drink with. Sadly, it’s clear her role will be expanded in the coming episodes, although this reviewer already wishes she’d go away.
But while the episode is far from perfect, the final few minutes more than make up for the flaws, when Josh, along with Press Secretary CJ and Communications Director Toby, sit down with Christian conservative Mary Marsh to make amends for Josh’s comment that ‘the God (she prays) to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud’.
Marsh – face like a bulldog chewing a wasp, aura of undiluted evil – demands the President speak out against free condoms, or in favour of school prayer, by way of apology. Add to that a distinct whiff of anti-Semitism (“these people with their New York sense of humour”) and Toby is done being polite. The most belligerent and difficult to warm to of the main cast until now, he defends both Josh and the White House’s integrity with passion and fierce loyalty, and this reviewer can’t help but cheer him on.
It’s during the ensuing argument over the order of the Ten Commandments that, finally, we get to see the man in charge. And what an entrance. “I am the Lord thy God,” President Jed Bartlet bellows from the doorway. “Thou shalt worship no other God but me.”
The episode is stuffed to the gills with plot, but what sticks with you is the brief but all-important sight of Martin Sheen as Bartlet delivering an almighty smackdown to Marsh and her cohorts. It’s magnificent stuff, and after all the misleading build-up (“He’s a klutz, Mrs Landingham. Your President’s a geek.”) we are finally shown why these characters are so devoted to their Chief.
To say ‘Pilot’ is frantic and overly busy would be an understatement. There’s too much going on for an opening episode, and we’re seeing plotlines that ought to appear further down the line (why should we care that Josh might be fired when we barely know him?). But as we close with Bartlet in the Oval Office asking his secretary, “OK, Mrs Landingham, what’s next?”, it’s clear this is just a normal day in the White House. The audience can’t pause for reflection, because the characters can’t.
And, despite feeling confused, politically-ignorant and, quite frankly, knackered, this reviewer suddenly can’t wait to see more.
Okay, Sorkin, what’s next?
Check back next Friday as our The West Wing retrospective continues…!