Monday, November 24, 2008
Why aren’t there more shows about politics? Maybe it’s just because the 2008 election was the first I could vote in that I think politics is fascinating; Barack Obama’s campaign made politics exhilarating, bringing the actual people into the fold more than any of us have ever seen. Politics weaves such a dense web of intrigue, drama, and pitch-black schadenfreude that it’s a gold mine for drama. Or comedy, for that matter. Yet we have only The West Wing, an in-depth, highly acclaimed look into the executive branch that has already been dubbed a classic by fans and critics alike.
Following the inner workings of the executive branch, The West Wing introduces a wide range of characters, all of them driven and optimistic. Staffers write speeches, research events, work on damage control for every political blunder, and spew fast-paced, witty dialogue while moving in a near breakneck pace throughout the White House in a move dubbed “The Walk and Talk.”
All of the major characters are amazing. Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is a loyal idealist, who stands by his President but is less willing than others to compromise for the sake of politics. Press Secretary C.J. (Allison Janney) trades more witty barbs with White House Correspondents than someone could ever get away with in real life, but it blurs the line between her and the reporters and creates more of a friendly atmosphere. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is the president’s best speechwriter (and the only one Toby considers his “equal”) who cannot seem to hold down a steady relationship to save his life. Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) was created in response to a complaint from the NAACP over the lack of diversity in the show, but he becomes one of the most interesting (and most realistic) characters in the series.
My two favorite staffers are the leaders: Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford). McGarry, a recovering alcoholic and valium addict, is the glue that holds the executive branch together; he is forceful yet genial and both commands reverence and seems like an ordinary fellow. Lyman, on the other hand, isn’t as charming, at least not to people on the other side of the aisle. He is bold, brash, acerbic, and doesn’t care who he offends. He starts problems from the very start of the series; the first PR nightmare we see in the show stems from Josh’s crass remarks about religion. As the season progresses, we see more and more of Josh’s political cunning and brilliance, and he becomes the most interesting of the staffers.
The West Wing was apparently conceived as a show in which the president made at best cameo appearances. But that all changed when Martin Sheen was cast, and it was the smartest move Sorkin and co. could have possibly made. He establishes his character in his very first scene of the pilot episode: when his aides try to smooth things over with religious leaders after Josh makes a crass joke about God, he confidently strides into the room, not to fanfare, not to applause, hell, not even in a suit. He hobbles in on a cane (he’d been in a bicycle accident shortly before the events of the episode) wearing a track suit, greets the religious leaders warmly, then proceeds to tear them apart with a smile on his face. Up until that point he is a ghost in the background, only referenced to joke about his bike accident, only to sweep in with quiet confidence in a flash. The rest of the episode shows that “The West Wing” could have been a great show had it stuck to its original format, but President Bartlett guarantees its immortality from the get-go.
As is always the case with great entertainment, it’s the little things that make it so memorable. The witty, disarming back and forth between Jed and his naval doctor. Jed accidentally taking both Vicodin AND Percocet for his back pain and ends up jovially fawning over his staff the way a drunk person confesses his deep platonic love for his friends. The basketball game in which Jed brings in an All-American Duke player just to crush Josh and Toby. C.J. lip-synching to “The Jackal.” All of them completely unnecessary, and all of them wonderful.
Even here in its first season, which is clearly finding its footing, there are a numerous moments. “Celestial Navigation” is a fun look at the Bartlet Administration’s PR snafus and features a fantastic performance from guest star Edward James Olmos. “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” announces a more serious turn for the show, and the finale contains a shocking cliffhager. The best episode is “In Exclesis Deo,” in which Toby arranges a military funeral for a homeless veteran. It is moving and simple and all the more powerful for how little the President appears, which makes it more personal.
Despite the high quality, The West Wing clearly has a few kinks to work out. The relationship between Sam (Rob Lowe) and the call-girl Laurie starts out great, then continues until all humor and depth is stripped of it, particularly when she somehow gets past background checks into the State Dinner (the weakest episode of the season, by the way). Mandy is a pointless, one-note, annoying character who just doesn’t work; happily, Sorkin seems to have figured this out early on and quickly wrote her out of the way. As fascinating as the show is even from the start, the administration doesn’t really do anything, which is finally pointed out by the characters in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” which heralds a new direction for the show.
Still, it’s impossible not to love this show from the start. Bartlet is the perfect president, one with idealistic liberal ideals but with an ability to see the other side’s point of view and an unwillingness to back down. Martin Sheen IS Bartlet and this is the finest work of his career, and he was in Apocalypse Now. The West Wing is certainly a fantasy; everyone is far too optimistic considering the years of political conditioning they have to go through to get to their positions. But it puts political issues into layman’s terms without treating the audience like a moron, and it creates some of the most fascinating characters ever made.