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Top 10 TV Shows: #8 The West Wing

It’s the seven-year story of the key players surrounding the highest office in the land. It’s a tale about the idealized fictional leader of a nation. Its lead scribe and creator still ranks as one of the greatest generators of dialogue and “faction” in television history. The cast sublime, the pacing superb, the storylines very rarely venturing into the territory of the completely unbelievable.

Welcome to the administration of Josiah Bartlet and to his White House. Welcome to the world of the 26-time Emmy award winner and five-time Golden Globe nominee for best drama, TV Guide’s seventh greatest drama of all-time, and our number eight. Welcome to The West Wing.

NUMBER EIGHT: THE WEST WING (1999-2006)

First, because there will be questions in weeks to come, allow me to discuss the process of number eight briefly. There was a tough fight between three shows, but one was disqualified because the end isn’t in the immediate future like, for example, Mad Men. I will revise my list when that show nears its conclusion. Hint: Clay loves it. He writes about it. He may even be pricing chain mail online. The other falls just barely out of the top ten, which makes no sense except when you realize this is a list of the ten shows I enjoyed watching the most and I wanted a variety. Everything can’t be gun-toting testosterone, nor can it be teary-eyed diatribes to provide the “something for everyone” philosophy I want. Also, there’s a difference between my ten favorite television shows and the ten best television shows ever made. I will reveal my 11-15 in a brief list accompanying Number One in a few months because I want them named.

Josiah Bartlet was never supposed to be the President of the United States. A graduate of Notre Dame, a devout Catholic, a good father and husband, though distant at times, and a man who grew up the son of a farming household. He ended up a Nobel laureate and an attendee of the prestigious London School of Economics. He scored a 1590 twice on his SATs when 1600 was the apex. Bartlett was idealistic, believed he could help, and then found a way to surround himself with a group of people that while imperfect were the kind of folks you would want close by in a time of need. He served two terms as the Governor of New Hampshire. Before politics he was a tenured professor at Dartmouth and considered becoming a priest. His visions of being President began when his best friend wrote “Bartlet for President” on a cocktail napkin.

In short, Josiah Bartlet was something else.

Because it’s how Bartlet would want it and it’s exactly how it should be done, the main reason the administration found ways to limit or correct its mistakes and simultaneously the main reason the show makes our list can be expressed in the following way:

Bradley Whitford- Josh Lyman (Deputy Chief of Staff)

Allison Janney- Claudia Jean Cregg (Press Secretary/COS)

Rob Lowe- Sam Seaborn (Deputy Communications Director),

John Spencer-€“ Leo McGarry (Chief of Staff/VP Candidate)

Richard Schiff- Toby Ziegler (Communications Director)

Dule Hill- Charlie Young (Personal Aide to the President)

Janel Moloney- Donna Moss (Senior Assistant to Josh Lyman)

Stockard Channing-€“ Abigail Bartlet (First Lady)

It’s really that simple. The supporting cast of The West Wing stands as one of, if not the best in television history. The performances, top to bottom, including many not mentioned in the key eight (outside of Martin Sheen, which should go without saying) are in fact so good that at times it’s easy to forget about the story and just watch these individuals execute their craft.

The criticisms of The West Wing have never been and will never be about the quality of the show. They’re simply ideologically focused or an assessment of the approach itself.

They want to win. So do we. The only thing we want more is to be right. I wonder if you can’t do both. There’s a new book and we’re going to write it. You can win if you run a smart disciplined campaign, if you studiously say nothing, nothing that causes you trouble, nothing that’s a gaffe, nothing that shows you might think the wrong thing, nothing that shows you think…but it just isn’t worthy of us.

It isn’t worthy of us. It isn’t worthy of America. It isn’t worthy of this great nation. We’re going to write a new book, right here, right now this very moment, today. (Josiah Bartlet,€“ S3E3)      

That brief soliloquy from Bartlet sounds flawless for a State of the Union address or any other great campaign speech to the general public. Those words were spoken to only the closest staff members before walking out to address supporters in New Hampshire. It’s this style of poetic speech that serves as The West Wing’s grandest triumph and sometimes as the source of its most glaring problems.

It’s preachy and pedantic, it pushes a left wing agenda, and people don’t talk like these characters. Those are the three things Aaron Sorkin must hear in his sleep. He heard them while running The West Wing, the same on Studio 60, he consistently hears it as he works on The Newsroom, and even Sports Night caught some of the wrath. Here’s what’s truly hilarious about it though. Inside, Sorkin knows every one of those critiques is exactly right, though he decries them in most interviews.

Make no mistake; Aaron Sorkin is an arrogant dude. He’s not unaware of it and in fact in many ways he appears to relish it because he has never changed what he does or how he does it. He’s a Hollywood liberal and his shows are full of smart and usually attractive liberal characters and he often portrays the opposition as stupid, insane, or dangerous.

Full disclosure: I disagree mightily with Aaron Sorkin.

“Fuller” disclosure: I still love Aaron Sorkin.

The West Wing portrays a nearly perfect liberal administration. They push for minimum wage, for abortion and Plan B, for amnesty, for taxes on the wealthy, for gay and alternative rights, and are largely anti-religion, particularly Christian. One of the more memorable moments takes place when Bartlet debates a conservative talk show host and attempts to discredit the Bible as a literal explanation for policy or belief. The members of Bartlet’s administration are also kind, hard-working, family oriented, smart, virtuous, and in their fictional world, almost always right. The West Wing, when taken as an issues product, is and was designed to be extremely polarizing. The West Wing, when taken as a show about people, about life, about decency, and about reality in the most stressful of occupations, is universally phenomenal.

I might thoroughly disagree with Josh Lyman’s politics but I’m pretty sure I’d still have enjoyed a beer with Josh Lyman. I might get into a shouting match with Leo McGarry, but I’d have felt bad about it and would have apologized for it later. I’d have engaged in joking barbs with C.J. Cregg over policy issues but it would have been friendly…and I’m relatively certain I’d have asked out and been summarily shot down by Donna Moss. It’s because the people are GOOD that its okay for everything else to be however Sorkin wants it without making his political opponents start seeing red.

If Sorkin and his directing partner, Thomas Schlamme, aren’t the co-inventors of the “walk and talk” scene structure, they perfected it and they’re the ones most credited with it. It wouldn’t have been possible without Schlamme’s direction and Sorkin’s words. With the exception of Isaac and Ishmael, the one true misstep the show made as it opened its third season just a few weeks clear of September 11, 2001, you’ll find virtually no episode without at least a couple of walk and talks. Endless narrow hallways, speed walking with traffic moving in both directions, and dialogue flowing even faster than the pace of the steps. Not just dialogue, but repetition for effect, for humor, and for drama, and even at a blistering pace, incredibly intricate and without wasted words. Here’s one of the few brief exchanges that wasn’t a total walk and talk but almost immediately became one moments later:

Josh: Victory is mine. Victory is mine. Great day in the morning, victory is mine.

Donna: Good morning, Josh.

Josh: I drink from the keg of glory, Donna. Bring me the finest muffins and bagels in all the land.

Donna: It’s going to be an unbearable day. (S1E2)

The basic idea is two characters walking and talking as the director utilizes a tracking shot. One character then breaks off to go about his or her business and is immediately replaced with someone else as the stroll continues. This is Sorkin’s thing. Sports Night used it all the time. Studio 60 used it all the time. The Newsroom uses it frequently. That said The West Wing took it to another level. The strategy has always and will always work. Instead of two people sitting at a table or one at a desk and another standing in a doorway, there’s brisk movement and pace and what would otherwise be potentially dry becomes anything but.

Originally, Aaron Sorkin envisioned The West Wing as a show where the President was never shown, think Vera in Cheers or Maris in Frasier. Luckily, he balked on that idea. Martin Sheen is a special talent and it’s a credit to everyone involved that it’s impossible to imagine the show without Bartlet and at the same time had he not been there, somehow it still would have been number eight on this list. That statement is nonsense, except it’s not. The show was supposed to be about the senior staff and in expert fashion, it is and it isn’t. Now that your collective cerebrums are burning, we’ll leave it there.

The writing and the cast dominated The West Wing. It was ranked tenth in the Writers Guild of America’s Best Written TV Series List. As a result of the difficulty of much of the dialogue, the actors become so much more important in even the slowest scene than they might otherwise. As a direct result, in 2001, Sorkin’s creation received nine individual acting nominations, tying for the all-time record. Every one of them was deserved. It’s without question many great actors couldn’t pull off a Sorkin show appropriately, but not one of those cast for The West Wing in any way failed. It’s why TV Guide readers voted the show the best ensemble cast ever, eclipsing Lost with over 35% of the vote.

In stark contrast to last week’s Battlestar Galactica and many of the shows to come in this list, The West Wing is exactly what its title implies. This is a television show about the West Wing of the White House, the location of the Oval Office and the senior staff. The setting isn’t an albatross or a Trojan horse for some other conceit. The show is about politics. The show is about politicians. The show is about life as a Democrat working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s also about their various spheres of influence both at home and at work.

The stories run the gamut of politics and personal life. Bartlet is a Democrat and not a moderate Democrat. He runs into staunch Republican opposition. His reelection campaign serves as the backdrop for Season 3. One of the more integral “people” moments occurs when it’s revealed Josiah Bartlet has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The reaction of the staff, of his family, and the struggle as the administration has to inform the public but also deal with the backlash from keeping such a thing quiet produce strong drama. His second term plays out during the middle seasons and then it comes time to plan for his hopeful successor. The final stanzas showcase the future of Bartlet’s staff and in many ways mirrors what would take place in an actual transition period or lame duck session.

After at least co-writing all but three of the 88 episodes aired to that point, Aaron Sorkin departed The West Wing following the fourth year. The show saw a mild ratings downturn and the quality did drop, but only in comparison to the world-class level it stood at for its four Best Drama Emmy winning seasons. It devolved to a level most accurately described as “really good.” Much of the cast, sans Rob Lowe, stuck around until Season 6 and many through the entire run. John Spencer passed away after filming five episodes of Season 7. MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell became a valuable asset later in the show’s life cycle, which did move to the political center a bit after Sorkin left.

Another thing that needs to be mentioned about The West Wing is while it deals with incredibly serious matters, it’s also often extremely funny:

Sam: About a week ago I accidentally slept with a prostitute.

Toby: Really?

Sam: Yes.

Toby: You accidentally slept with a prostitute.

Sam: Call girl.

Toby: Accidentally.

Sam: Yes.

Toby: I don’t understand…did you trip over something? (S1E2)

A show so heavy-handed can’t be stoic, it can’t be static, and it can’t always be sanctified. It has to have light moments, still sharply written, to serve as balance and to ensure the viewer is both entertained and also provided an opportunity to think. Sorkin might get preachy, but when he’s on his game, there’s no one in his weight class.

          Bartlet: What is that?

Morris: It’s a flu shot.

Bartlet: I don’t need a flu shot.

Morris: You do need a flu shot.

Bartlet:  How do I know this isn’t the start of a military coup?

Morris: Sir…

Bartlet:  I want the Secret Service in here right away.

Morris: In the event of a military coup, sir, what makes you think the Secret Service is going to be on your side?

Bartlet: [pause] Now that’s a thought that’s going to fester. (S1E2)

Was The West Wing a fairy tale reimagining of the Clinton administration? Was it Sorkin trying to portray Democrats as morally pure? Was it a big fat smack to the face of the protestant wing of the conservative party? Did it have a motive? Was it just a television show? That last one is at least partially accurate, which in this case is all it takes. I don’t care in the least how you lean politically, even though it’s necessary for this discussion for me to discuss it in broad strokes. I don’t care how far you lean in that direction. Even if it was too optimistic (in a very anti-House of Cards kind of way), The West Wing is a nearly impeccable masterpiece.

Bartlet: We agree on nothing, Max.

Senator Lobell: Yes, sir.

Bartlet: Education, guns, drugs, school prayer, gays, defense spending, taxes – you name it, we disagree.

Senator Lobell: You know why?

Bartlet: Because I’m a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, liberal, egghead communist.

Senator Lobell: Yes, sir. And I’m a gun-toting, redneck son-of-a-bitch.

Bartlet: Yes, you are.

Senator Lobell: We agree about that. (S1E21)

“We” also agree about that. I probably wouldn’t agree with Bartlet on much of anything else, certainly not Notre Dame football. Simultaneously, there’s this small but strong piece of me that still thinks I might have considered voting for him. If that’s not an achievement worthy of Outkick’s Number Eight, I have no idea what is.

(The entire run of The West Wing is available on NETFLIX and of course on standard DVD.)

 

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Written by Jason Martin