I’ve sung Aaron Sorkin’s praises on this blog before, so it should come as no surprise that his masterpiece checks in on my list of five favorite TV shows. The West Wing came at an interesting time in American history, premiering on September 22, 1999, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Two years into the show’s run, George W. Bush took office after a disputed election, and the series ended up taking place during the heyday of his presidency. Thus, the show ended up being a sort of “alternate reality” for some viewers, giving hints as to what a Democratic presidency during those years might have been like.
One major strength of The West Wing lies in the sheer gravitas of its actors and well-written scripts. Martin Sheen provides many poignant performances as President Josiah Bartlet. One of the best is during the episode “Two Cathedrals” when Bartlet curses at God for taking his secretary and longtime friend Mrs. Landingham in a car crash.
The next episode provides another favorite moment: the announcement of Bartlet’s reelection campaign, in which he delivers a matter-of-fact response to a journalist’s question about whether he’ll run: “Yeah, and I’m gonna win.”
Other actors on the show delivers some great performances. One of my favorites is John Spencer’s at the end of this clip. Playing Leo McGarry, the President’s Chief of Staff, his reaction of utter terror at First Daughter Zoey’s kidnapping is one of the more genuine and human moments on the show.
A lot of shows have good actors, though. What puts The West Wing a cut above the rest is its versatility. While mostly a drama, there are many moments that make you chuckle, or even laugh outright. Take this scene from the fourth episode, when President Bartlet has taken too many painkillers:
The show’s writers also experiment with different episode formats. Season 5 features an episode called “Access,” which takes the form of a documentary about a day in the life of Press Secretary CJ Cregg (who happens to be my favorite character on the show). Other special episodes include “Isaac & Ishmael,” which was aired just after 9/11 and made some great points about the nature of terrorism, and the debate between Presidential candidates Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick, which was aired very much like a real Presidential debate. On a related note, The West Wing garnered praise throughout its run from former White House staffers for its realistic portrayal of how the White House really works.
In sum, The West Wing ran for seven seasons, and any political junkie (especially a liberal one) would be well served to watch every single season. I will leave you with one of my favorite speeches from the show, in which President Bartlet silences a homophobic radio host.