The West Wing – Series 1 (Created by Aaron Sorkin, 1999 -)

Introduction

This is a big deal. maybe a bigger deal than most people realise. Literally years ago – before I even started watching ‘The Sopranos’, my good friend Pete recommended it to me. I had heard of it briefly, but I did not know, necessarily, what to make of it. The idea of ‘politics’ and ‘good drama’ is not the most interesting of mixes – but then, I guessed, that was its unique appeal – ‘The President – up-close-and-personal’. Woo hoo. So, he gave me the whole first season to watch – but it sat on the shelf. For many months. he eventually took it back, insulted at how I could be so ignorant. By this point I had formed a negative opinion on it – assuming the people who watch it are wannabe-politicians who desperately wanted someone to show them that politics is fun when, deep down, we all know its all a little bit boring. The people who actually think its fun or in anyway enjoyable often study politics or work in politics or are, in fact, politicians. Watching ‘The West Wing’ won’t make you more politically aware because, the fact that you are watching it, probably means you are already politically aware. You don’t need Josh Lyman telling you that. But Josh does tell it, interspersed with humour and, after forty minutes, you can turn it off – fully confident that you have spent time learning politics, when you haven’t really, you’ve watched a gossipy and fleeting programme that is pretty much a sitcom – but is arrogant enough to think that, just because its based in the Oval Office, its above it all and not as shallow as a sitcom. Its so funny, there is something that I completely despise about this programme but I just can’t put my finger on it. Now as a TV series – before I mock every scene one-by-one (you could do it…), I shall do some sort of summary … I have one episode to watch conveniently, so there will be a prologue post-watching the last episode of series 1…

Summary of Series 1…

Each episode generally consists of some political issue – responses to conflicts, death penalty, gay rights, established and expected rules within American politics – and going against these rules in the name of freedom. The only continuing political issue that sustains the entire series – kind of – is liberals sitting on the fence to the point that [shock] the President can’t sleep at night. eventually he decides he has four years to make a difference and reinvigorates his team and they set to change the world,

But, underneath all the actual important political context there is something more interesting going on …

1) Sam (Rob Lowe) sleeps accidentally with a high-class call girl – this is an interesting start, until about four episodes in whereby this story is dropped for the opportunity to expand on another relationship Sam is having with his bosses – Leo’s (John Spencer) daughter. Quite a player. But then – for no real reason, that story is dropped also – and turns out Sam is still ‘hooking’ up with the prozzie. Seriously, this prostitute story is suddenly brought up again in the second-to-last episode … will it be a part of the finale …

2) CJ (Allison Janney) – the White House Media face – fancies a guy called Danny – a man who works in the media – this is toyed with for a few episodes, until they kiss, banter, kiss a little more and – surprise surprise – their seems to be some sort o conflict between their two jobs. Didn’t see that coming. Currently prior to the last episode, post-fall out, we are watching CJ and Danny try to mend their [boo hoo] broken relationship.

3) Leo had a drug and alcohol addiction. He is over it now, but it might look a tad bad for the President but it hasn’t come out in a way that it has affected the White House too much so, at the moment he just harps on about it every now and then – “Whats your view of an alcoholic?”, “The problem is, I don’t want one drink – I wasn’t ten”… now I understand alcoholism. Thank you Leo.

4) Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) begins the story as the wonder boy of the White House, who has previously dated Mandy (Played by Moira Kelly, who initially appears to be the catalyst for some crazy events – crazy rock music rather than orchestra – in the White House, but alas – as she is an incredibly annoying character – she simply seems to disappear of radar until some old ‘memo’ discredits the democrats and she is shoved out from the inner circle…) and then does a lot of self-analysis – he feels bad carrying a card that would save his life in the event of a nuclear attack, he reflects on the nature of his job on a TV show, etc – until a new relationship is possibly begun in the character Joey Lucas, and the banter and flirting continue over at least 4 episodes.

5) Charlie (Dule Hill) is hired very strangely to become the Presidents personal aide and ends up dating his daughter. We are then subjected to many issues involving Charlies African-American roots – Can the Presidents aide be a young black man? Can the Presidents daughter date a black man? Charlie previously worked at an elitist executive club as a waiter and was racially discriminated against – or so it is implied.

6) Toby (Richard Schiff) and President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) are simply perfect people to some extent. Toby is passionate and cynical to a big degree (passionate, cynical … target audience … ) and, obviously, delivers all his lines perfectly making very few – if any- mistakes. President Bartlett though brings the whole gang together – mixing all the crews liberal views together in some big melting pot and pulling out a spoon of the perfect solution. But, more importantly, everyone is very happy with his final choice anyway. He’s the president after all.

So, the politics are sidelined generally for the sake of, lets see, prostitutes, relationships with bosses daughters, conflicting jobs affecting relationships, drug addiction, alcohol addiction and racism. All these threads are the only ones which continue one-episode-after-another. Only in one instance – something about a conflict in India which lasted two/three episodes – did something other than generic-programme situations come about – albeit an edgy programme that shows after the watershed, but importantly, generic.

What I reckon …

My view is very clear by this point. I was mocked for stating to a friend that I was ‘in awe of myself’ – but seriously, I was spot on before I even watched the programme: It dances over the politics, but focuses on the banter and relationships, akin to any generci programme. Highlights from what I said a conversation with friends about the programme – obviously I was telling this to friends who liked the programme who even went so far as to say that the opening credits were good… but here are a few of my primary points:

“It is trying to be a cross between a serious political drama (akin to John-Grisham-novel-based-movies or JFK or Frost/Nixon) but, without the budget and the horrendous music, it often appears like a cheap-TV-series or, dare i say it, soap. Now, serious-political-drama crossed with a soap has so much conflict. How can you take a soap seriously … you can’t.”

“The music … completely jars – not to mention the awful title sequence. Add to that the ‘funny’ ‘quirky’ attitudes they have … ‘oh, look, the president is high on pills’, ‘oh, how funny Sam and Toby banter about their credit on his speech’, ‘oh, how funny CJ and Mandy caress Leo’s pearls for his wife’ … i hesitate to use the word, but big cheese is what it is.”

“You DO NOT get such cheap shots for comedy in Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Life on Mars …”

“considering the nature of the programme, this [trashy] sit-commy style and cheesy music undermines the intentions of the programme makers”.

“The case on the left [may] need to be told – but [the programme is] so arrogant about it, thus not being ‘fair’ about its views and invalidating its point. See Michael Moore for someone making the right point about the right issues but fudging up the delivery by twisting words – you don’t need to lie about Bush, he is wanker and there is real evidence to prove it.”

“Choices over ‘proportional responses’ and the relevance of an – and I quote Toby – an ‘archane constitution’, this is relevant even now and interesting even now, it is the [prostitute plots, etc]which are a bit – as I have said – cheesy and sit-commy.”

So you can see the main problems – awful cheap tone, arrogance of characters, quirky-comedic-situations and the horrendous music.

To finish on a lighter note – my problem is people taking the programme so seriously- but, if people didn’t take it seriously there are many great things going on:
The roaming camera while talking really really fast is actually quite fun, its so fast-paced it can catch you out of breath because clearly the characters aren’t going to take a breather, they just keep walking and talking. On the plus side, if you miss something, they almost always clarify.
The characters are so likable, you do want to see what happens. Toby – though cynical and passionate (hmmm) – is played so well. He’s like some fuzzy bear with the beard. Strangely enough, as a ridiculous Jurassic Park fan, I was well aware of Richard Schiff’s previous work – he was the guy torn in two by the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s in ‘The Lost World’ and also played Elijah Wood’s dad in pre-Lord of the Rings, ‘Deep Impact’. So, it will be interesting to see his character develop. I reckon he has a little thing for CJ – which – when CJ and Danny are passionately in love I guess – will be revealed. Josh is also very likable – the whole Josh/Joey relationship is so much more interesting than the Sam/Leo’s daughter/Prostitute debacle.
Also, for all the liberal-ness of the programme, it is worth noting that currently the staff of the White House, bar Charlie and the fella in charge of the military (big, black and could kick the shit out of you), there are very few black characters – let alone Asian or of any other descent other than white American. Then again, ‘Mendoza’ is Hispanic. But that’s it. Three. though they seem to go on a lot about characters Jewish roots – is the writer Jewish – yes he is. No homosexuals introduced yet – or not openly gay. The majority of female staff – Donna, Ginger, Mrs Lanigham – are secretaries to the men in authority. Then again, maybe that was the way it was in 1999. So that last point could be scrapped.
Specific high points: Ave Maria playing while Josh and CJ talk, Bartlett telling his daughter how she could get kidnapped (though ruined in both cases by the awful music at the end of each scene) and the episode on the death penalty.
Overall, I reckon if people didn’t big it up as some important programme I would have been more impressed. But, is it worth a watch? Yeah, I guess so – and I am, to some extent, keen to watch the second series (even before watching the final episode) but I won’t because I have so many other programmes that I am invested in and want to finish. No offence intended, but I am keen to watch Series 6 of 24 which has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, and I have yet to watch the last two series of Frasier – all programmes that aren’t set in the White House (24 a little actually … ) but programmes that don’t take themselves too seriously and are just a load of fun. Maybe I will miss the banter (opposed to missing the deep discussion on American politics which, for all intents and purposes, is not really deep in any way, shape or form – maybe a brief glimpse of American politics would be a better way to summarise) and therefore will come back to the West Wing and, if I do, you will surely know about it …

Right, predictions on the first seasons finale … I saw a gun on the DVD so, clearly someone gets shot. I’ll put my bet on the Presidents daughter…
Epilogue
For gods sake. They decided not to choose who is shot/killed until episode one, series two. Who
could it be. They were so aware of how obvious the shooting-finale was, that they preempted the whole thing and showed us the end in the first opening and then flashed back to fill us in. Its the final episode! You have had 21 episodes to fill us in! I still think the daughter may be shot – even killed. She seems expendable. Would also give the floundering President Bartlett even more cause to … continue what he’s doing, but with more passion. Charlie is going to be injured I reckon. Because the target was the daughter and, he was close enough. Maybe Leo. Maybe Josh. Hell I don’t know and obviously they want to keep their options open so whoever everyone reckons it isn’t they will choose to be ‘the one’. Cliffhangers … another feature of a generic programme. Just to clarify my meaning on the word generic:
generic adj. Relating to or descriptive of an entire group or class; general.
So, ‘The West Wing’ is a generic TV series. I’d even go so far as to say that the plot lines are the type of plots that appear in soaps. Yes. I said it. ‘The West Wing’ is akin to a soap opera.
To finish, as I said at the end of this overview prior to the epilogue, I have decided to go back to 24. Yes, its cheap. yes, it appeals to the lowest common denominator – but I’ll tell ya, I’m so much more gripped! Its exciting, its fast-paced. There are no stupid relationship troubles. This season we have terrorists who have got the President to cave into their demands. The context of the 24 hours is after 11 weeks of terrorist strikes and attacks on the USA. The value of life is decided by a bullet. I am five episodes into the series and I have held my hand over my mouth, aghast at the shock of some situations. Utterly gripped again. Though, I shall add, from all my banter of – is it Snuffy or something – who does the music for West Wing, Sean Calley is better, but not much. The music sounds very cheap on 24. I’ll save the review after watching the sixth series.
Quick note to Al:
Al stated that one frustration of 24 was that it spent 2 minutes at the start of each episode recapping the previous episodes, so that after the 24 episodes of the season, effectively, those 2 minutes would accumulate to – approximately – the same length of an actual episode. fair point …
BUT…
The West Wing doesn’t spend as long recapping episodes – though it does – but has an additional 1 minute of [the most awful, embarrassing, cheap and rubbish] opening credits. So, its probably the same – if not more – time spent on not just recapping (which can be quite handy if you’ve been away or something) but also THE SAME SEQUENCE SHOWING PEOPLES NAMES. Do I need to know Rob Lowe is in ‘The West Wing’ 21 times? 24’s credits last 5 seconds. No ‘Keifer Sutherland is…’. We know who he is… he is Jack Bauer. Brother of Graham Bauer. Son of Phillip Bauer. Husband to the late Teri Bauer (now THAT was a finale), and Father to the stunning Kim Bauer.
Advertisements

13 comments

  1. Let's begin with the general sense that you didn't really give The West Wing (series 1) a fair chance. I would think that your constant anti West Wing pronouncements before even watching it (born of ignorance) influenced your subsequent viewing of it in that you were constantly on the look out for things to take potshots at. I'm not in awe of myself for making this point as it's only a suggestion (and I may have missed the mark completely) but I feel like it's important to appreciate that there's a (albeit slim) chance you didn't approach the show with an entirely clean mind. Just sayin'.

    Pardon me, in what way is politics boring? I'm gonna chuck in the idea that it's a pretty important part of society and that debating ideologies is a vital part of how we shape the world in which we live in. Certainly parts of politics are exceedingly dry but the manner in which it is conducted and the influence that it wields is absolutely vital and dare I say it, can be rather exciting. If you can't get interested in considering where a countries money should be spent, deciding who should have the power to fire nuclear missiles, wondering where it all went wrong or a multitude of other issues then alas, President Bartlett can't really help you.

    Indeed even if someone is politically aware, whose to say they don't want to be (or can't become) more politically aware? Or take a peek into a new political arena from a different perspective? Your sense of black and white grows frankly quite tiresome. At this point I confess to a pathological desire to learn more on a variety of subjects and would venture to suggest that The West Wing can do a little bit toward that goal in an entertaining manner.

    I still don't understand these sitcom or soap comments. It has funny moments. Plenty of good quality dramas do so while I can't prove that it is not a sitcom perhaps you'd like to prove that it is. Equally it has elements of a drama serial but personally I feel the intelligence of the dialogue and complexity of the situation generally differentiates it from Eastenders and Coronation Street. Maybe I'm a snob, but in what way would you say it was the same as those?

    Fundamentally I like it because it is set in the motherfucking White House. This is a hallowed place worthy of our respect (however we feel about politics) and maybe even a bit of dramatic music when tough decisions are made. Here is a President and his staff with a similar ideology to me and they crack jokes, encounter personal problems and reveal a little bit about what it's like to run America. I feel like I've learned something after I've watched forty minutes, but I did particularly enjoy the manner in which you told me that I haven't. Maybe you aren't getting anything enlightening out of it because you're unable to keep up with the pace at which ideas appear and are debated, after all, they do walk awful fast.

  2. On the Sam issue, what's the problem with him embarking on several romantic relationships? He's a good looking fellow and both women offer the opportunity for humour and political debate. His personal and professional life overlap, that's a problem all the staff encounter because they work so damn hard. To be honest it makes me wanna work in such an environment where people are inspired to stay late. And combine fun banter with serious ideals.

    CJ is far more important than her relationship with Danny but again that small point of her character throws up issues of work life versus her romantic life. One thing is for sure, it's a damn tough life.

    Why the hell are you so obsessed with all the character's romantic liaisons? Josh and Mandy is a tiny thing which is important in the episode she is hired and then becomes a point of background tension as the series progresses. And yes, Mandy is very annoying. So it's not a perfect tv show. But I'll get over that.

    Best to switch back to 24, where the world is a far simpler (and surprisingly boring) place.

  3. I shall post a better response in the future but on first reading: 1. 24 being boring. Nuclear bombs, Terrorists, everything 'against-the-clock' … clearly you don't understand the word 'boring'. Which might be the reason you claim politic as not-boring. Because you don't understand the English language. Get a dictionary Dick.

    [Fuck it, THIS is my response]

    Secondly,me not giving West Wing a fair chance as I disliked it before even watching it. fair point, but it shows how you are going for the cheap shot to prove your point. That was your first point of argument! You didn't use it to 'top off' your response, you used it as the FIRST PORT OF CALL. I have a funny feeling that your whole ignorance of my perspective stems from your own foundations of my negative opinion prior to watching. How about I was right before and I am right now – is that not possible. never gone to something you thought would be rubbish adn found out it was great? (Cruel Intentions 2 Jo…) That could have happened – but it didn't this time. get over that fact.

    Thirdly, Politics being boring. Hmmm. The country beg to differ. Thats why more people vote on X-factor than in an election. It might be a 'vital part of society' and 'debating ideologies' might indeed shape the world we live in – but it doesn't suddenly make it less boring. How water is pumped throughout the nations water mains is 'vital to society' and shapes the [country] we live in – but it sure as hell doesn't make it interesting. Water pumps are still boring. West Wing ISN'T boring, but the context itself is – so 'making it exciting' by putting arrogant, smug and good-looking staff in there makes it less realistic, less credible – and ultimately, more like a sitcom. Sitcoms aren't neccessarily boring. (Note – 'X-factor' isn't boring either. but it is shit TV)

    Next point: “a new political arena from a different perspective” – the political arena and perspective you speak of is complete bullshit. The perspective is good-TV-characters rather than realistic, accurate depictions of White House officials (albeit with pace to speed narrative along) and the arena is a not-so-complex White House (If the White House is accurately depcited in West Wing then there are much more serious issues to discuss)

    the last chunk of your 'comment' is about the sitcom and 'obsession with romantic entanglements'. That is the main focus. Yes, it is set in the White House but that doesn't make it credible, realistic or important TV – that simple means it has a bit of Kudos. 'Big Brother:In The White House' would still be shit. The whole sitcom/soap thing is a bit harsh – and isn't entirely true, because the characters are written well – but it doesn't take away from the fact that the stock characters are akin to characters in a sitcom. Upbeat and all with issues regarding relationships. Why are none of them simply married with kids. How often did Bunks homelife affect his job in 'The Wire'? Even 'Life on Mars' had fascinating characters who seemed to be simply content with their attitudes to relationships and life. Toby and Bartlett are the only two – mentioned in the review – who have everything sorted, but they actually are good at their jobs, make the right call and simply represent the viewers.

    I have switched back to 24 and I'm happy to. You have to be careful Jo – this is not a 'simon says its shit', I actually think its alright – what I am not too keen on is the importance people like you put on it. It has it plus points and it is better-than-average TV, but it is hardly great Tv. far from it. Ultimately, you kind of feel that is Aaron Sorkin did not sell-out to WB for a mass-audience, big-money-making, quasi-serious-political-drama-sitcom-type-thing, then it could be something fascinating. But, he did sell out and therefore, it doesn't rank with the best and, in time, it will be forgotten – only put on a plinth for its 'i-heart-politics' badge which was pushed at a time when nobody wanted to be anything to do with American politics, least of all Bush's White House.

  4. For fucks sake. Now I have to respond to your response and then go back to responding to your initial review. Too much responding for my liking.

    Firstly I started with exposing your 'not giving the West Wing a fair chance' because that was the first point you made. It also seems pretty logical to establish why you take all the cheap shots you take before then dismissing the cheap shots you take. So stop taking.

    I found 24 boring. If nuclear bombs, terrorists and against the clock made everything exciting then wouldn't everything use it? It's all about context. The India-Pakistan conflict is more exciting than the entire first series of 24 because of dramatic tension. Jack Bauer gives me action fatigue.

    Again I'm happy to sound like a snob but I'm ashamed that more people vote in the X Factor than elections. To be frank people need to get switched on about the way in which their society is run and less interested in a bunch of piss poor look at me I'm blubbering because it's so very hard to mime and click your fingers at the same time karaoke wannabes. Just my opinion. Note- The X Factor is boring.

    When I said new political arena I meant a political arena we don't get such inside access to. I stand by that. Also I think they depict a pretty complex White House and some interesting characters. In what way would you say that it's not a good representation of the real White House and it's inhabitants? Obama's Chief of Staff has been compared to Josh.

    It is set in a rather spectacular White House and fortunately it has additional elements that make it credible. A great cast, clever writing and interesting debate. This stock characters thing is getting out of hand. In which way are they stock? You could take any character from any programme and say that they display a characteristic from a character from another programme. All characters in all shows are amalgamations of characteristics.

    P to the S. President Bartlett is married with kids. And none of them (especially Toby) have everything sorted.

    Pardon moi? What do I have to be careful of? I don't understand why you take a step forward (its alright) and then two backwards (it is hardly great Tv). What, pray tell, importance have I attached to it? I'm happy to admit that it's not perfect, it has over 20 40 minute episodes a series to do and they ain't all golden. It does occasionally rely on cliffhangers to keep the audience hooked but fortunately they are err on the side of believable and even add something to future events and behaviour. It tackles issues that affect everyone in an intelligent manner with a bit of drama and humour. What's wrong with 'hearting' politics? And some people very much wanted to do something with American politics, that's why Bush was able to win twice. You keep 'hearting' Jack Bauer and it's gonna get you killed.

  5. Given that the argument is finished I just wanted to add a couple of the more important points that I didn't get to talk about before the argument is finished.

    Toby is not perfect. He's actually a very depressing man with a huge cynicism about everything and a very dry sense of humour. He gets angry, sometimes he wins and his personal life is a mess (although that probably comes out more in later series). Also the President does get into moral dilemmas and has to deal with serious turmoil, making tough decisions, that's why he has to be dragged out of making easy middle of the road decisions (to be assured of re-election) and take some chances to try and affect the world (fortunately in ways are largely in correlation with my personal world view). Certainly “I serve at the pleasure at the President” is a pretty cheesy line but I'd almost certainly shoot you in the head just to have the opportunity to even think it. Nice to be in such an awesome environment and then to be able to serve in such a way methinks.

    Maybe it's just me.

  6. Well … I'll shoot you in the head for saying it yourself … [shall I quote The West Wing to finish?] … you “lily-livered, bleeding-heart, liberal, egghead communist”.

    Argument over … Benjamin Button Jo?

  7. woah, this blog post is truly bizarre; and you seem to have some very personal thing against it – and your criticisms of it seem a little insane!

    did aaron sorkin kill a member of your family or something?

    i think the west wing is absolutely and completely wonderful – the only thing i can think of from television that i could call 'genius' and not feel embarassed. it boggles my mind how a show could be so incredible, and it saddens me that you didn't get that from it.

  8. C'mon 'kid! address the points raised! [Note, all insults are always in joking tone … see my responses to Jo…]. Believe me, I have my opinion and, yes, maybe it has a place on TV, but it is in no way as 'highly esteemed' as people claim. Its eat-your-dinner-and-watch televsion – hardly an example of an intelligent TV series – see Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Band of Brothers, etc

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s