Much like Battlestar Galactica, The West Wing is yet another show that I avoided watching for years. Every time I heard people talk about it or saw it win an Emmy or Golden Globe Award, I would be completely frustrated and annoyed. I just didn't understand how a show about politics starring a bunch of "older people" (they were old to me at the time) could be interesting. Now, in my defense, the show is not exactly aimed to capture the attention of a teenager, but it wasn't until about two years ago that I began to watch it. And then, I couldn't wait to get home every day just so I could spend some time with my "friends" on the show.
I chose The West Wing for this this week's "Marathon to Start" for two reasons. First of all, here in the U.S. we are knee-deep in a presidential election year; no matter what your level of political activism or interest, we all have a big decision to make in November, so it is a good time to watch a show that deals with the process and gives a glimpse (while not completely accurate) into the life of the President of the United States and the staff who surrounds him. Secondly, Aaron Sorkin's new show The Newsroom begins on Sunday night, and while we have yet to know if it will be great or not, it made me want to spend a little time watching the show that up until now has been his best drama. I know this may be a controversial show, because no matter what, anything Aaron Sorkin writes, will probably have a liberal bend, so I hope that I don't offend anyone, because I do believe (and hope?) that no matter what side of the aisle you fall on, there is something in it for you. Although it gives a pretty intense look into politics, the really amazing thing about the show is the writing and the level of humanity and realistic way all of the characters are written and portrayed.
However, before I begin, I must admit something. While I truly do love all of the series that I watched, I never got past season 5. In fact, it was halfway through that season that I shut it off and still have yet to return. One of the biggest reasons for this could be that after Season 4, Aaron Sorkin – who had written almost every single episode of the series, left as a writer and an Executive Producer. And his absence could be felt. The dialogue was just a touch less witty, the characters not quite as well developed and there was just an overall difference in the show. I think I also knew a little too much about what was coming in regards to the Presidency (I'm trying not to spoil anything, but if you know and have heard anything about the casting of the show, you will know what I speak of) and I didn't want to go there. I wanted The White House as I loved it. On the other hand, my desire to not watch the last few seasons should do nothing to distract you from watching, because no matter how much you watch, it is worth every moment of your time that you do.
Now that I have up-front stated some of the things that aren't as great, let me get to what makes this one of the best dramas in television history. The show follows the story of the fictional President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and the day-to-day life of his staff as they navigate their way through the political process. The particular stories range from a daily news brief, to the hardships of the relationship between the President and the First Lady, to what it is like to go through a Presidential campaign and re-election process, to dealing with PTSD after a traumatic even. When looking at the whole scope of the show, there is really no part of our government that is off limits and not explored in some fashion.
This is especially interesting, because whether we realize it or not, the workings of the White House is something that affects us every day. Decisions are made that affect our lives, and yet, unless you happen to be a major history and/or government buff (or involved in the process), I would venture to guess you probably don't really know what happens there or how it works. I had no clue…and then I watched this show. Don't get me wrong, it is a fictional show and should never be taken as completely accurate, but it does a pretty good job of portraying how things happen in our political system. For example, I really had no idea how the White House Press team works or what the Press Secretary actually did. After watching C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) step into the Press Room every day and every time a big event happened, I now understand what this position does and how most of the information coming from the White House is disseminated, and most importantly, how much discussion goes into how a particular statement or issue is going to be "spun" into something that looks best for the Presidency. That is just one example. Throughout the series you get so many more as you also get a detailed look at the life of the First Lady (Stockard Channing), Chief of Staff (John Spencer) , Deputy Chief of Staff (Bradley Whitford), Communications Director (Richard Schiff), Deputy Communications Director (Rob Lowe), and all the aides that make their lives run better.
Beyond the political aspects, and possibly most importantly, The West Wing is a show you should watch because it contains such well-executed elements that come together and make a great television show. First of all, there is nothing else you can call the acting but phenomenal. Between Emmys and Golden Globes of both the Lead and Supporting Cast, the show won a total of 9 awards. And that does not include the 11 times cast members were nominated without winning. When you watch the show, I think you understand why. It is because the actors portray the characters in such a believable way and you do not for a moment think you are watching actors; it feels more like watching a reality show. In fact, (yet again) I'm not sure that I can pick out my favorite character. When Rob Lowe left the show I really felt the lack of his presence— more because it felt like he was kicked out of "the club" and I wanted all the original members to remain together. Part of this has to do with the acting, but it also has to do with the brilliant writing and how they truly develop and form relationships in a way that is true to life. Characters are never "thrown together" for the sake of creating a love story, but it takes episodes and seasons to develop, much in a way a real relationship would. And while half the time they are bickering and annoyed with each other (as can happen with any group of people who works closely together in an office), the whole gang truly pulls together and you can see the love and respect present between each character when it is appropriate.
In addition to the great acting and showing a glimpse into politics, The West Wing literally created a new cinematic technique called the "Walk-and-Talk". While there are definitely big events that happen, the show is primarily based on a lot of discussion. This means there isn't necessarily that much action, which could have made it an extremely difficult show to keep visually interesting and stimulating. And that, my friends, is why they created the Walk-and-Talk . Rather than have the actors standing around and sitting, the camera follows them with a Steadicam tracking shot through the White House and down hallways. In fact, oftentimes one character drops out and another steps in to continue the shot and conversation without missing a beat.
See one of the longest examples of the Walk-and-Talk style:
And, for all of you fans, a pretty funny recent Funny or Die video in which much of the cast reunites for a Walk-and-Talk "campaign" here.
Now, the bad part of this recommendation is that the series is not available on Netflix Instant, however, I must say, I believe it is one of the few series that is truly worth the extra money for a couple of months of DVDs to be able to see it. I'm not kidding. If you are anything like me, you will find yourself occasionally standing up, applauding and giving the television a standing ovation while alone in your living room. Anything that can garner that reaction is some good television that should be seen by as many people as possible. And, after taking a moment to look back at the series, all I can say is I don't even know if I would agree with his politics, but I really just wish I could vote for Martin Sheen to be President this fall.