I am a political nerd. Everything concerning American politics interests me. No wonder then that this show had me glued to the TV set. I’ve tried to be objective, but can only come to the conclusion that it is brilliant. Here’s why.
When Aaron Sorkin wrote the script for the film The American President (1995), he came up with the idea of creating a TV show depicting every aspect of a presidency. A few years later, when it was launched on NBC, the man who played the chief of staff in the movie, Martin Sheen, was hired as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. He was a genuine liberal who had served as governor of New Hampshire and also won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. A bona fide intellectual, he still managed to win the presidency. He had a first-rate team in the White House led by his good friend, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer). He was aided by the eager Deputy Chief of Staff (Bradley Whitford), the cynical Communications Director (Richard Schiff), the womanizing Deputy Communications Director (Rob Lowe) and the clever Press Secretary (Allison Janney).
They were the core of the show, expertly delivering their fast, bright and funny lines as they were “walking and talking” in the West Wing of the White House, in the manner invented by Sorkin and the director, Thomas Schlamme.
It was awe-inspiring to witness how credible and involving the work of the President’s staff seemed to be, but some critics were not too happy about the show’s left-leaning politics. This was definitely a Democratic administration, functioning as a desirable alternative to the disastrous Bush presidency. Well, Sorkin had to pick a party or this wouldn’t have been believable. He closely followed current events and challenged his fictional administration; for instance, President Bartlet was close to being impeached for lying about his health, and viewers were inspired to ponder whether he had done the right thing or not. There would be other such occasions.
Reinventing the show
When Sorkin eventually left the show, John Wells took over the reins and after a season or two he did the impossible. He virtually reinvented the show, preparing for what would come after Bartlet. As Sheen’s character diminished in importance near the end of his two terms, the Democrats chose Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) as their next candidate and the Republicans chose Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) as theirs. The final season followed these two candidates; they were intelligent and likeable and viewers didn’t know which one would win until near the end of the show. This was an attempt to be neutral… but Arnold Vinick was nevertheless portrayed as far too liberal to win a Republican nomination in real life. It was as if the writers couldn’t help themselves.
Sorkin wasn’t perfect either. The special episode he wrote after 9/11 received much criticism for being sermonic. The cast, however, was flawless. Sheen really grew into the part of the patriarchal President, and so did Spencer who sadly died in the final season from a heart attack… after his character suffered one at the end of the previous season. My favorite was Whitford who always brought a lot of humor to his part. Janney was also a tremendous strength, and very convincing, as her character rose to power in the Bartlet administration.
In the end, the ratings killed the show, but perhaps the time was right. Conservatives have political reasons to dislike The West Wing. But even they must admit that a side had to be taken and that a presidential administration could not have been portrayed in a better way.
The West Wing 1999-2006:U.S. Made for TV. 155 episodes. Color. Created by Aaron Sorkin. Theme: W.G. ”Snuffy” Walden. Cast: Martin Sheen (Josiah Bartlet), Jimmy Smits (Matt Santos 04-06), Alan Alda (Arnold Vinick 04-06), John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Alison Janney, Rob Lowe (99-03), Stockard Channing, Janel Moloney, Dulé Hill, Joshua Malina (02-06), Mary McCormack (04-06), Kristin Chenoweth (04-06).
Emmys: Outstanding Drama Series 99-00, 00-01, 01-02, 02-03; Directing 99-00, 00-01, 02-03; Writing 99-00; Actress (Janney) 01-02, 03-04; Supporting Actor (Schiff) 99-00, (Whitford) 00-01, (Spencer) 01-02), (Alda) 05-06; Supporting Actress (Janney) 99-00, 00-01, (Channing) 01-02. Golden Globes: Best Drama Series 01; Actor (Sheen) 01.
Quote: “It’s not like I’m totally without experience. You’re talking to a former governor. I was the Commander in Chief of the New Hampshire National Guard. We’d just stand on the border and stare you down. The we’d all go for pancakes.” (President Sheen, on his military experience)
Last word: “There is tremendous drama to be gotten from the great, what you would say, heavy issues. There’s also drama to be gotten from issues that most people would consider very dry and wouldn’t want to pay any attention to. Those are the fields you’re going to plant. Certainly, last year we did an episode about the census and sampling versus a direct statistic. You just said the word ‘census’, and people fall asleep. It’s a questionnaire. It turns out it’s terribly important. There is a genuine issue there with two sides who disagree fairly passionately on it. Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, the time of day, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I look for.” (Sorkin in a 2000 interview, PBS)