I am a political nerd. Everything concerning American politics interests me. No wonder then that this show had me glued to the TV set. The West Wing arrived at the end of a two-term Democratic presidency – and the end of network dominance in television.
A true-blooded liberal
When writing the script for the film The American President (1995), Aaron Sorkin came up with the idea of creating a TV show that really covered every aspect of a presidency. A few years later when The West Wing launched on NBC, Martin Sheen, the actor who played the chief of staff in The American President, was hired as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. He was a true-blooded 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), and aided by an eager deputy chief of staff (Bradley Whitford), a cynical communications director (Richard Schiff), a womanizing deputy communications director (Rob Lowe) and a clever press secretary (Allison Janney).
These people were the core of the show, breathing additional life into Sorkin’s bright, funny dialogue in rapid manner as they were “walking and talking” in the West Wing of the White House, in a manner perfected by Sorkin and the director, Thomas Schlamme.
Watching how credible and involving the work of the President’s staff seemed to be was inspiring, but there were always those who were not too happy about the show’s left-leaning politics. This was definitely a Democratic administration, functioning as a desirable alternative to a Bush presidency that forced the Iraq War on America. Sorkin picking a party would always be more worthwhile than a neutral approach. 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 plenty of other crises for audiences to chew on.
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 West Wing, 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 in all honesty, Arnold Vinick was far too liberal to win a Republican nomination in real life. It was as if the writers couldn’t help themselves.
Hey, there were times when even Sorkin made our eyes roll; the special episode he wrote after 9/11 was lambasted as 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 had suffered one at the end of the previous season. My favorite was Whitford who always brought a laidback sense of humor to his part. Janney was also a force of nature, and very convincing as her character rose to power in the Bartlet administration.
When the end came perhaps the time was right. Cable shows and and streaming services were on the rise. Conservatives had political reasons to dislike The West Wing. But even they had to admit that a presidential administration could not have been portrayed in a more effective 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)