With the 2016 Presidential Election approaching, we at the Place to be Nation decided that now would be a great time to go back and look at a television drama that presented an American political landscape that we all could be proud of. Join us month-by-month as we re-watch The West Wing together. Part companion piece, part reflection. Enjoy the show all over again or discover it for the very first time.
September 1999 was a simpler time in America. It was a time before the age of Twitter when every stutter and sneeze of a politician was announced like breaking news. It was a time post-Watergate but pre-9/11 when America still hoped for the best of their leaders and the news out of the White House was all speeches and vetoes. In September of 1999 America was introduced to the fictional administration of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlett (Martin Sheen), an idealized version of real life President Bill Clinton (with all the idealized liberalism and none of the sex scandals.) “The West Wing” aired for an hour every week on NBC, during which we were treated to a look inside the White House, at the moments before and after the moments you see on TV. The speechwriters crafting the State of the Union address, the President meeting with his military advisers deciding whether or not to order an airstrike, the Press Secretary after she realizes a mistake she made during her news briefing…and we all felt like we were a part of the discussion, a part of the inner circle, and a part of making America great.
THE ADMINISTRATION AT THE START OF SEASON ONE
President Josiah Bartlet (NH-D) is the former governor of New Hampshire. He is a liberal Democrat whose governing practices lean towards the middle to appeal to most of America. His family includes First Lady Abigail Bartlet (Stockard Channing) and three daughters including youngest Zoey (Elisabeth Moss), who has just graduated high school and begins to date the President’s African American Personal Aide Charlie Young (Dule Hill). The White House Chief of Staff is Leo McGarry (John Spencer) who brings a lifetime of government experience and long standing friendship with the First Family and must corral a young and determined staff of senior advisers including brash Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), curmudgeonly Communications Director Toby Zeigler (Richard Schiff), his youthful Deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney).
The first season of The West Wing follows a White House in a severe sophomore slump. Approval ratings are dropping as President Bartlet seemingly abandons his liberal base for compromises that end up pleasing no one. Things aren’t much better for his senior staff. Sam Seaborn has a one night stand with a law student in a bar whom he later discovers moonlights as a high priced call girl. Leo McGarry is outed by a Republican congressman for having received treatment for drug and alcohol abuse before coming to the White House. The President himself experiences a potentially disastrous health scare, when a minor case of the flu on the eve of the State of the Union address could exacerbate his in-remission Multiple Sclerosis, a pre-existing condition he kept secret from both his staff and the electorate. New threats surface internationally when India and Pakistan almost exchange nuclear arms over control of a disputed territory, the United States must order an airstrike on Syrian intelligence after the Middle Eastern nation shoots down an American transport helicopter (killing the President’s personal physician in the process), and a covert rescue mission must be staged to rescue an American pilot whose plane is downed in the Iraqi desert. Things begin to turn around for the administration when they win a difficult confirmation battle for new Supreme Court Justice Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos). After repeatedly letting down his staff with difficult decisions, including allowing the federal execution of a dubiously convicted drug kingpin and ignoring an Education Department report to appease Republican congressmen, the President and his staff adopt a new mantra: “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” Approval ratings begin to improve as the new energized White House tackles campaign finance reform and The War on Drugs. After spending a year dealing with every threat and potential disaster, including Cuban refugees, a hurricane, a survivalist standoff with the FBI, internal threats from the Vice President (Tim Matheson) and external scandals for the staff, just as things are looking up, a pair of neo-Nazi gunmen open fire on the President as he leaves a public event, ending the season in shocking cliffhanger fashion.
The “Pilot” is naturally required viewing, as it would be for any show, introducing the cast and the types of situations they will deal with daily at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (including a boatload of Cuban refugees seeking asylum in Florida and calls for Josh to be fired after making controversial remarks on a television news program). “The Crackpots and These Women” has some great comedic moments including the introduction of the legendary “big block of cheese day.” “Mr. Willis of Ohio” includes a nice look into the staff’s negotiations with Congress culminating with an incident which shows why it’s not always easy being a member of the First Family. “The State Dinner” is an extremely well written episode wherein a number of situations threaten to derail a state dinner for the President of Indonesia. “In Excelsis Deo” begins a string of outstanding Christmas themed episodes while “Celestial Navigation” shows off more of the show’s comedic side and also gives writer Aaron Sorkin a chance to show off a different storytelling style. Everything culminates in the breathtaking final seconds of the season finale, “What Kind of Day Has It Been.”
The beauty of the early seasons of this show is that there are no truly “bad” episodes. There are certainly cringe-worthy moments in “The White House Pro-Am” and there is a bit of clunkiness in the second two episodes of the season: “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” and “A Proportional Response” but this is more because the characters aren’t fully fleshed out into the forms they would eventually take. I don’t hate the character of political strategist Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) as much as many fans but there is a reason she hasn’t been mentioned before and won’t be mentioned again – all of her scenes are skippable.
The first season of the show is an outstanding piece of television drama. Balancing the extremely sharp dialogue that is a hallmark of writer and creator Aaron Sorkin with outstanding drama and more than a little comedy, season one is a joy to watch from start to finish. Extremely bingeable, I have no doubt that you will fall in love with the characters and style of the show. The show ages remarkably well…although there are some moments here in season one that do show some age, notably when any kind of gay rights issues come up or when characters remind us that “tech stocks” were once a bubble that hadn’t yet burst. There is also an extremely laughable moment when Sam’s one night tryst and subsequent friendship with a prostitute turns into a scandal…a scandal that the White House has time to combat because a photo of them together runs first in a London tabloid and doesn’t appear in American newspapers until the next day. Yes, this was a world before the majority of people got their news on the internet, let alone saw the picture on Twitter only moments after it was taken. It’s also intriguing from a sociopolitical perspective to see the kinds of things people were concerned about in the pre-9/11 world: namely flag burning (an issue that must have even been passé by 2000, because President Bartlet makes a joke about it). It is also crazy to think that when the writers needed to create a plausible scenario for countries on the brink of nuclear war, the Indian subcontinent was the area of the world they centered on, not the Middle East.
The final moments of the season, with gunmen opening fire on the President and his staff, has to rank up there with some of TV’s all time greatest cliffhangers…you can have your “who shot JR?” and your “I Ross, take thee Rachel” but I’ll take “who’s been hit…who’s been hit!?!” any day of the week.
Join us again next month when we will examine season two of the show, which was at the time the single greatest season of television drama ever.