West Winged

The Thinker by Rodin

Okay, so the TV show The West Wing has been on for seven years and I never watched a single episode. That was my loss, apparently. On the other hand, I did not have the patience to make a commitment for a one-hour slice of my time at the same time every week. My life was too asymmetrical. While I own a VCR, it is a pain to program. The Tivo did not even exist in 1999, when this series first went on the air. In addition, I totally loathe commercials. These are just some of the many reasons that I missed not just The West Wing, but virtually all television series in the last ten years. After all, who need television?

However, I have no objection to watching DVDs of recommended TV shows in my spare time, I just do not normally bother. Even so, I probably would have given The West Wing a pass had not I been out in Boulder a couple weeks ago and sat down to watch an episode with my brother Tom. Before I could protest, the set of DVDs for the first season was in my suitcase.

I was unsure if I was ready for The West Wing. I am, after all, a Washingtonian. Consequently, politics is in my face 24/7. I did not need more politics, particularly politics that were entirely fictional. As you know, I often talk about politics in my blog. That, plus reading political blogs, The Washington Post and the incessant political discussions at the office water coolers usually makes me want to escape politics in whatever free time I have left. Nevertheless, since I had the DVDs and my wife was too busy watching episodes of Stargate Atlantis online to give me much quality time, I succumbed. I slipped that first disc into my DVD player.

Here is what I expected of The West Wing: a wonkish, unrealistic and glorified depiction of life inside the White House. It would be full of the types of people I unfortunately know too well from over twenty years in the civil service. There would be lots of guys in suits having important meetings about things most Americans could care less about, like a national energy policy. In short, I assumed it would be of interest to those who lived within fifty miles of Washington D.C. or who were political junkies and nobody else. I did not think these limited demographics could work for television.

Well yeah, it is full of wonkish and very senior staff members to the president in nice suits who work very long hours and get very concerned about things like a national energy policy. What I did not expect was that the series would be so exquisitely well done, so excellently cast, so well written and full of such high production values. I do not know how much the producers spent on average per episode, but it must be a ton of money. Just the cost of keeping a cast of thirty or so (when you include all the ancillary characters that had to show up every week) fully employed must have made NBC cringe.

Since at this point, I have only made it through the first troubled year of the Bartlet Administration, the vast majority of the show remains to be explored. I do not know if the series will have the same kind of magnetic pull that other series have had on me, like Josh Whedon’s Firefly series. I do though have to grudgingly admit based on the first year that it is a darn good series. If I can resist its allure, it will only be with some sustained effort.

I do have a few observations on the show (based on watching the first season only), that may be of interest to the few of you out there who have not seen the show. While I have never been in the White House, I suspect it does fairly accurately depict its environment. The show had former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers (1992-1994) as a consultant. Clearly, the producers got their money’s worth from her. What I did not expect was how well the show would be cast. It is hard to find anyone in the cast who is not wholly convincing. I know that most of the show was shot on a set in Los Angeles, but the White House is so intricately realized that I simply cannot tell. I fully suspended disbelief.

The producers, perhaps to spice up the show, create relationships that are at times annoying and implausible. For example, the relationship between Josh Lymon (Deputy Chief of Staff) and his secretary Donna Moss is a bit too cute and at times grating. Moreover, some of the relationships that develop serve to give the plots some spice, but are unlikely to happen in real life. These include Press Secretary C. J. Cregg’s developing fling with Washington Post White House reporter Danny Concannon, and the relationship between Charlie Young (the president’s personal aide, who also happens to be African American) and the president’s daughter Zoe.

However, I am not a Hollywood producer. It was probably a good call to add these many multilayered relationships because without them discussions on energy policy probably would get a little too dry. Anyhow, the show has real synergy and plausibility. Each character seems very comfortable in their complex and multifaceted roles. Perhaps this is why the show excels. Those of us who work for government know just how multifaceted government truly is.

The show actually makes me feel a bit wistful. It was not that long ago that you respected the person who held the office of president. You knew presidents were not empty suits, but people of substance who could fully handle the complexities of the job. In my mind no one was better at it that Bill Clinton. Josh Bartlet appears to model the best aspects of Bill Clinton without many of his worst aspects. It is a credit to the show’s producers though that Martin Sheen as the president does not overwhelm the show. It is in exposing the lives of those behind the throne where the show shines brightest.

The producers, writers and directors of The West Wing pull it all together. This is television where the production qualities are so high that the shows seem too good for television. If the first season is any guide, you can expect every episode to rate 9 out of 10. However, a couple episodes per season will just knock you for a loop. The episodes “In Excelsis Deo” and “Take this Sabbath Day” qualify as some of the best television I have ever seen. This makes me wonder how long I can avoid succumbing to watching subsequent seasons.

I am not surprised that the show has won so many Tony Awards. I am sure they were well deserved. I abandoned television because my life got too busy, but also because TV had again become a vast wasteland again. Perhaps it is time to turn on my TV again. Shows like The West Wing and the brief but greatly lamented series Firefly give me hope.

One thought on “West Winged

  1. I’m also TV unincumbered altho I’ve managed to steal a few Sunday evenings at friends and watch West Wing a few times in reruns. When I finally figured out that my XP would play DVDs this year West Wing was one of the first shows I rented.

    The experience of watching a whole season, episode after episode, in three or four sittings is radically different than what you get when you have to endure a whole week between cliffhangers. While you do get to cut fifteen minutes of commercials out of each “hour” you also lose than building suspension, that “second thoughts” reflection between episodes in which a good producer/writer will build into an evening soap opera format like West Wing.

    The other thing to remember about watching a whole show, season by season, (I’m renting season two this weekend) is that quality of a show is going to change with time. The quality of the show, according to most critics, hit a pothole in the fourth and fifth seasons–about the same time producer Aaron Sorkin got off the coke. Individual tastes may vary of course. But my friends who are fans say the show is dying about a season too late.

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