Vintage TV Review: The West Wing

As the world watches another US Presidential election unfold – on TV, in the papers and yes, even on Twitter – I thought it would be appropriate to review the show that is the reason why I know Ohio is so important. Why I could explain what electoral votes meant to a friend the other day. And why I actually pay just as much attention to this election as I do to our own. Yes – there can only be one show. The West Wing.

I still vividly remember watching the ads for the show on my tidy 14 inch TV in my tiny flat in Thorndon back in 2001 (in the days when shows took months rather than hours to make it to NZ). It didn’t take much to convince me this was a show I needed to watch. Politics, snappy dialogue and some good looking men (Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford)? Sign me up. But I don’t think I really expected it to become such a huge influence on me.

So, what was so great about it – I hear you crazy West Wing virgins ask. So so much. But I have, with some difficulty and a lot of indecision, whittled it down to the big five BEST THINGS ABOUT THE WEST WING

  1. Best dialogue of any show, ever: I have spoken before about the show’s writer/creator Aaron Sorkin’s amazing skill with dialogue. Not only did this show introduce incredible ‘walk and talk’ sequences, but it also reached a level of rhythm and oratory that I have seldom seen since. Sure, it could be criticised for being unrealistic – surely people don’t come up with witty quips that quickly – but it is a joy to watch. And rewatch.
  2. Characters you want to be mates with: In the same way that Friends created a group of people everyone felt they knew, The West Wing’s ensemble group of well-drawn and three dimensional staffers are some of the most interesting ever created. Their individual quirks, back stories, relationships and drivers seldom felt forced or unnecessary – they were all used perfectly to augment the on-going plots and sub-plots. And that goes for the supporting cast also – people like Alan Alda, Stockard Channing and Mary-Louise Parker provided excellent back up for a fantastic core crew.  In the ‘who – living or imaginary – would you like to have dinner with’ – it would be for me the staff of Jed Barlet’s West Wing.
  3. It’s a smart show for a smart audience: this show didn’t do what so many other American shows so blatantly do – pander to a lowest common denominator audience. It assumed a level of intellect and knowledge that would mean you could keep up – but not in such a way that would put people off. I remember watching entire episodes where a piece of legislation or an issue was debated that I knew nothing about – I would have to google afterwards to find out what it was. But it didn’t matter – the show was compelling regardless – and it broadened my knowledge of politics – both international and American – to no extent. So thank you Aaron Sorkin – I feel like I got a Politics degree without having to study 😉
  4. Relationships that were organic and made sense: many shows try to shoe-horn in a romantic relationship to keep audiences interested. Here the relationships never felt rushed. They were either established – like the President and First Lady – or developed very slowly over time – like Josh and Donna, and CJ and Danny. As a regular watcher it was a great reward to eventually see these relationships bear fruit, and it never felt like they were being dragged out just for the sake of it. A lesson for all screenwriters – make your romance believable, compelling and organic 🙂
  5. It is one of the funniest shows I have ever seen: I swear, The West Wing contains more laugh out loud lines and sequences than most ‘comedies’ on TV today (excluding maybe Parks & Recreation and Community…maybe). Politics can be funny, you ask? It damn well can when put in the right hands. Again, Sorkin’s dialogue was key here – with quick fire banter, word play and the all-important pause being key to his laughs. It is hard to come up with my favourite laugh out loud moments, but CJ’s root canal, Toby’s ‘you wanna tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing’, and Josh’s…well, Josh doing pretty much anything…have to be right up there. I dare you not to laugh at least three times an episode, even the ‘serious’ ones.

So there is the top five of my reasons why, if you haven’t already, you should procure, in any way possible, Season 1 of The West Wing (I am confident after watching that Seasons 2-7 will shortly follow). And you really should. The show won a total of 27 Emmy Awards over its life, including nine its first year. A massive number of critics list it in their top ten shows ever lists. And, as Josh would say, ‘trust me. Trust my face’ (to be honest, I am not sure he ever said that – but it is something he would TOTALLY say). 5 multi-coloured and super-chocately M&Ms for the BEST TV SHOW EVER.

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