Is the West Wing—
the greatest TV series ever made?

 

When I first considered a series of articles celebrating ‘TV series I have loved’ I imagined some readers revisiting beloved episodes through the recollections of others, debate (no THIS moment was the most moving/ uplifting/etc), underpinned with a comforting nod to nostalgia (did we watch this in that flat just round the corner from the greengrocer which never had any broccoli…?)

While other readers are perhaps spurred on by the conviction of the memoirists to watch something wonderful for the first time. Beware though – there are spoilers in all of these pieces.

I’ve watched West Wing – our first series - back to back I think three times now, alongside the countless episodes I’ve happened upon for just a few minutes, still to be perched on the edge of the sofa 40 minutes later (if I don’t sit down comfortably it doesn’t really count). Clips on Youtube offer excellent distraction. Essay or work deadline calling? Heartache? Top ten President Bartlet moments seem a more wholesome and justifiable distraction than five minutes scrolling through some social media noise.

I’m (re-re-re) watching the boxset with my daughter. One of the very best things about having older children is revisiting cultural moments – great films and albums – through them. Scant comfort for the slamming of doors, staying up late to collect them from parties and bowls of hardening cereal strewn across their room – but still, we must take our comfort where we find it.

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So we watch it together. Our favourite character is CJ, White House Press Secretary – a powerful woman has extra resonance watching it with a smart 15 year old almost-woman figuring out where she fits in the world. CJ owns every scene she’s in (there are too few women and there are too many white people in WW, but it is still pretty rare to have such a prominent, strong woman who isn’t ‘saved' by anyone, and I’ll take that for now). So CJ: we love her for all the times she loses her shit at Josh, or post dental work (“I had WOOT canal”), or when she completely corpses upon meeting Marion Coatesworth-Hay of Marblehead (it’s the best, most hilarious, most inappropriate total loss of control I’ve seen and worth 4 minutes 17 seconds of your time.). And for her fury in ‘the Women of Kumar’ and when Bartlet asks her to “jump off a cliff” for him (if you know, you’ll know. And if not, wait ‘til you get there.)

Each of our writers shares the episode they have loved the most, and why they loved it. It’s a warm, nostalgic read and I hope you enjoy it.

Note - there are links to scenes mentioned scattered through the text so you can get fully involved if you’re so inclined.

 

“Two Cathedrals”

Given the state of current affairs today and the inexorable descent into a Mad Max- dystopian nightmare of Brexit and Trump, watching The West Wing provides a much needed escape - a warm and fuzzy liberal safety blanket.

The end of season two is the culmination of a long-running reveal about the President’s MS and subsequent announcement to the public. We see Bartlet consider whether he should run for re-election. It’s that decision which is the focus of this episode.

Two Cathedrals was my favourite long before our current political upheaval. It harks back to what now feels like a naïve time, in which we’d expect a world leader to actively tussle and work through moral dilemmas, whilst acknowledging they are only human. Bartlet revisits his early memories of meeting his executive secretary Mrs Landingham when she worked at his school, when she called him “the boy king” and how he was “blessed with inspiration”, explaining what has driven him to be the man that he is and whom we have all fallen in love with over the past two seasons.

In this episode, Mrs Landingham is killed by a drunk driver, returning from buying a new car. Jed Barlet is destroyed. In the cathedral after her funeral Martin Sheen gives the performance of his life as he a experiences a crisis of faith brought on by his grief at losing her. He curses God in Latin, lights a cigarette and stubs it out on the floor, angrily declaring he won’t run for re-election – “You get Hoynes”. Later in the Oval Office, he has a vision of Mrs Landingham, who tells him that if he doesn’t run for re-election because he thinks it’s too hard, she doesn’t even want to know him. And then. after we’ve shared his painful journey to a place of resolve, we walk with him and the team to the press conference where he will announce his decision.

The moral fibre in episodes like this leaves you feeling like you’ve eaten your Weetabix. The balance of the President’s own ego against his need to do right by the American people makes me wonder if Cameron and May have ever questioned the morality of Brexit and asked what is right for the people and not just their party. The masochistic game of Russian roulette bringing us us closer to a No Deal Brexit is selfish posturing that will drive our nation over a cliff where those most vulnerable will suffer the worst.

Yes, The West Wing is a liberal fantasy land where we’re the good guys and the Conservatives are the bad guys. But in today’s climate, I’m all for climbing back into my liberal safety blanket, drawing the curtains and watching endless West Wing reruns until it’s safe to come out.

by Meena Raman

“Game On”

The West Wing is my favourite TV show of all time - I.D.S.T., as I might have written on a pencil case in 1999, the year it premiered.

And my favourite episode? That’s easy. Easy-ish. OK, it’s like choosing between my children. But I’ve plumped for Game On, a.k.a. series 4 episode 6. Why? Well, for the high-minded political idealism, the walk and talks that launched a thousand gifs, some top bants at Toby’s expense and more.

Game On opens with Bartlet facing a high-profile television debate with Governor Ritchie, a Texan with a knack for a memorable soundbite. As part of the prep, the President’s inner circle have been paring the President’s lengthy answers down, aiming for just 10 words. Given the President’s tendency to overcomplicate matters, it’s a way of making things simpler; but also of pre-empting the critics who complain again and again that Bartlet is just “too smart”.

Where Jed Bartlet likes to complicate things, however, Aaron Sorkin keeps them simple. Ritchie is chalk to Bartlet’s cheese. Their political colours, physical appearance, word choice and delivery are textbook WW polarisation; they simply couldn’t be more different. Kids don’t need to learn “Esperanto” or “Eskimo poetry”, says Ritchie; Bartlet insists that public schools “are going to be cathedrals”.

Doesn’t this sound...familiar? Watching it again recently, I couldn’t help but think of the real-life 2016 presidential campaign and those hideous TV debates in which a bullying, incoherent, sniffing - what was it with the sniffing? - Trump repeatedly interrupted a woman whose greatest crime, according to the right-wing press, was having prepared. "I think Donald just criticised me for preparing for this debate. And yes, I did," Clinton said in one of the snappiest comebacks of the whole sorry spectacle. "And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president." But we all know how the story ends: empty soundbites about walls and jihad and crooks overriding substance, integrity and experience.

Yet in TV-land, the outcome is less WTF? and more TFFT (thank f*ck for that, for the curious). Bartlet annihilates Ritchie on the role of the federal government, education and taxes. He’s brilliant; a reasoned, informed and yes, smart, voice exposing the holes in Ritchie’s arguments. Shining liberal one-liner follows one-liner; the team watch open-mouthed. And when Bartlet demands “Give me the next ten words...give me the ten after that” and Ritchie is finally silenced, backstage is all fist-pumps and sporting metaphors.

Bartlet’s triumph is a victory for nuance, for complexity. He proves that there’s more to a compelling argument - and to policy and legislation, for that matter - than a catchy slogan. CJ puts it best, of course: the President shows us that “complexity isn’t a vice”.

Yes, it’s schmaltzy and smug. Yes, it’s a little problematic in places (the resounding clap as Bartlet slaps Abby’s backside en route to the stage?), but I’m going to say it anyway: The West Wing gives me hope. So sue me. Maybe one day in this great revolving political cycle there’ll come a time when we rank smart over soundbite once again.

by Laura McDonagh

 

“Shibboleth”

Many devotees agree season two of the West Wing is the best season. I must have first watched it sometime in 2003. Two years after 9/11 and George Bush Jnr was in the White House. Tony Blair had followed his lead taking the UK into a second war with Iraq, the beginning of the end of his premiership. The portrayal of a thoughtful, deeply intelligent, progressive leader in the White House surrounded by passionate, brilliant, funny, (if unruly) staff who could GET THINGS DONE was inspiring. It made us feel like we could do that too. About of a third of the way through this season, the beautifully crafted “Shibboleth” is stand-out brilliant.

It’s Thanksgiving. CJ is grumpy that despite her Master’s degree from Berkeley, she is presiding over the pantomime of the presidential pardoning of a turkey. Jed, who is very particular about most things, knives included, has tasked Charlie to find him a new Thanksgiving carving knife. Toby, itching for a fight on school prayer, wants to appoint Leo’s sister as Assistant Secretary for Primary and Secondary Education. Although highly qualified, Dr Josephine McGarry, is a controversial choice due to her insistence on enforcing the law banning organised prayer in schools – a law that 70% of the country oppose.

Against this backdrop, a container ship “The Horizon” is stopped off the California coast carrying 83 Chinese men, women and children and the bodies of 13 others who died along the way. When they are captured, they claim to be persecuted Christians seeking religious asylum. This places the team in a seemingly impossible position between the vocal evangelical church presses for the refugees to be welcomed, the Chinese Government (who must be kept on-side) denies they were persecuted and insist they left the county illegally, and should be returned, and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, who are holding them in a detention centre and are cautious about illegal immigrants who sometimes “feign faith”. Ultimately Jed calls a representative of the Chinese group to meet him in the oval office to test for himself the voracity of their claim.

I won’t spoil it for you by saying exactly what happens, but I will say that on my first watching of this episode I loved it most for the skilled writing which sees a plot spin on a single word. Like the “Rolo Tomasi” moment in LA Confidential, hearing that one word makes your stomach flip and your heart race. It was a such a joyous moment that 15 years later, when asked to write about my favourite WW episode, it immediately sprang to mind.

Re-watching it now, I see it through a different lens. I am more worldly-wise, more cynical, and more depressed about the state of the world. The current real-life resident of the White House makes George Bush Jnr an eloquent statesman by comparison. It’s no longer a heart-warming, motivational piece of theatre. It’s as fantastical and escapist as the “Designated Survivor” White House - so far out of reach.

It’s still rewarding though. I notice more the elegance of the school-prayer sub-plot – reinforcing the message of the main story line – that tackling the tension every progressive country faces; between allowing its citizens to freely practice their faith while protecting the rights of each faith group from the over-bearance of others – even through unpopular laws – is hard.

The language used as the episode progresses is also poignant. At first the Chinese are “stow-aways”, then “detainees” and “immigrants”. Gradually they start to become “refugees”. I wonder what words the writers would choose now, in a country polarised between the “dreamers” and “rapists, terrorists and criminals” who seek a new life in the “land of the free”.

As the episode closes, and Jed practices his Thanksgiving proclamation, the impact and relevance of his words are not lost on him, nor on us. “Well over three and half centuries ago, strengthened by faith and bound by a common desire for liberty, a small band of pilgrims sought out a place in the new world where they could worship according to their own beliefs…. As he steps into the Rose Garden to deliver these words, he reflects to Josh, “We can be the world’s policeman, the world’s factory, the world’s farm. What does it mean if we are not also…”. He doesn’t finish the sentence, perhaps because the writers could not find a word to place there which does not sound trite, but we know what he means.

by Katharine Purser

“The Supremes”

I love the West Wing, though of course it isn’t perfect. It is often sanctimonious. The cast is far from diverse. Its politics occasionally the opposite of progressive (Isaac and Ishmael, made in response to September 11, is a real low point and if you’re new to the series, I strongly advise you to skip it). It has a frequent tendency towards the mawkish. It’s easy to fetishize the Sorkin-smarts of the characters, their easy camaraderie, their earnestness.

Regardless, the West Wing remains fresh. Actually I’d be delighted if it felt as old-fashioned as a Bratpack movie or Friends. Because that would mean that politics has changed. Instead President Jed Bartlet and his tireless disciples offer a version – progressive, smart, listening – which in this climate seems unimaginable and has a gravitational appeal.

But – as brilliant as the writing can be, as moving as the enactment of liberal values, as funny as the most flippant scenes – that’s not why I love this series. I love it because of hope.

In The Supremes (S5, E17) – and it’s just one of many, many episodes I could have chosen – Bartlet and co have the opportunity to fill two places on the Supreme Court. Appointing Justice Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close), the ultimate Sorkin-fantasy – a formidable, obdurate, cerebral Democrat woman who shuns the opportunity to hide an abortion – makes my heart swell.

But it isn’t just the appointment of a no-bullshit woman to the most senior and powerful position in the American Judiciary which offers hope. It’s how they appoint her.

The team grapple with what is now a disappointing metaphor for our political age – the tension between substance, integrity, values and passion (and the problematic cult of the individual) and dulled compromise.

Rather than middle-ground candidates, they appoint BOTH liberal Justice Lang and a deeply conservative Judge. They satisfy political arbiters and more importantly create a space for difference, listening, meaningful debate and negotiation. It also admits the idea that we might not always be right.

I know I sound naïve: a belief in hope and the potential for change is often a humiliating space to occupy. But this narrative - that optimism is a childish political want - is perpetuated by people who benefit from the status quo.

Hope and optimism are central to change.

Sociologist Max Weber wrote in 1919 about charismatic authority, legitimised by personal abilities which inspire devotion. It is tempting to see the West Wing as the story of a wise, well-intentioned, paternalistic, charismatic President who makes everything better. It’s true that every time I watch it, I long for our President Bartlet.

But in my view the West Wing’s inspiration is derived from the principal of dialogue, of the opening up of viewpoints, and of optimism.

I realise it’s not that I want someone to believe in. I want someTHING. I want a vision for change around which we can coalesce. I want people to realise that we can discuss issues, which isn’t just about talking, Talking, TALKING, but about listening. I want a politics which is about nurturing our collective agency.

The great question of our age isn’t how to make people more powerful, but more hopeful, more invested in a positive version of the future. I wish for our President Bartlet so that (s)he starts by helping us all believe in hope.

by Sara Allen