A West Wing Retrospective

It has taken me about eighteen months, but I finally made it through all 156 episodes and seven seasons of The West Wing. As I mentioned in my review of the first season back in April 2006, I never bothered to watch the show when it was broadcast. Indeed, when I popped the first DVD of the show into my DVD player the final episode was being filmed. Freed from the innumerable commercials and the necessity of watching it (or at least taping it) at inconvenient times, I was free to view it from a different perspective.

What follows is a number of random thoughts and observations on the series.

Overall, the acting was superb. As in any series lasting seven years, there were uneven moments. I would like to assign a best actor to the series but I cannot. It is a dead even three-way tie between John Spencer (Chief of Staff Leo McGarry), Richard Schiff (Communications Director Toby Ziegler) and Allison Janney (Press Secretary, and subsequent Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg). What is true of all the actors though is that from the beginning their performances were measured and consistent.

A few characters and subplots did grate on me. The unstated sexual tension between Donna Moss and Josh Lyman annoyed me more than intrigued me. For much of the show I found Donna Moss (played by Janel Maloney) annoying. The same was true with Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) who was perhaps not quite buttoned down enough to be anyone’s Deputy Chief of Staff. I will say though that he was dead on with his portrayal of an overly caffeinated, sleep deprived, Type A Washingtonian. Nor was I terribly impressed by DulĂ© Hill (Charlie Young, President Bartlett’s personal aide). Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) struck me as miscast from the start. Unfortunately, his replacement Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) annoyed me even more. At least there was some chemistry in the Josh/Donna relationship. The “chemistry” between Will Bailey and National Security Advisor Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) near the end of the show simply was not there.

As for how well the show portrayed the actual West Wing, while I have never worked in the White House, I have worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I also worked in a few headquarters buildings so I have had infrequent and occasionally regular access to senior staff at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense. I know political types. Overall, I think series creator Aaron Sorkin was eerily accurate in his portrayal of the Washington culture and Washington politicians in general. I suspect they are not that different from many Hollywood producers. However, I am sure the real West Wing is far more complex than this series let on. For one thing, there are a lot more deputy, assistant and special assistants for every senior official than the story writers can show. This is understandable because even with a show with classy production values it is impossible to render the level of bureaucracy that actually exists.

Another thing the show does well is convey just how smart many in politics actually are. We tend to think of Washington as full of inept buffoons. Sorry to bust your balloon, but this is not typically the case. Granted there are politicians, including many in Congress, who are little more intelligent than a fruit fly. At the staff level though, whether they are political or not, people are uniformly incredibly bright and perceptive. If it seems otherwise it is because working around the bureaucratic kudzu of Washington is not for the faint of heart. It has developed over two hundred years and has its own culture that will continue no matter how much the Ross Perots of the world complain. I am no fan of Republicans, but I can say that the same is true regardless of party. In fact, arguably Republicans are much more effective at governing than Democrats. That does not mean what they are trying to do for the country is necessarily in its best interest. I am more than a bit astonished, for example, that President Bush, as bungling as he has been and as low as his poll ratings are, can still whiplash the Congress on national security issues and the Democrats fall sheepishly in line. Republicans know how to exercise power through intimidation.

The West Wing of course is fictional, and portrays an almost idealized progressive administration. Administrations like the Bartlett Administration never happen in reality. Perhaps the closest was the Roosevelt Administration. I think the series creators modeled Bartlett as a mixture of Roosevelt and Kennedy. Even the Republicans on the show are hard to hate. In some episodes in the middle of the series, a Republican congress tries to bring down Leo McGarry (chief of staff) for various sins related to being an alcoholic. Yet one prominent Republican staffer has the guts to stop the hearings when it clearly is about to go over the line. In real life, a Republican congress would have given Leo McGarry the equivalent of a public lynching. In addition, near the end of the series a libertarian conservative senator (Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda) wins the Republican nomination. I am tempted to say this would never happen in real life, but current Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani comes close. We will see if he actually is nominated. Anyhow, Arnold Vinick is one of the few Republicans who I might actually be tempted to vote for.

Mostly The West Wing is a classy show, of the sort that is increasingly rare on television. It may be the last of its kind on network TV. Overall, the writing, directing and acting were excellent. The show can be loosely organized into two parts. The first three seasons document the first term of the Bartlett Administration. This is “classic” West Wing before some of the established characters like Rob Lowe decided to move elsewhere. The second half of The West Wing feels transitional. Much of the last two seasons involve the waning days of the Bartlett Administration and the presidential campaign to replace him. Much of the continuity from the classic show was gone by this point. Near the end of the show, there are hardly any of the established characters left in the White House but Janney and Martin Sheen (who played the president). Still, the rough and tough world of running a presidential campaign is quite well portrayed, in a rather idealized way, of course. The series creators do their best to close the many hanging plot lines and relationships. It largely succeeds. The Donna Moss/Josh Lyman tension appears to be resolved. C.J. Cregg appears to be finally won over by the aggressive Washington Post reporter Danny Concannon. Democratic Party nominee Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) of course has to win the presidential election, but just by a hair. In addition, President Bartlett, despite some misgivings, pardons Toby Ziegler for disclosing that the military had a space shuttle.

The best of the show was probably its first two seasons. The fifth season was notably its worst, yet was far better than I anticipated. The last season often seemed a chaotic mess, but campaigns are typically this way. The series concluded in proper Hollywood style with all the loose ends wrapped up neatly. Alas, if only administrations actually worked that way.

Overall, my eighteen month adventure into The West Wing was worthy of my time, attention and money. My thanks go to my brother Tom, who hooked me with the first season, and supplied the last three seasons.

Some part of me wishes they had just kept The West Wing going with the fictional Santos Administration. The sets were already there, and many of the characters would have stayed on. Mostly though I am glad they had the good sense to end it after seven years. Their ratings were poor anyhow. Like After M*A*S*H which tried to keep actors employed when M*A*S*H finally ended, any subsequent version of The West Wing would likely be a poor imitation of the original and quickly canceled. Moreover, while the original had many blemishes, the blemishes are easy to overlook. Fortunately, excellence was typically what we viewers got.

I perhaps will go through the whole series again some day in more detail. Meanwhile, I ache for a Bartlett Administration in real life. Maybe someday we will be worthy of one.

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