Sunday, March 16, 2008

Television Greatness: A Look Back at "The West Wing"

The best Christmas present I ever got was a navy blue file folder with the seal of the president. Inside that file folder were seven files. Inside each of those files were 22 episodes of the greatest show of all time. The Christmas that my dad got me the entire series of The West Wing on DVD was the day our father/daughter time changed forever. Ever since, we've been making our way back through the series a couple episodes at a time whenever I'm home. My mother's gotten into it, my brother's gotten into it... it's become a family phenomenon.

As we progress through the series it has become abundantly clear how important Aaron Sorkin was to the series. His rhythms, comedy/drama blend and character development are unparalleled and the final 3 seasons without him really yearn for his genius. The stories move slower, the comedy falls flatter, the characters on occasion will say something completely inconsistent with their previously established voice, there's too much campaign-centered story, there's no character balance and Santos is freaking annoying. That said, we are currently 3/4 of the way through season 6 and in the time since the simultaneous loss of the show's creative force (Sorkin) and one of its strongest characters (Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe) at the end of season 4, we have seen the occasional ray of hope in certain characters and in one particularly brilliant episode.

Season 5's Ryan and Rina came in as small, comedic characters who gave the show a little vibrancy at a time when the writers were really struggling to find comedy in the drama. Ryan in particular (played by Jesse Bradford) was a really important character to the tone of season 5 in that he was a great parallel to Josh and served as a bit of a foil to Toby in the recent absence of Sam. He was intelligent but casual which was an important dynamic to hold on to.
In season 6 relief came in the 4'11 form of Kristin Chenoweth as the quick witted and cheerful deputy press secretary Annabeth Schott. Kristin Chenoweth can infuse even the driest material with a necessary bit of spunk, and while Annabeth is no Ainsley Hayes (perhaps the greatest of all minor recurring characters), she keeps the show fun and upbeat, or at least attempts to. We also are introduced to a wonderful new character in Arnie Vinnick, the Republican candidate for president. Vinnick is a liberal Republican who is as idealistic and amazing as Bartlett is- just on the other side of the party line. The incomparable Alan Alda plays him with such vigor and honesty that even I, the most liberal of liberals, would have voted Republican if I were voting for him.
Season 6 also marks the return of a season 3 favourite, Cliff Calley (Mark Feuerstein). Cliff (like Ainsley Hayes and Arnie Vinnick) is an example of a sympathetic and good Republican character in a show that is often criticized for its dehumanization of Republicans. Cliff was the hero of the hour when he saved Leo from unnecessary character attacks and inquiry into his alcoholism during the congressional hearings about Bartlett's MS during Christmas of season 3. He disappeared for a couple of years until he returned in season 6 as a replacement for Josh's position in the White House. Presented as a very classically Josh-like character, Cliff is a welcome character addition at a time when Josh himself is being taken out of the white house, away from the grounding of the character foils Sorkin built for him and made into a somewhat too intense form of himself.
The final saving grace of the show since Sorkin's departure is a single episode in season 5. The only post-Sorkin episode to be included in my top 10 West Wing episode list. "The Supremes", written by Debora Cahn, isone of the best of the entire series. The episode is a comedic look at Josh's alternative proposal for nominating 2 supreme court justices (a brainwave inspired by Donna's mom's cats). Glenn Close and William Fichtner make spectacular guest appearances as the two nominated judges (one extreme liberal and one extreme conservative). The episode features bright and lively dialogue, intelligent and fast-paced debate and interesting character moments. It almost seems like, for 43 minutes, Aaron Sorkin is writing the show again. Debora Cahn, a then somewhat new writer who went on to do more great work on The West Wing then write some of the best episodes of Grey's Anatomy, hit one completely out of the park with "The Supremes", an episode that gives hope to a somewhat disenchanted viewer struggling in a post-Sorkin West Wing.

Now, I realize that I may sound down on something I earlier called "the greatest show of all time". To call a single episode and a couple minor characters "saving graces" of an otherwise depreciated show may sound negative, but one needs to remember that the final 3 seasons of The West Wing ARE terrible in comparison to the unimaginably brilliant first 4. That does not, however, mean that they are bad. In fact, they are still some of the best TV ever produced. A bad episode of The West Wing still trumps a brilliant episode of Prison Break, it may even equal a pretty good episode of Grey's Anatomy. When I say "the greatest show of all time" I'm not kidding around.

When we finally reach "Tomorrow", the series finale, we will get to begin again. We'll get to see everything from "tell your friend Potus he has a funny name" to "you idiot, I'M Joey Lucas" to "when the president stands, nobody sits" all over again and we will love it, all over again. And when I finally get there, I promise I'll review the show with every bit of enthusiasm it deserves, at least for 4 seasons. Until then, I shall criticize the seasons that could be better, even if they are brilliant.

7 comments:

Dorv said...

Kathy,

When I saw that you were reviewing the West Wing, I had some high hopes. I agree wholeheartedly with the supposition that the West Wing is the greatest TV show of all time (Sorry M*A*S*H, sorry, Buffy, sorry Sopranos).

I do like that you mention that the last three season are still outstanding television. I think that they get an incredibly bad reputation. I think that there was most definitely a learning curve early in season five.

The Supremes is really an outstanding example, but if you haven't gotten into Season Seven yet, just wait.

To me, however, the heart and soul of the West Wing, was one Joshua Lyman (and by extension Donna Moss). His growth as a character from the Pilot until Tomorrow is what defines what I liked about the West Wing, what I like about Television, hell, what I like about Drama. To watch his performance in the episode Election Night, Part II is one of my favorite things in life to do.

(oh, and my favorite quote is most definitely the "Band Gazebo" quote...)

Kelly said...

alright,

1) it's Kelly, not Kathy

2) Way to have Buffy and MASH as your other favourite shows. Mine are The West Wing, Buffy (and Angel, I cant decide), and a Canadian show called Slings & Arrows. (I still havnt gotten around to the sopranos, sorry).

3) I did watch the end of the west wing when it aired but, at the time of writing this article, was rewatching the later seasons. and though I do acknowledge that all episodes of the west wing are fantastic television, I honestly believe that the first 4 seasons are in a category all their own that the later 3 can't hold a candle to. I think the progression of josh, in particular is somewhat sad. I think the new writers put too much emphasis on his ego and intensity, letting his sweetness and loyalty fall by the wayside. In his dealings with Santos Josh let ambition dictate his actions more than principle or adherence to a political ideal (which guided him much more in his earlier years under Bartlett). I always think back to Bartlett's comment to Josh: "I want to be the man, you want to be the man the man counts on" as a reminder of who he was in the early series as opposed to the self absorbed maniac he became. I think he needed the foils of leo, toby and sam to keep him grounded and without them he got too big (in both the "for his britches" sense and the in terms of his character being more cariacature of certain personality traits than belivable character).

That said, I must commend you on the poetry of your comment "... what I like about the West Wing, what I like about Television, hell, what I like about Drama". It's exactly how I feel about the entirety of season 2.

Dorv said...

First off, its "I'm an idiot" and not Dorv (Sorry ;)

MASH and Buffy aren't necessarily my favorite other shows, but ones that I recognize as some of the best. I kind differientiate between what I think is really good, and what I really like. Its how I justify Varsity Blues being on my favorite movie list ;)

I personally like Season One more than Two... I thought that it kind of languished in the middle (I never got into the War of the Bartlets... They were much better characters together than apart). Also, while I recognize it was a great arc, I never really got into the MS stuff at the end. (Though, you've got it right... The West Wing on a bad day is still heads and shoulders above the crowd).

I appreciate your analysis of Josh (It will make me go back and rethink some things)... But to me, the early Josh (and forget about my identifying with Tara... I AM Josh from a personality standpoint, for better or worse) wanted to beat people (I again reference the Band Gazebo scene)... I think in Santos, he found HIS Bartlet, and almost sold his soul to the devil to get the win. He found his redemption in Donna, and, just a little bit, in the passing of his mentor.

Kelly said...

see I dont think Josh revered Santos at all like he (or Leo) did Bartlet. But then again, I was never a Santos fan (I found him too righteous, despite my extreme liberal loyalties I think I would have voted for Vinnick- a fantastic character played by one of the coolest dudes EVER).

I was never crazy about the MS either but season 2 is the season when after every episode I sit there thinking "I LOVE this show". It has most of my favourite episodes: "In The Shadow of 2 Gunmen", "In This White House", "And It's Surely to Their Credit", "Noel", "17 People", "Two Cathedrals" and so many more, and it was the introduction of Ainsley Hayes, one of the most fun characters ever.

and way to relate to Josh. My brother's goal in life is to be him, it was his Halloween costume last year.

Dorv said...

But see, I think Josh was to Santos as Leo was to Bartlet, but in different ways. I don't think Leo put Bartlet on a pedestal the way Josh did (or, Sam, specficially, did for that matter).

I actually didn't like Santos or Vinick that much. Though, with your confessed liberal leanings, Alda would be a bit of an idol, wouldn't he ;) I wanted Santos to win because it meant more screen time for Josh, Donna, and while ultimately not the case, Leo.

See, I think I hold S1 in the same reverence that you hold S2. I missed the first 45 minutes of the first episode (I was a government major in college at the time, and a Sports Night adict... I was looking forward to the TWW), but was hooked on the only scene I saw that night, which was the sit down in the Mural Room where Bartlet came in and dressed down the visitors. I think I need to make a list of my favorite episodes, just to see where they all fall, season wise.

Kelly said...

I'll be posting lists of my favourite WW moments and episodes sometime in the new year. Ive had mine ready for months but Ive asked 2 ww fanatics I know to make lists as well and one is taking forever.

Scott said...

Yeah, that list`s coming pretty soon.

-BBS