Franz’s Review of the West Wing

Man, if only politics actually worked this way. 

I recently re-watched The West Wing because I found out that it was also Gabrielle’s favourite show and that Frederick and Silas hadn’t seen it, so we all got together and watched it. And though some parts of it are not quite as sterling as they once were, by and large it holds up as a piece of optimistic political fiction. 

The West Wing ended fifteen years ago, but if you’re still worried about spoilers for it, do be aware that there will be some in here. That said, I’m reviewing the show as a whole, not individual episodes.

If you don’t know, the show is a political drama that follows the staff of a fictional U.S. President named Josiah Bartlett as they try to run a country, get re-elected, and not get too hamstrung by the whole political process. It’s idealistic and mostly optimistic and funny and smart and full of interesting, complex characters who feel like real people. 

I’m not really sure where to start with this show because I’m not going to summarize seven seasons, so I’ll just say that it starts by introducing you to the top advisors and staff of President Bartlett one at a time, and proceeds to delve into interesting and fun storylines for all of them as they navigate work and their own personal lives, which are inexorably intertwined. The show is basically about people who have no work-life balance. They work eighteen hours a day and don’t take days off and never have vacations and then are surprised when their personal lives are always falling apart. 

Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman is probably the peak example of this. He starts to feel more and more like the main character in the ensemble as the show goes on (especially after Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn leaves the show in season 3). He’s a constantly stressed out mess of a human being whose entire self-identity revolves around being good at his job and making his bosses(/surrogate father figures) happy. He’s a talented addictive personality with daddy issues who can’t hold down a relationship and wants desperately to be the guy people count on in a crisis. I’m not saying he’s Aaron Sorkin, but there’s at least one character like him in every Aaron Sorkin show. But for all that a character like this should be obnoxious (and Josh is, especially because he’s objectively not as good at his job as the show wants to pretend he is), he’s also endearing and interesting and you want to root for him even when he’s kind of an asshole. 

Where Josh is a political operative whose only goal is to win against the other guy, Richard Schiff’s Toby Zeigler and Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg generally form the show’s moral core. One or both of them is generally correct on a moral level, which leads to a lot of the show’s drama where they know what the right thing to do is, but it’s not always the politically expedient thing to do. Toby kind of gets shafted around the end of the show after doing something illegal that I do believe is fundamentally in character, but which the actor really didn’t like and which does take his character in a direction that makes it hard to like him for the last season. C.J. deserves special credit here for not only being the best character in the show, but also for being the main female character for a really long time—Aaron Sorkin’s work tends to be light on female characters who aren’t someone’s secretary or love interest (or both). He writes a lot of Strong Female Characters in the way that those were written in the late 90s and early 00s, but most of them tend to fall into those archetypes and either get written off or feel stale by overstaying their welcome, and C.J. does neither. And after her major promotion in season 6 to chief of staff, she really shines brightly for the rest of the show. Like I said, hands down the best character. 

Obviously Martin Sheen’s performance as President Bartlett deserves attention as well. He wasn’t meant to be a main character but he was so good they changed the show for him, and it was a good call. Their rendition of the Clinton-era scandals with Bartlett’s concealed MS is reasonably well done and Bartlett is outstanding through it all. I also want to shout out Stockard Channing for playing his wife Abigail so well. She’s smart and compelling and just so watchable that you wish she was in more episodes than she is. 

I’m not going to call on each individual cast member, but I also want to point out how excellent Janel Moloney’s performance is. Another character who was only meant to be a supporting character but got bumped up to the main cast because of how good she was, her Donna has such a good arc through the whole show. I didn’t like Donna much the first time I watched it, but on a rewatch, watching her get more and more competent, until she finally leaves her secretarial job and pursues a higher-level career as a politico herself is really satisfying (especially because you kind of low-key know that it mostly happened after Sorkin left the show and was a bit of a corrective to some of his more unfortunate tendencies). Josh has pretty much always found her attractive, but it was in this weirdly dehumanizing way right up until she shows what a badass she is, and who can’t relate to getting hot under the collar when a blonde schools you? Even her endgame Supposedly Heterosexual Romance with Josh is actually really well done, mostly because it does feel natural and deserved when it finally happens in the last half of the last season of the show.

I could just keep talking about the characters, and I feel especially bad not talking about Charlie (the show has exactly one Black main character for its entire run, and it’s really unfortunate that they clearly didn’t know what to do with Charlie after the fifth season, because he kind of falls out of the narrative. Dulè Hill wasn’t really around for the last season at all because he’d gotten another job, which, good for him, but it was a bit sad, because he’s such a good actor and his storylines were always so good). But I also want to talk about the show’s politics. 

The show’s just slightly left of centre politics are portrayed as being really leftist and progressive, partly because of when it came out (there are episodes where the characters profess that of course they’re in favour of gay marriage, but America Isn’t Ready For That Yet, for example), and partly because American politics skew so far to the right anyway, so any sort of centrism seems leftist to most people. It’s actually hilarious to watch it both from a Canadian standpoint where very few of the characters would have ever been considered leftists, and from twenty years after it was written, when the idea of what constitutes progressive politics has changed so drastically. But so has the idea of what constitutes conservative politics. Though the Republican Party is often the antagonist in the show, generally the writers go out of their way to show them as upstanding people who also want what’s best for America and just think differently than our main characters. There are one or two far-right caricatures in the show and they’re there to be hated on by the viewers, by the main cast, and also by the more reasonable Republican characters. The West Wing was of course mostly responding to the Bush presidency through most of its run (it started in late 1999), and imagines a world where his party largely resisted being steadily radicalized by the Evangelical Christian movement (which didn’t start with Bush, of course) and other special interests by trying to demonstrate that most Republicans really are good people, and does this especially well in the last season with Alan Alda’s character Arnold Vinick. 

I doubt that message would fly today, but I also doubt this show would get made today. Before I close out here, I should mention that it’s not just political drama; there are some very serious emotional moments in the show that are hard to forget. 18th and Potomac, followed by Two Cathedrals, still makes me cry. The whole end of season 4 and beginning of season 5 are absolutely stellar and John Goodman is unforgettable as Glenallen Walken. Any episode that Marlee Matlin or Mary Louise-Parker appear in is bound to be amazing. It’s just all good.

The West Wing is very naive about how progressive its politics is, but it’s naive in such an earnest, intelligent, well-executed way that makes it impossible for most accusations of virtue-signalling to really stick. The characters are really interesting and fun, the writing is snappy and clever, and the plot is optimistic in a good way, because it does try to show what we could be like, maybe. 

Also, Obama straight up stole the entire operating strategy of the Santos campaign, so it’s worth watching if just for that.  

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