With Netflix, and other services, TV series have never been so widely available, and the temptation to binge watch a whole season of Breaking Bad in one night can be overwhelming. May contain spoilers.
This fast paced drama revolves around the eponymous west wing of the White House and those who work in it, including the President, and how they just about manage to keep everything together long enough to run the most powerful country on Earth.
First off let me tell you what the West Wing isn’t. It is not House of Cards. Though they both do centre on the dealings of a democratic President, in the West Wing egos are kept at a minimum, there’s no Machiavellian manoeuvring and all backstabbing is confined to the figurative, rather than the literal sense. So if you’re after a show about a somewhat psychopathic man hell bent on acquiring and consolidating ultimate power into his hands then go watch House of Cards, not the West Wing (if you’ve already seen the Netflix version of HoC, try the original British version or even read the even more original books).
So that’s what it’s not. Now let’s get into what the West Wing is. It’s a relatively small cast for a tv show that clocks up over 150 episodes, with just a small handful of major players that change very little over the 7 series (it doesn’t quite work out at one series of each year of Bartlet and co’s stint in the White House, but its near enough). It portrays a vibrant, if chaotic, view of the inner workings of a presidential administration, one which has been confirmed as being close to reality by a number of former White House staff, and even a smattering of former residents of the East Wing. Whilst grappling with suitably big issues, such as the death penalty, abortion and the like, the West Wing manages to stay light hearted and entertaining by also including bizarre and comic features on mapping projections and egg standing, which often take over whole episodes. In fact, the West Wing is remarkable in the fact that in some episodes, nothing at all of any consequence can happen, expect for the viewer being thoroughly entertained by the quips from the razor sharp intellect of President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen). That nothing happens might not exactly sound like a selling point, but it is a testament to unparalleled writing of Aaron Sorkin that almost an hour can slip by with no major plot developments but still be highly entertaining. Of course it is a show about the President of the United States, so worry not there is still high stakes drama pretty much on tap.
The West Wing also reverberates in modern society in a way that no other show really manages. Despite being filmed before the turn of the millennium (the picture quality can take a little getting used to but its more than worth it), it predicts that personal privacy will dominate society in years to come, due to the rise and rise of the internet, and actually based the candidate to take over the Presidency after Bartlet on Obama, three years before he entered the White House himself. Naturally the West Wing also grapples with real life issues, including gays in the military, the Israel-Palestine conflict, a nuclear showdown, trade with Cuba and the morality of the death penalty. Personally, I think it furthered my enjoyment that the stance taken by the majority of the administration was pretty close to my own views, but occasionally the opposite view is posited.
Wit and humour play a major role in the series, even in the darkest of hours which can lend a slightly surreal sheen to proceedings occasionally but on the whole only adds to the entertainment. Sarcasm is also often deployed, most commonly from the lips of the extreme cynic Toby Ziegler, and always to devastatingly amusing effect. The wry comedic nature of the West Wing is one of its biggest strengths, but be warned that it often comes coupled with biblical and Shakespearean references. There’s also an occasional tirade about economic theory and many a remark made in Latin, but again it all adds to the image of a group of highly intelligent people – the sort of people you’d hope are running the country. Monologues are littered throughout the series and range from the inane to the ideological to the patriotic to the unbelievably effective shutdown, best illustrated in Bartlet’s speech to a radio host who opposes gay marriage on religious grounds.
Characters are developed somewhat throughout the series, most notably Josh, who becomes the focal point of the show in the latter series, and CJ as she decides exactly what it is she wants in life and suffers through some personal issues, which take up a particularly hard hitting episode. That said, what changes most over the 7 series is the relationships between the characters themselves, who start off as close to colleagues but grow ever closer as they work together through crisis after crisis, until of course rifts begin to emerge.
A particular high point of the show comes at the end of the second series, in the episode entitled Two Cathedrals, in which both a sudden shock and long running plot that both have serious implications must be dealt with, culminating in President Bartlet raging against the injustice of God while in a cathedral. Oh and he does it in fluent Latin as well, because he can. This episode, for me, is the single best episode of any tv series ever produced.
In terms of cinematics, the West Wing is responsible for popularising the “walk and talk” shot, which follows characters round a building as they, well, walk and talk, which is deployed to great effect to add a sense of dynamism to a dialogue intensive script. As for the script itself, it is magnificently written throughout the show, but unfortunately there is a perceivable drop in quality after the end of the fourth series, coinciding with the departure of Aaron Sorkin, who created the show. This does affect the level of the show somewhat, but a partial recovery is made in the latter series, and in any case it could hardly be described as a comparable drop off to that of Lost, or countless other shows that falter after fantastic first seasons.
To sum up, the West Wing is an almost unique piece of television that weaves together an otherwise unremarkable cast, with the exception of Martin Sheen of course, with an exceptionally witty script and defining camerawork to create the finest, and most realistic, show of the political drama genre. Absolutely worth watching, but maybe brush up on your Latin first.