Declaring a definitive Best TV Series of All Time is virtually impossible. In this series, ‘A Retrospective’ we will attempt to provide you with the background and context for why certain (no longer running) shows might be in the running for such a title. I submit for consideration, The West Wing.
Everyone knows someone who claims to have seen a show “a thousand times”, especially as some basis for why their opinion should be taken seriously. After doing a quick calculation, I have seen 8,036 episodes of the West Wing. If you’re trying to do the math, 22 episodes x 7 seasons x 52 times through + season 1 (22 episodes) + 6 episodes of season 2 = 8,036. The West Wing is by a huge margin, my go to thing. Cooking dinner, sitting in a waiting room, or even writing this article, I will watch or listen to The West Wing. Modern technology has made such viewing as easy as it can be. There are shows stashed on my DVR as recent as Spring ’14 that I haven’t watched because the quality of The West Wing is still better than watching a new show for the first time (i.e. TURN or 24: Live Another Day). The first 2 times I watched the series to completion, I all but gave up on live television in favor of watching The West Wing. I currently own the Box Set, every episode on digital copy (minus the two specialty episodes), and it has been available to stream through Netflix for a some time now. That’s my way of saying, I NEED THE WEST WING in my life. I heard an analyst once say, “frequency creates clarity”. If that’s true, rest assured, 8,000 episodes creates a lot of clarity.
First and foremost, we must squash the preconceived notion that The West Wing is a political drama. As is the case with most dramas of the last 10-15 years, a short synopsis will kill a would be new viewer just as often as it creates intrigue. The West Wing is a show about the relationships and how those relationships are tried or solidified over the course of doing the job. Make no mistake about it, the politics are the backdrop. The politics serve as only window dressing. Calling The West Wing a political drama makes about as much sense as saying “Breaking Bad is about a high school science teacher with cancer”.
Another misconception is that The West Wing is a show about the President of the United States. Aaron Sorkin tells a story during an interview that the President had always been a character that they would “seldom” use. The show was to be told from the staff’s perspective. They reached out to Martin Sheen, hoping he would sign on for maybe 5 days works on the entire first season. After reading the script and eventually shooting the pilot, it was Martin Sheen who begged Sorkin to reconsider the President’s involvement. After the fact, everyone on that set echoes the sentiment that Sheen was what makes it work.
One big factor that you will notice immediately is that the cast is massive and arguably the best cast for a single show ever assembled. Ask yourself this about your favorite show, “How many characters do you love, like, or at least look forward to seeing?” For me with The West Wing, the answer is 64. Yes, I looked it up. Most shows use the model of recurring characters versus everyone else. The West Wing uses more of a tier system. Out of 154 episodes there are only 7 characters seen in more than 130 episodes. There are characters that feel like mainstays that still do not hit the 85 episode plateau. All told, there are probably upwards of 9+ tiers of characters. Even the Danny Concannon character (played brilliantly by Timothy Busfield; in my opinion his best work by far) only appears in less than 30 episodes total. Or a little over 18%. This show if nothing else, is character driven. If you peel away the political background. The actual plot points. The opinions expressed over a number of social issues. The lessons each person learns. The trials and stresses each character goes through. What you are left with are the characters. Literally, this series could show you nothing but the characters meeting in rooms and reacting to people and events behind the privacy of closed doors and this show would still be worth noting as one of the greater shows of recent history. Add those omitted factors back in and you are left a great story told from the perspective of a team of good people. Regardless of your political views (which do come into play), these characters will keep your attention and wanting to see “what’s next”.
At the apex of the character breakdown you have President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Press Secretary Claudia Jean “CJ” Cregg (Allison Janney), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and Aid to the President Charlie Young (Dule Hill). This group makes up the bulk of what you the viewer live through each and every episode. Minus the President and Charlie Young, you are left with “the Staff” that Sorkin refers to when he mentions the perspective of which the story is told. The order in which I just listed them is more of a relative chain of command. In order to avoid spoilers, I will keep it that way. As the story progresses, the order of importance will shift. Now let’s take a look at each of these personalities.
President Josiah Bartlet-Whenever anyone complains about the sitting President (in real life), and claims that there has to be someone better. Someone we can all get behind. Someone capable of doing the job in an honorable and Presidential manner. The image of the ideal President they are thinking about, whether they know it or not, is Josiah Bartlet. A highly educated man with a full grasp on just about anything. He is the smartest man in the room. Any room. A Nobel Laureate and accomplished economist. A man who has raised three daughters and has a strong defensive mechanism ingrained in his need to protect his family. A man with a strong moral compass. One who labors over the decision to ever send Americans into harms way. Clever and witty. A leader to be sure, but one with sympathetic human flaws. He may be the leader of the free world but he is still a man. Above all else, a remarkable respect for the job and all of the responsibilities it entails.
Chief of Staff Leo McGarry-As characters go, Leo is the glue. Leo is the one person who can walk into the Oval Office and get in the President’s face. He’s the one man who can rein in the President if he starts to wander from the goal in front of them. Leo is a former military fighter pilot with real wartime combat experience. From that, he was able to parlay his service into becoming a career politician. Not the Congressman/Governor type of politician mind you, but the kind that actually gets his hands dirty. A former Secretary of Labor, Leo is instrumental in getting Josiah Bartlet not only elected, but in the race to begin with. He is a strong-willed man whose stubborn nature refuses to concede defeat unless there is literally no other tactical option. If the President is the Wizard of OZ, Leo McGarry is the man behind the curtain.
Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman-Josh is who he is due to hard work. Josh is not the smartest man in the room and therefore has to out work the smartest man in the room. He is also the one member of the senior staff that is governed most by emotion. Josh is most likely to anger the opposition. He is most likely to demand that things go his way because he’s right and you’re wrong. Deep down, Josh is a younger soul than the rest of the group. He needs to win. He believes its his job to win, and if he rubs people the wrong way in the process, then so be it. Josh also has an Achilles Heel. Josh is loyal to a fault and due to some unresolved childhood issues, does not see the distinction between friends and family. As far as that is concerned, he takes it to an entirely different level with Leo. Leo might as well serve as Josh’s father. He refuses to disappoint Leo and will not stand for anyone of any walk of life to disrespect, discredit, or aim to hurt Leo. There is a great line from the President to Josh early that sums up Josh’s feelings toward Leo and how it governs everything he does. “You’re not afraid of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, you’re afraid of disappointing Leo. I want to be the guy. You want to be the guy the guy depends on.”
CJ Cregg-CJ, like the President, is the person you dream up when the person in real life is not good enough. CJ is the public face of the administration. The second most visible person to the media, she is the figurative sheep herder. She delivers the news to the press and presents herself as the buffer between the press and outside world and the administration. As a professional woman, it is critical that she be perceived that way. Her relationship with the press as a whole is vital to the success of her job and by some extension the President’s job. She is tall, graceful, silver-tongued, and not afraid to weigh in on anything. She’s a woman in a man’s job (her character’s words not mine) and wants everyone around her to know it. She’s not afraid to voice her opinion as a woman if it will properly add perspective to the discussion. At times she is the most dominant and persuasive member of the senior staff. Other times she gladly plays the role of big sister. Either way, she will not let you become confused about who she is.
Toby Ziegler-Toby is in charge of articulating the administration’s policy voice. He is the lead speech writer and takes his responsibilities remarkably seriously. In an effort to paint the image of Toby, I will make this politically incorrect statement. Even though Toby would agree completely. Toby Ziegler is a smart, stubborn, Jewish New Yorker who wears those traits like a badge of honor. He is serious and teetering on angry all of the time. At one point in the series, there is great news and Toby appears the same as he would if he heard bad news. When Josh inquires as to why he’s not happier Toby responds in his deadpan manner with, “I’m happy, this is my over the moon face”. Toby’s family has a dark past that he will not absolve them of. He is described as a pessimistic and sad man who brings people down. However, in Toby’s mind he is rational and protective. There are many scenarios that befall Toby that would just be middle of the road issues if Toby wasn’t Toby. His disapproving big brother mentality adds a great deal to the story, and causes a great many problems in the story. Toby allows the story to go as far as it does.
Sam Seaborn-Sam is Toby’s right hand man, literally. Also, a talented writer, Sam is the little brother to Toby’s big brother. Sam often finds himself in a position to be heard. Of all of the senior staff characters, Sam is the most likely to take his experience and grow into a real politician. When rumors of a West Wing reboot were floating around Sam is the guy most projected to be the new President. He is suave, balanced and intentional. On more than a couple of instances, Sam shoots himself in the foot. While Sam is most likely to cause short-sighted problems, he is also most likely to grow the most. He is also the one person whose romantic comings and goings are chronicled the most. His personality is not as pronounced as Josh and Toby but he is without question one of the boys. The previous three’s opinions carry more weight generally, but Sam makes his opinion known.
Charlie Young-Charlie may be the most important character with the least amount of pull. He is “special aid to the President” or body man. Charlie goes everywhere the President goes. He is the President’s personal assistant without being the President’s secretary. He gets in the car, helicopter, and plane with the President. He is literally in the President’s hip pocket at all times. He is also responsible for some administrative duties. He along with the head secretary enforce the rules. He’s the President’s wake up call and his voice of reason throughout the day. Without Charlie, a great deal of things would get missed. The son of a murdered DC police officer mother and big brother to a sister still in school, Charlie is the bread-winner of his family. As if Special Aid to the President and father figure in his house wouldn’t be enough, he also attends college while he’s doing it. A remarkable role model of a kid, even if he’s fictional. He provides comic relief and a stern tone at the same time. He begins the series as a timid guy looking for a job to improve he and his sister’s quality of living. By the end of the series, Charlie will have you wondering if he isn’t the character who has gained the most. In the series finale, there is a moment with he and the President. If that moment doesn’t bring you to an emotional halt, then you aren’t human.
I cannot emphasize this enough. The characters, more so than any other show I’ve ever seen, drive this show. They take the show to places it otherwise could not go without them. Now those profiles represent the big 7, out of 64. 64 characters who regardless of their screen time, also present layers and are dynamic in their own right. As the series progresses, those 7 are always prevalent. However, as it grows, so does the inclusion of other recurring characters. I believe the volume of quality characters makes this show unlike any other. There are many factors that separate this show from other dramas. I don’t think it has an equal because it is so different. It feels larger than other shows. Deeper and with more layers than other shows and it is the characters that create that sense.
Comparing The West Wing to the staple of dramas today is difficult. For me it’s an apples and oranges scenario. Today with shows like Breaking Bad, The Blacklist, Justified, Graceland, Fringe, Mad Men, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., etc there is an expectation of the big moment. Every episode you are looking to see one something that takes your breath away. Gus walking out of the nursing home room. Red taking his shirt off. Briggs…well Briggs doing just about anything. Ava meeting Raylan on the bridge. Fitz and Simmons trapped in an escape pod under water. We’ve all come to expect the big moment. And know that The West Wing is not short on big moments. The difference is the degree of big moments and just how often you get them from The West Wing. One moment from a West Wing episode would make for an unimpressive and unrealistic episode.
In today’s big hit dramas, sometimes the areas between big moments are merely tolerated because the big moments are so big. The West Wing has this alluring ability to make each and every minute of every episode important. More to the point, every moment builds and relies upon the next to create what you experience on the whole. The impact of episode 1 season 5 titled “7A WF 83429” would not mean as much if everything leading up to that point wasn’t specifically put in place beforehand.
The way a show begins says a great deal about how it will progress. In some cases, the pilot episode can say more about the show than any other episode. Every minute, 100% of what you see in a pilot is important. I personally, enjoy shows that drop you right into the ‘thick of it’ from the word go. Some shows give you background so that you’re ready for what’s to come. Sorkin did no such thing with The West Wing. In the first three minutes you are introduced to five of the seven previously mentioned core characters, get a grasp of how hectic the job is, how fast the show will move, understand that Josh is in trouble, that there is one group of people he generally doesn’t like, witness some of the comic relief, and are introduced to a the very least 3 story lines that affect the group immediately. After the opening credits, we’re off to the races. By the time you hear “when the Nina, the Pinta, and the Get Me The Hell Outta Here hit Miami” you’ve already consumed more in five minutes than most pilots cover in the whole first episode. That is not a parlor trick in the hopes the pilot gets picked up. That’s the way the show operates.
Without revealing any spoilers consider the following. In each of the first 22 episodes there are at minimum 3-5 major story lines in every episode. Some of them carry over and some are resolved in each episode. Example: A medical plane shot down, the introduction of “Total Crackpot Day”, vetting of a Supreme Court nominee hits a snag, the addition of an English eccentric to aid in a Pakistan/India conflict, State of the Union address, religious refugees, monetary reparations discussion not held in the abstract, something called “The Jackal” you’ll just have to wait and experience, the Chief of Staff gives the President a ‘wake up call’, and a senior staffer’s astronaut brother’s life hangs in the balance (just to name a few) before the big moment occurs. None of those mentioned are the big moment. Those are the episode to episode big moments. And when the big moment occurs, it is earth shattering. While most shows follow an episodic storyline and an over arching storyline, The West Wing follows 3-5 episodic story lines all running simultaneously, 30+ season long over arching story lines, and a number of series long over arching story lines. The sheer volume of content and plot points, story lines and developments is daunting. Daunting, yet made easy to follow.
The two most identifiable characteristics of this brilliant series are also the aspects most often made fun of. The pace and complexity of the dialogue and walking, always walking. Let’s look at the walking. The characters do seem to always be walking. Comparatively, more dialogue seems to occur while people are walking from point A to point B than happen at either point A or point B. To a casual viewer who has not allowed themselves to get into the series, yes it seems like they are always walking. There is even a little self-deprecating joke written in during season 5 about it. However, it speaks more to the realism of the show and the jobs it portrays. The President, VP and even Chief of Staff do very little walking. The ‘senior’ staff and anyone below are running all over the place because that’s the nature of the job. If most of the show took place seated inside rooms, it would be unrealistic.
The dialogue is truly brilliant. If you haven’t permitted yourself to experience Aaron Sorkin in his Aaron Sorkin-est, you are doing yourself an injustice. The West Wing, The Newsroom, A Few Good Men all exhibit this trait. Sorkin has an uncanny ability to capture the moment. He is almost able to create a world parallel to the one we know. A believable facsimile of the world we live in. The difference of course being that in Sorkin’s world, everyone says what everyone wishes they could say with the benefit of time or editing. Every response is brilliantly sculpted. The characters in Sorkins world say whatever it is we wish we could say in the moment. (Percy Fitzwallace, an Admiral and the Commander of the Joint Chiefs being introduced) Senator: It’s an honor to meet you sir. Admiral Fitzwallace: I imagine it would be, yes. Some have argued that the style of rhetoric used by Sorkin is unrealistic and not natural. Which I see as a lazy interpretation. It goes back to this idea that good enough is good enough. If a person criticizes Sorkin’s style of dialogue, I believe they fail to acknowledge or even experience the art of it. In the creation of a universe (i.e. the Marvel Universe, the Star Trek Universe or Aaron Sorkin’s Universe) all must be created and maintained in the realm of continuity or none of it is believable. Sorkin’s method of dialogue works because it is remarkably consistent. Once you allow yourself to accept the ‘universe’, the details like style of dialogue no longer become an issue. It becomes a building block for the foundation of the Sorkin’s universe. It’s believable, across the board. When that time comes, whether you’ve never seen the series or this piece inspires you to revisit the series, you will truly come to appreciate the artful nuance of the dialogue and what it adds to the story telling element of the series.
In any good series, there is an emotional investment from the viewer. Whether that stems from sympathy/empathy for the characters, a familiarity of the developments, a desire to see good triumph over evil, something pulls you in. There is some deep-rooted thing that takes you to a place that can allow you to gasp for air or stare blankly at the screen with your mouth wide open. Ironically, a character driven show about a large group of co-workers behind the window dressing of a President running the country also finds a way to not only pull at your hearts strings but never really letting them go. If a show can create sympathy for a character or redeemable qualities, great. The West Wing does both. There are characters that you may not sympathize with, but they find a way to make them redeemable on some level. The viewer has to so many characters that allows you to become so dramatically invested in everything that happens.
In an effort to not reveal spoilers for those who have not yet seen the show, I will refrain from specifics. I will guarantee you this, by the eleventh episode you will be invested in who the characters are. By the nineteenth episode, the big picture details really begin to come into focus. And by the end of episode 22, if you are not in full on “use both hands to pick your jaw up off the floor”, then I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve read all of this for not. I have never in all 53 times through, never watched the season 1 finale (episode 22) and not immediately watched episodes 1 and 2 of season 2. The emotional investment is not immediate. In the beginning you’re just watching a show to see where it goes. By the time it “gets there” it’s too late to go back. There are shows that have grabbed me quicker, been more emotionally charged in general, but there has never been a show that kept my attention so diligently. Like a great book, it’s the second and third time watching it that the true genius reveals itself. There are tie -ins on top of tie-ins that you just won’t the first couple times through.
There is one small detail that almost no one ever brings up about television dramas. Its avoided I’m sure because no one wants to attribute the quality of a show to how much they themselves DON’T know. Look around the television landscape. Each and every dominant show (that I can think of off the top of my head) deals with some job or subject matter that the average viewer is not familiar with. Medical, law enforcement, military, drug dealers, mob ties, etc. In almost every successful show there is some element where the characters are mildly to vastly more informed than the viewer. We accept them as the authority of a thing and don’t question it. When done right, the creator and writing team are able to effectively create their ‘universe’ using people who do know this area and create a consistent and intriguing dynamic. Unless you are professional political operative, The West Wing does this brilliantly.
I admittedly am not overly political. I base what I believe is best conceptually by logic. I do not watch the news. You’ll find in a future article why. In short, watching the news is depressing and time I could spend watching something good and entertaining. Besides, I can get news from a website. The politics were not what attracted me to this show. If anything the category of “political drama” is what prevented me from watching it until 3 years after it had concluded its original run. Yet, despite understanding politics and the state of the nation, this show delivers that sense that the characters know more than I do. I can accept that at face value and grow with it. The chess game that is democratic politics plays into the story more than you would think, but it does so in a way that does not detract from the story. It also presents this knowledge that exceeds that of the average viewer in a way that allows the average viewer to understand it. It may not be officially a civics lesson, but people will pick up certain nuanced details to how democratic politics works (or doesn’t work for that matter). Your personal political agenda or how you view a number policies or issues will not in any way affect how much you get out of this show.
The last little tidbit I’ll impart with regards to The West Wing is impact of the story. Naturally, a show with political undertones finds ways to create sympathetic plot points. This is not a new concept. Your typical detective shows will try an utilize current events in their story. A girl is found held against her will for 15 years (in real life), said detective show will write an episode with very similar details. The difference being that the detective show in this analogy is being reactionary. The West Wing on numerous occasions had a knack for creating a storyline out of the blue, completely making it up. Just to find life imitate art years later. For spoiler sake I don’t want to mention the HUGE elephant in the room. Suffice it to say, at some point in the series and entire season culminates with a finish that becomes almost a blueprint for what would actually happen in our real life political world but almost two full years ahead of time. And this happens many times throughout the series. Now calling Aaron Sorkin the Nostradamus of screen writers is not enough to compel a person to watch this series. However, when you compound the fact that this series has so much going for it, then you add the strangeness of incorporating actual occurrences before they happen in real life, it does add a certain something.
The West Wing, for my money, is the best show ever. When the conversation comes up and I am asked, “What’s your favorite show of all time?” I don’t answer with The West Wing. I say, “The West Wing is the greatest achievement in television over the course of human history”. The characters are phenomenal. The story is incredible and filled with layer upon layer upon layer. The characters and developments that befall the characters are sympathetic if not empathetic. You will create a bond with it and rise and fall emotionally with the characters as if the developments were happening to you personally. The writing, dare I say, is the best writing of any show ever. All of this may sound extreme. It may even come off as hyperbole. I think it is rare but every now and then, a product is made where even the creators can’t fathom the level of genius they have created. Remember, if frequency creates clarity, and I’ve seen 8,000 episodes. All seven seasons 52 times over, and counting. It really is that good. Best of all time? That is a debate for another time, but for my money, it definitely deserves consideration for that top spot.