Long before The Social Network, but not long after A Few Good Men and The American President, Aaron Sorkin combined the latter two movies and created the Emmy Award-winning television drama The West Wing on NBC. The show ran for seven seasons (1999-2006) and covered a plethora of political and personal topics that were both timely and overtly dramatic.
Luckily, for those of you that didn’t watch the show when it originally aired, we now have NetFlix and various other avenues by which we can view an older television series. Now, watching an entire season of any show only requires a rainy weekend and, oh, say about, 10-20 hours of free time to kill. Lucky for me (I think) I was hooked on the original running of the series before it even aired. I remember there being plenty of hype for it before the pilot episode even hit NBC.
One of the most interesting things about going back and re-watching movies or television shows (or music) is discovering if you still feel the same way about it after subsequent viewings as you did upon the initial one. Shows like The Wire or Deadwood undoubtedly grow more and more engaging with multiple viewings, once you are able to absorb more of the dialogue, character development, and plot lines. When The West Wing originally aired, there was no such thing as pausing or recording live tv, no Tivo or NetFlix. If you missed an episode, well, you were screwed (unless someone you knew taped it on their VCR). A relative once asked me what the point is in re-watching a movie you have already seen? My response was, “do you only listen to an album once?”
I recently started watching The West Wing again from episode one along with Ms. FJB (Future Jaded Bitterman). She had never seen the show and I was excited for myself to re-digest it and cautiously optimistic that she would enjoy its quick pacing, witty dialogue, heavy drama, and great ensemble cast. It was not until we got into the second season that I realized I was seeing a familiar pattern develop on the show: troubling plot lines that came into focus but then disappeared, unresolved; characters suddenly not showing up in episodes without any explanation (can anyone tell me what happens to Mandy? The “missing Russian” of The West Wing). I figured out that the show had a somewhat eery similarity to another one of my all time favorites: The X-Files. You see, like The X-Files, The West Wing seemed to have two different types of shows: the “one-off” episode in which a story line is created, worked out, and finalized in one tidy 40-minute capsule–such as episodes about a bill or policy or space shuttle launch–or the multiple episode arcs that focused on international and domestic crisis, scandals, and military actions. This is where the show was at its best.
In the post-early-2000’s-HBO-dramatic-series-boom (yes, I created that term), a series like The West Wing gets dissected by viewers like me much more than it did when it originally aired. In 2001, I was willing to deal with Zoey disappearing from the show for long stretches of time, Fitzwallace absent from The Situation Room he once dominated, or the made-for-tv sexual tension between main characters. In 2011 it comes off as, I dunno, lazy? A highly intelligent, arrogant man doesn’t understand when his assistant is flirting with him? For five freakin’ years? Viewing the show today I demand more.
That being said, I will still go on the record as saying The West Wing is, without a doubt, one of my all time favorite network dramas. The key word there being “network.” I judge a show from NBC on a different scale than I would one that appears on HBO, Showtime, (now) AMC, or (even) FX. Paid cable channels have an unfair advantage over the major networks (NYPD Blue notwithstanding): nudity, violence, and language. The West Wing was so incredible because it didn’t need any of those things. Language? Aaron Sorkin is nothing short of a teleplay virtuoso on speed. His scripts are the best part of the show (and the reason why I sat through half a season of Studio 60 before giving up). Violence? Though the show didn’t show much actual onscreen violence, there is plenty of it to go around between white supremacists, assassinations, and covert CIA operations. Sure, it could have used some nudity (Marlee Matlin, Ainsley Hayes, Mary Louise-Parker, or Toby anyone?), but who’s really paying attention to that? There’s nudity in politics?
I would highly recommend The West Wing to anyone interested in political dramas or gaining some insight into how (and why) the executive branch of the government operates the way it does. Very much like The Wire, the show offers a unique view into an otherwise clandestine world. The writing, acting, and directing are fantastic, the plotline’s are compelling, the drama is high, and humor is used in perfect doses and done in sarcastic yet informative ways (see video below for an example). Yes, it is network television, yes, there are some overblown, over dramatic, unrealistic plot lines, idealistic characters, and forced-by-tv-executives-love-stories, but the show still stands the test of time and is just as rewarding (and sometimes even timely) today as it was back in 2000.