As I write this I’m wrapping up the final episode of a whirlwind of Netflixing the entire 150+ episode run of NBC’s The West Wing in about a month. I’d never seen more than a handful of episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama, as it aired in the early-to-mid-2000s, when I was in college and grad school and had things on my mind other than making time for an adult serial drama.
The West Wing is fascinating to watch for a panoply of reasons from the artistic to the political to the sociological to the historical. It is a very good show, perhaps the best network drama to date and definitely the last great non-procedural prime time network drama. It is also its position as a network drama at the tail end of the last Golden Age of Broadcast Television that hampers it and prevents it from reaching the top echelon of television shows, for the simple reason that grinding out 20+ episodes for seven years takes its toll and limits the narrative unity a program can have.
For my money, there are two TV series that stand a step above all others: Mad Men and The Wire. These two shows combine a richness of storytelling with writing strength and unified (if markedly different) aesthetics to create great, sweeping television. After these two there is an immediate second tier which includes Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Seinfeld, The X-Files, and The West Wing, among others. Of these, Breaking Bad comes closest to cracking that top tier, but it doesn’t quite do it for me for a number of evolving reasons, but we’ll see how the final 8 episodes wrap the series up.
The West Wing is really two different series. The first series, encompassing the first four seasons when Aaron Sorkin wrote or co-wrote almost every episodes, is very much a Sorkin series with his trademark driving, witty dialogue spoken by goofy, quirky, impossibly idealistic characters alternating between mundane and globally urgent topics. It has all the great attributes of a Sorkin series, notably the smart, sardonic humor and intelligent (if, at times, overly pat) examinations of current and historical real world issues. It also has all the problems of a Sorkin series: characters used purely as mouthpieces for the writer which are discarded and reintroduced as it suits the writing, story lines that are dropped without explanation only to be brought back up episodes later for dramatic effect, and his maddening need to make every major female character in his work simultaneously both brilliant and ditsy.
The second series is the final three seasons after Sorkin departed and John Wells took over running the show. The quirky heart of the show disappeared as the characters became more grounded and the show became more of a true serial, with story arcs continuing directly through multiple episodes. It became a much more serious and sober show caused both by the illness and then death of actor John Spencer and the progression of President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis. It is Bartlet’s MS that is the show’s Achilles heel, I think, because after the second season its dramatic purpose no longer exists and it is only used as a crutch (pun intended) for moments of cheap sentimentality.
But The West Wing is a beautiful show with fantastic actors that, at its best, manages to be some of the best television in history. It shrewdly avoids the problems of Sorkin’s other revisionist drama, The Newsroom, by setting itself entirely in an alternate universe that diverges from American history some time soon after the Nixon administration, complete with an alternate election cycle, new predecessor Presidents, and at least two entirely new countries, one in the Persian Gulf and one in sub-Saharan Africa, designed as composites to represent the issues America has to face in these regions. As a result, The West Wing is able to examine alternate ways America could have faced obstacles in the recent past without The Newsroom’s smug true life overlay.
The most interesting thing about The West Wing is that very little has changed politically in the decade-plus that has passed since the show first aired. The issues being discussed in The West Wing are the exact same topics of note today: the debt ceiling, health care reform, gun control, overseas interventionism in internal strife, and struggling democratic reform movements in Southwest Asia and North Africa. Obviously it will never be known how much progress we might have made politically should things have gone differently in the Supreme Court Selection of 2000, but the arrested development of American politics which resulted from the G.W. Bush Administration is depressingly clear.
If The West Wing had debuted eight years later on AMC with a thirteen episode season and without the financial burden of having to live up to network expectations it would have been a very different and perhaps much more successful show, although it would not have been allowed the opulent production values afforded to it by its network budget. I’ll be curious to see how the next season of The Newsroom, which seemed to hit its stride in the final few episodes, shapes up and if Sorkin can bring back some of that early West Wing magic.
For another Better Late Than Never, check out Erik’s breakdown of Lost: Season One.