The West Wing was praised for its realistic depiction of the White House nerve centre, thanks to writers and consultants like former press secretary Dee Dee Myers and former White House aide Eli Attie, and to the show’s oversized and expensive set. Sorkin himself declared, “I really felt that we weren’t going to be able to get away with any of the stories that we were telling in their idealistic, romantic nature, and we weren’t going to be able to get away with any of the jokes that we were doing if we didn’t first take care of selling the audience on the reality of the show.”
I have no intrinsic interest in the Oval Office, in the White House, in the American presidency, or in politics, yet I find The West Wing (at least the first four seasons, before Sorkin, who wrote nearly all the episodes in that period, left the show) utterly compelling. I have watched some of the episodes more times than I can count and was inspired by the show to attempt a pilot and several episodes of my own series (I discovered, much to my surprise, that I am not Aaron Sorkin).
While the verisimilitude of the set does contribute to the attractiveness of the show and the premise—the inner workings and the human side of the West Wing—is a guaranteed draw, it is that rare miracle of television alchemy—the near-perfect blending of outstanding writing that produces intelligent, multi-dimensional characters, crackling dialogue, and the classic Sorkin walk-and-talk action, with a cast that breathes warmth, edginess, humour, and vulnerability into the characters on the pages of Sorkin’s screenplays—that gives us four seasons of almost pure gold.
President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen (who was not first choice for the role, a role which was originally intended to be minor but was quickly expanded), is my favourite character on the show; he is smart, passionate, impulsive, funny, generous, and child-like. C.J. Cregg, Bartlet’s Press Secretary (played by Allison Janney), is at once sharp-witted and compassionate; Janney’s comedic timing, both verbal and physical, is a ten. Richard Schiff plays Toby Ziegler, White House Communications Director; Ziegler is a brilliant, angry, love-starved loser whose idealism drives everyone crazy. Other members of the President’s support team include Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (the late John Spencer), Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and Josh’s assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney, brilliant). Lowe was the big name on the series, but in my opinion he was outshone by Sheen, Janney, Schiff, and Moloney.
If you have not seen any episodes of The West Wing, I recommend that you do; it is television drama of a high calibre that does not rely on violence, sex, sensationalism (even though it is the White House), or shock for its appeal. Go to the library, borrow the First Complete Season and watch the Christmas episode, “In Excelsis Deo.”
The West Wing is getting ready for Christmas. Amidst the festive activities and the usual hubbub of state affairs and political crises and intrigue, Toby gets a call from the D.C. police and is asked to identify a homeless man, dead of exposure, who was found on a park bench near the Washington Monument. The Communications Director has no idea who the victim is but when told by the investigating officer that his business card was found on the dead man, he realizes the corpse is wearing a coat he had donated to Goodwill. When he sees the tattoo of a U.S. Marine veteran of the Korean War on the man’s arm, the fervent idealist adopts the dead vet as a cause. Against all regulations and protocol, he uses the weight of the Oval Office to arrange a burial in Arlington Cemetery with full military honours.
In a beautifully written, shot, and acted segment of the episode, Toby ventures at night into the underworld of Washington’s homeless in search of someone who might know the deceased man. He finds the veteran’s brother—a middle-aged man of limited mental capacity— living in a garbage-strewn squatters’ nest under a highway off-ramp; he delivers the sad news of his brother’s death and convinces him to attend the funeral the next day. The exchange between Toby and the slow-witted sibling is heartbreaking.
After he tells the man that his brother has died and tries to explain—an impatient person summoning the gentle and loving patience of a father explaining a new and difficult concept to his young child—that he was a Korean War vet, Toby starts to leave and immediately turns back to the man. He says: “I’m sorry, this is absolutely none of my business. Your brother is entitled to a proper funeral with mourners, and I think he deserves an honor guard, and you don’t know me but [as if this is the most embarrassing thing he could reveal] I’m an influential person, I’m a very…powerful person and I would like to arrange it.”
Back in the West Wing, Toby is taken to task for his unauthorized action by the President’s secretary, Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten), but Bartlet, notified only moments before of the beating death of a young gay man in Minnesota, gives his blessing. Meanwhile, as Toby prepares to leave for Arlington, Landingham, who lost her two sons in the Vietnam War, is waiting in her coat and hat to go with him.
If the viewer is not in tears at this point, the scene of the burial ceremony itself, with its 21-gun salute, the folding of the flag that is then handed to the brother, and the brother placing a bouquet of flowers on the coffin, all of which is intercut with a children’s choir singing The Little Drummer Boy in the West Wing in front of the staff, will surely turn on the faucet. There is no cheap sentimentalism here: every scene rings with truth because it has been carefully set up by details of the plot presented in prior action and because it reflects some aspect or aspects of the character involved.
Other episodes from the first four seasons that I recommend are Take This Sabbath Day, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (Parts One and Two), Noel, Two Cathedrals, Manchester (Parts One and Two), Bartlet for America, Posse Comitatus, and The Long Goodbye.
“Arlington National Cemetery Graves (Burial Criteria)” by Tony Fischer Photography.
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