The last few years have brought many American TV dramas that have hit some level of cult success over here in the UK. Shows like Dexter, Game of Thrones and, perhaps most of all in the last year, Breaking Bad, have all captured people’s imaginations. I’ve never really watched any of these shows, with one exception. During my first year of university, some friends and I watched a show from the beginning of the first season to the end of the seventh – and loved nearly every episode. It’s my favourite TV drama of all time. It’s called The West Wing.
The West Wing, as the name suggests, follows the day-to-day life of the senior staff of the US President in the West Wing of the White House. It’s a show with politics at the centre of its events, but not at its’ heart. A tremendous cast of characters, including Martin Sheen as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, provide the real interest in the show – as a bunch of relatively normal, but intellectual, people run the country whilst trying to run their own lives as well. This dichotomy provides an endless amount of subplots and makes the enormously important people involved in the show seem as human as the rest of us. Almost every character you come across in The West Wing is likeable, funny and well-acted.
Don’t believe for a second that a political drama would be boring. The West Wing is as funny as any other dramas you will find, with hilarious scenarios playing out of the characters’ missteps, often at the expense of Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford). The writing of the show is as good as you will find, with the esteemed Aaron Sorkin penning and directing the majority of the first four seasons himself, with the rest being team-written in a manner very true to the original. The show’s signature is its’ snappy dialogue, with realistic back-and-forths between characters rather than more traditional, unnatural solo speeches. Another staple of the show’s style is the “walk-and-talk” as a camera pans alongside characters as they talk to one another on the move. It may not sound much – but this gives a sense of urgency and importance to the characters’ dialogue which is hard to do in any other way. Every episode is a masterful exhibition in making a TV show.
This show is different from others in the way it plays almost like a soap opera at times. Going through the show, many events that take place in previous episodes are referenced and developed throughout the entire seven seasons. Missing episodes will mean that you don’t get the full experience of the show. When an old storyline comes back into the spotlight, though, it’s usually a tremendous payoff for the viewer. Another soap opera touch is the countless moments where a scene or episode ends on a sound bite that leaves the viewer in shock and awe, making the wait for the next part unbearable. Watching the show after its’ release means waiting until the next episode loads, at worst – I can only imagine the agony of waiting months for the next season to air.
The politics is something that is a draw for me as well, of course. The show does deal with the technicals of the US political system in every area imaginable; the constitution, Congressional procedure, international relations, elections – everything is covered at some point in the seven seasons of the show. Some of the events of the show are as relevant now as they were when the show ran in the late 90s and early 2000s, such as the government “shutting down” as happened towards the end of last year in real life in the US. The West Wing has even inspired real political event, such as when Tory MPs copied a tactic used in the show to defeat one of the last Labour Government’s bills in Parliament, in what became known as “The West Wing plot”. It’s not a show that aims to educate you, by any means – but just by watching the episodes you will pick up little things that make the world of politics seem just a little clearer.
The series is consistently good all the way through its’ seven seasons, although with perhaps a slight dip in the fifth season where there is a lag between Aaron Sorkin leaving the show and the writing team picking up the fluencies of his writing. Covering most of (minor spoilers) President Bartlet’s two terms in office, it is a show that ran for a perfect length of time – never having the feeling that the show was dragging, and with an ending that builds to a fitting conclusion. As much as other West Wing fans, myself included, would want more of the show – the way in which it covered the particular era of faux American history it did could not be kept up for another four or eight years.
I love The West Wing and watching it is one of the things I will remember most fondly about my first year of university. I’d thoroughly recommend the show as a 40 minute escape from hectic modern life. You can find the show online, perhaps most easily through the US version of Netflix.