Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing is counted as one of the best television shows of all time. But what is it about this show that makes it universally appealing despite being set in the White House? Here’s what we think about The West Wing.
What is the West Wing about?
The West Wing is set during the fictional administration of President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his loyal team of staffers who help him in running the country. Across the seven seasons of the show, we see the Bartlet administration struggling to get things done while staying within the confines of the law, on most occasions. We also see a bunch of people who are determined to make their country a better place despite all the politics.
Why is the show significant?
For an Indian viewer, The West Wing’s spirit is aspirational in nature. Here, we see a few good men and women who will go to any lengths for the welfare of their people and it serves as a constant reminder that to get things done, you have to get personally involved. Aaron Sorkin had created a big name for himself after the success of another TV show Sports Night but the phenomenon he created with the West Wing was unexpected.
Despite being light on TV’s favourite trope, comedy, The West Wing appealed to the masses as they got to see the inner workings of the Oval office.
What works for the show?
The show is largely dialogue-based and every scene moves at a brisk pace with characters mouthing dialogues at a lightning speed. It was here that the now-famous ‘walk and talk’ came to being.
Since the characters are often involved in dialogue in the restricted halls of The West Wing, Sorkin created the style where they had to walk from end-to-end to finish the conversation. As one person left the conversation, another would join in and the scene would go on without a jerky transition. This kept the show dynamic and the audience never felt exhausted by the huge amount of dialogue.
Another element that works beautifully for the show is its writing. The characters, mostly white men, were significantly different from one another. Their professional lives intertwined with their personal lives made them look like people who were actually giving everything for the progress of their country. Their conflicts and demons that made them human interfered with their oath and this was where Sorkin created magic on screen.
The stand out character throughout the show was CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) who starts off as the Press Secretary of the administration. Being the only woman in the President’s close circle, her point of view on subject matters, her treatment by her peers and the pressure that her job yields were all conveyed in a wonderful fashion by Janney.
The West Wing struck gold in the casting department as every actor became the character they played. To this day, it’s hard to see Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe anywhere and not think of Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn.
Touching upon politics in a universal way
It’s hard to fathom why a non-American viewer would get invested in the show but just after watching the first episode, you get a sense that this show is more than American politics. The show highlights the human side of politicians and not the side that we see on television. The precarious position that world leaders often find themselves in and how they are judged for it is a recurring element of the show.
Since the show is set in the late 90s, it fictionalises the government but does cover world events like the Kargil war, the crisis in the middle east and US relations with China.
Stand out arcs on The West Wing
The West Wing had some really interesting storylines over the years but the best ones certainly include Leo McGarry’s alcoholism, President Bartlet’s admission of his medical condition and the following scandal, the assassination attempt on him, Josh Lyman’s will-they-won’t they track with his secretary Donna (that pretty much lasted the entire series), and the death of CJ Gregg’s boyfriend.
What doesn’t work for the show?
Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing after the first four seasons and this becomes evident as the fifth season opens. In the opening of Season 5, we learn that the President’s daughter was kidnapped by terrorists who are now trying to strike a deal with the government. The way this entire storyline was handled was not much in sync with Sorkin’s telling and was definitely not as engaging as the previous seasons.
But the biggest story arc that did not work in the show was Toby Ziegler’s treason. The story never felt true to the show and it was against everything that we had learned about the character in the previous seasons. In fact, Leo McGarry’s return to office after suffering a stroke was quite bizarre too.
Behind the scenes
John Spencer who played Leo McGarry on the show becomes the Vice-Presidential candidate in the Santos’ administration but before he can take office, he passes away. In real life, John Spencer passed away and the writers felt that the only way to honour his memory was by acknowledging his death on the show.
The West Wing might have dwindled a bit after Sorkin left the show but soon got back on its feet. The strong structure and characters that were created were enough for the show to still impress its viewers, which is why the ratings never really crashed.
Over its seven-year run, The West Wing was loved by the award circuit. It was nominated for 95 Primetime Emmy Awards with 26 wins and 20 Golden Globe Awards with 2 wins.
Actors who won Emmys for their performance include Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, John Spencer, Stockard Channing and Alan Alda.
Allison Janney was nominated six times out of seven for her performance here and managed to win the award four times.
The West Wing is the gold standard when it comes to dialogue writing and character treatment. It deserves to be watched across the world.
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The West Wing is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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