Judge Bill Gibron once nearly let an illness ruin his bid for elected office, but he got over the chickenpox and became president of his fourth grade class.
Our reviews of The West Wing: The Complete Third Season (published November 24th, 2004), The West Wing: The Complete Fourth Season (published June 1st, 2005), The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season (published March 1st, 2006), The West Wing: The Complete Sixth Season (published August 14th, 2006), and The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season (published November 27th, 2006) are also available.
All the President's men…and women
Politics and network television programming make strange bedfellows. The sleeping arrangements are even more strained when the actual federal government is involved. Oh sure, the CIA, FBI, DEA and any number of other abbreviated agencies have supplied the unique cops for your typical TV robbers. But when it comes to the real movers and shakers, the power brokers and their various undersecretaries, they've shied away from that dramatic scenario. It's not because politics is boring. Heavens no: movies like All the President's Men, Nixon, and Primary Colors have all proved that any genre, from thriller to dark comedy, and any biography in between, can make entertainment detente with the audience.
So when Adam Sorkin, overnight Hollywood sensation, famous for the play/movie A Few Good Men and a couple of modest mainstream hits (1993's Malice and 1995's An American President), decided to create a one-hour nighttime drama surrounding a sitting President and his staff, a combination of cheers and warning flags went up around Tinseltown. Could this creative craftsman find a way to meld the boob tube with bi-partisanship to formulate a fictional account of the federal government that matches both personalities and politics? Apparently, the answer was yes.
The West Wing became a critical and fan favorite, and for the last six seasons, successfully walked that tricky tightrope between pontification and dramatization. Now coming to DVD in complete season sets, we can witness the behind the scenes strategies and policy pontifications surrounding President Jeb Bartlet and his exceptional staff of advisors. You'll also learn what many have already known: The West Wing is a stellar television drama.
Facts of the Case
For those who've never watched a single episode of The West Wing (this critic included), jumping into the middle of the series with the second series seems foolhardy. After all, you miss all of the dynamics, the situational setups, and previous personal interplay between the individuals. We are new to the personalities. Some of the subtleties are missing. And yet, the amazing thing about this show is that you can pick up at almost any point and have enough information within a single episode to understand what's going on. The shows are just that dense and descriptive. Still, before addressing the issues and plot points raised in Season Two, there may be a need for a recap of Season One. A good source for such information can be found at The West Wing Episode Guide, linked in The Accomplices. Since the series centers on the President and his staff, we meet the following VIPS:
• President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen)—The liberal,
loquacious leader who fancies himself a father figure to his entire staff.
The individual episode on this four-DVD set include the following:
• "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Parts I and II"
• "The Midterms"
• "In This White House"
• "And It's Surely to Their Credit"
• "The Lame Duck Congress"
• "The Portland Trip"
• "The Leadership Breakfast"
• "The Drop In"
• "Bartlet's Third State of the Union"
• "The War at Home"
• "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to
• "The Stackhouse Filibuster"
• "17 People"
• "Bad Moon Rising"
• "The Fall's Gonna Kill You"
• "18th and Potomac"
• "Two Cathedrals"
There is a fine line between TV drama and TV melodrama, and it's a lot thinner than four whole letters. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, the elements of story and sentiment can gang up against you and thwart ingenuity and invention. No matter how you slice it, dice it, or jokingly julienne it, tragedy has a trajectory rolling right toward the tearjerker, that's awfully hard to control. So any show that can circumvent the pitfalls of pathos as it also avoids the extremes of shrill excess deserves a great deal of credit just for making it that far. Many of the classic hour-long dramas in the history of television have found an effective equilibrium, a way to match message with machinations to serve the story sufficiently. This may explain why absolute examples of excellence are so few and far between. Between the esoteric of Twin Peaks and the pragmatic of ER, it seems hard for most shows to maintain the delicate balance. What makes The West Wing that much more amazing is that it tosses partisanship and political intrigue into the still unstable stew to create one of the best serious series in television history. Instantly engrossing, incredibly smart, and about as authentic as a show about the White House can be, Aaron Sorkin's stellar saga challenges as it entertains, providing insight and interest in issues that normally Americans would tend to tune out over. Using a working Executive Branch to illustrate problems and personalities, there hasn't been a show this gripping or electric in the tenure of the broadcast medium.
For all the acting talent and attention to detail, The West Wing is really a writer's show…and that writer is Aaron Sorkin. Perhaps one of the best wordsmiths in the business, he never underestimates the intelligence of the audience and finds ways to explain the technical and touchy with uncommon ease. Sorkin wrote on each and every of the 22 episodes in Season Two, and with the exception of two episodes, he handled the scripting alone. Much more so than Season One (where several other writers contributed to the narrative), Season Two is completely Sorkin's series—solely his near singular voice—for better…and occasionally for the worse. Sorkin does have a tendency to write in a skeet shooting style—meaning that stories are crafted to toss several hot button targets into the air, only to have the President and his staff shoot them down with ridiculous regularity. Indeed, when The West Wing wobbles, it does so on the level of unbelievably. The fragile fence that the show walks is incredibly flimsy, balancing real life events and fictional flights of fancy. On occasion, you feel that you're watching a White House that can't possibly be this organized, this intelligent, and this marksman-like in its ability to derail disaster. Even as the President's medical story gets dicey, we tend to think that nothing much will come of it. We can't imagine this staff being overwhelmed, or defeated, by an issue as seemingly unimportant to the operational function of the United States as whether some personal information was disclosed. Still, thanks to Sorkin's skill with words, we do feel the threat and shift with the drama of the show. The West Wing's greatness is a bold statement for the size of his talent.
Covering a year or so in the Bartlet administration, the complete Season Two set begins with the concluding chapter from Season One's assassination cliffhanger. A pair of racial extremists fire at President Bartlet and his staff for reasons the two-part resolution hints at. Otherwise, "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Parts I and II" are a wonderfully complex, dense pair of episodes that flash back to when the current staff all came together to work on Bartlet's campaign while keeping us in suspense over the well-being of a couple key cast members. While their fate is never really in doubt, the anticipation and the intrigue is handled very well. Following the aftermath of the shooting and the upcoming Congressional elections, "The Midterms" deals with the various personal agendas of the staff, including Toby Ziegler's vendetta against hate groups, Charlie's guilt over his relationship with Zoey, and the President's obsession with an ex-opponent's school board race. The separate storylines really add depth and personality to the characters. The introduction of a staunch conservative Republican lawyer to the staff brings out the hard line differences in the personal philosophies of Bartlet's people during "In This White House," making many very specific statements about AIDS, guns, and corporate greed. Anyone expecting this show to shy away from controversy hasn't been paying attention.
And "It's Surely to Their Credit" starts off Side Two with divergent storylines all centering on how members of the staff handle crisis. CJ must deal with a disgruntled General and her scene sizzles with crackerjack writing. Ainsley's hardships while learning the ropes makes for some forced, frivolous moments, but John Larroquette as the Chief White House Counsel keeps the proceedings from getting too phony. "The Lame Duck Congress" pulls us back into politics as usual as secret meetings illuminate the way backdoor domestic diplomacy is used to win votes. The material here is intriguing and enthralling. We see a nice balance between preaching (the entire argument over same sex marriages) and personalities (the President's love of his alma mater Notre Dame) in "The Portland Trip." The invention of having the entire storyline play out during a long overnight flight to the west coast demonstrates the level of complexity and cleverness in this series. While it has its moments, "Shibboleth" is a little to scattered to be considered a completely successful episode. The Thanksgiving material is fine and the comedy comes out of both character and circumstance, but the whole issue revolving around the nomination of Mahoney's sister for a high profile position seems far too truncated and the religious implications of the Chinese refugees situation are also dealt with far too quickly. In each case, The West Wing had a killer continual storyline that, somehow, the White House managed to miraculously cure in a single one hour show.
Disc Two shifts gears a little, as both "Galileo" and "Noël" deal with more interpersonal issues. Yes, we still have the occasional crisis—the nuclear accident in Russia, the political faux pax with Iceland—but the main thrust of these two shows is the President's idealism (science and space spark Bartlet's best interests) and Josh's growing isolation over the assassination. Between the well-written scripts and excellent atmosphere of Washington in winter, the cast has a chance to further expand and explain their characters…and they do so marvelously. It's therefore nice to see a shift back to intrigue and double-crossing in "The Leadership Breakfast." As with most of The West Wing, there is an air of authenticity that makes us, the average citizens, even that much more skeptical about what goes on behind closed federal office doors. The final episode on Side One, "The Drop In," offers us a chance to meet some memorable new faces, Including Lord John Marbury, ambassador to Great Britain, played with aplomb and self-deprecation by Roger Rees. We also learn a few of the tricks of the political trade (the title of the episode being one of them). The first two episodes of Side Two deal with the aftermath of the State of the Union address, and it's interesting to watch the spin doctoring, flaps, and fallout. With a chance to attack the drug war, the gun lobby, and women's issues, these are two strong outings, both dramatically and politically.
"Ellie," the next installment, brings us back to a more human approach to White House issues. The relationship between President Bartlet and his middle daughter, a med student, has a nice ring of truth and allows the leader to be humanized even more (something that this show is very good at). Even better is Sam's struggle with his own personal problems when he learns his dad has been having an affair for over 25 years. "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail" (a title taken from a Don Henley song lyric) also offers a great sub-story about a spy case from the 1940s. The final reveal is one of the better bubble bursting moments in the series. Disc Three starts the decent toward the season finale, starting with "The Stackhouse Filibuster." Using a device perhaps made most famous by TV's M*A*S*H, the cast writes letters—in this case, emails—to their families back home as an obstinate Senator holds up a crucial vote. While the political aspects of this installment are wonderful (especially the whole Vice President policy position switch), the reason behind the legislator's logjam is very predictable, perhaps the first really formulaic plotting in the otherwise superb scripting of The West Wing. Thankfully, "17 People" comes along and saves the situation. Taking place just a few days after the filibuster begins, Toby's growing angry over being "out of the loop" on the President's illness and its impact on his possible bid for re-election illustrates how, when The West Wing works, it works magnificently. The ramifications discussed by Bartlet and his men have the ring of true insider ideology.
With the last four episodes of the season, we enter into the scandal/legal arena of the show. Oliver Platt (Funny Bones, Bicentennial Man) plays the new White House Counsel and his efforts in dealing with the failure to disclose the President's medical condition have a great deal of gravity, thanks to his performance. "Bad Moon Rising," the last show on Side One of Disc Three, begins the breakdown of the characters confidence in their power and position. On Side Two, "The Fall's Gonna Kill You" keeps the shame circle going as what people knew when and the extent of any cover-up is explored. Especially effective is Marlee Matlin, who we've seen before as pollster Joey Lucas. Her scenes with Bradley Whitford's Josh have a real All the President's Men skullduggery feel. In a tradition usually reserved for complex British cop shows, a favored character meets an unexpected end in "18th and Potomac." The desire to keep the show fresh by sacrificing a series regular is a risk, but Sorkin and company manage to pull off the radical left turn brilliantly. But nothing can prepare the audience for the bravura turn of "Two Cathedrals." While some of the flashback material with President Bartlet as a young boy doesn't quite work, the build up to the President's news conference on his illness, plus the question of whether Bartlet will run again helps the narrative to avoid the more problematic moments. It all crashes to a very dramatic climax. And while we are left with a clever quasi-cliffhanger, the continued existence of the series more or less answers the question perfectly.
As deep and detailed as these stories are, the reason The West Wing succeeds so beautifully is the fact that it tries to incorporate as many divergent elements into its linear narrative as possible. Put aside the constant bickering between Donna and Josh for a moment, and you can merely sit back and witness the classic cat and mouse of two people destined to be together. This His Girl Friday facet of the series is always good for a laugh, or a crackerjack riff of witty banter. There is also a great deal of deadpan humor, usually between Toby and Leo or Toby and Sam, and these tension breakers belie the real and serious situations going on inside the White House offices. The actual operations of the Presidency, from staff meetings to important decisions, have a real sense of import and urgency to them. This is thanks to the clockwork craftsmanship between writer and director, script and cast, and even President Bartlet and his staff, all recalling other classic Oval Office thrillers. As part of The West Wing's narrative complexity, episodes constantly reference themselves, elements from the past readily make re-appearances, and the characters slowly carve out specific traits that aid the evolution of their personas. Melded together with authentic sets, a real sense of our Nation's capital, and a wide scope of subject matter, The West Wing sizzles with sheer audacity to remain accurate to the issues while keeping the personalities of the players front and center.
Individually, the staff represents all aspects of the democratic process, illustrating the passion people have for the ins and outs of representational government. Josh Lyman is the total political voice, the agenda-based spokesman for the show's stern philosophy. Josh will always take the time to explain the intricate details and specific talking points of even the most controversial concern. Sam Seaborn is the wide-eyed idealist, thinking that the moral and ethical underpinning in each crisis should be the focus for any solution. He's the young hope for a new generation. Toby Ziegler is his polar opposite, a cynical pragmatist who believes everything revolves around partisan tent poles. He's so ensconced in the old boy network that he doesn't know if there is any way out. As is Leo McGarry. The chief of staff is the appropriately named king of this jingoistic jungle, a pillar of strength always aware of where the fires are and the ways to put them out. Leo's job seems to be to dig out the smoking guns lying in wait to undermine the White House, and he's very good at it. C.J. Cregg is the cultural curmudgeon of the show, the ornery yet classy cuss with a seriously cynical attitude and a Mad Magazine like ability to craft snappy answers to stupid questions. Her strong feminine presence offsets some of the dopier (Donna) and drippier (Republican flag hag Ainsley Hayes) West Wing gals. This is not to say that Janel Moloney as Donna and Emily Proctor (C.S.I. Miami) as Ainsley are bad in their roles, but they tend to be script sweep up gals, brought on to have various moods and shifting insights into issues, either for parity or punch line purposes. In some ways, they represent the electorate that constantly confused group of people who understand that to solve problems, you have to be part of the participating solution. Only thing is, the problems change hourly—as do Donna and Ainsley.
Even with some of these very minor faults, The West Wing is still a classic, as conventional as it is contemporary. It manages that magical transformation between drama, thriller, and comedy with intensity and entertainment intact. It pushes the limits as it draws on time-honored principles to sell its sincerity. It doesn't shy away from controversy or contrivance and uses its less-than-bully pulpit to discuss issues of social and cultural relevance. In essence, this is the epic poem play of Aaron Sorkin's career, a chance to take a group of people and run them through the elemental trials and tribulations of mythology. The result is a serial stowed in an episodic experiment, a multi-layered look at the human fuel that keeps the Executive Branch fully functional. While it's hard to imagine the show maintaining this level of editorial and entertainment excellence forever, the brilliant benchmark created by the second season of The West Wing stands as a testament to the moxie of its cast and crew. But it is creator Aaron Sorkin who really shines, showing that television can tackle tough issues, broach broad political platforms and flaunt fictional fiascos on the viewing public, only to have them lap it up in droves. The West Wing is a wonderful show, and Season Two cements its superiority very well.
As cinematic as the stories are, the visual presentation of the series is equally enigmatic. Offered in pristine 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, the big-screen feel fills every frame in the detailed, dramatic transfer. Colors are concrete and the contrast between brash brightness and deep shadow is controlled expertly. Most TV series don't have this kind of feature film feel, but The West Wing exploits this element to help increase the breadth of the show's aspirations. Television also tends to flatten the aural aspects of every broadcast, and unless you make a real attempt to broaden the sonic atmospheres, a show will always sound mundane when it could be moody. Still, with overlapping dialogue, rapid-fire repartee, a reliance on pop music, and a stately, Sousa like soundtrack, The West Wing's audio elements all come across very well in Dolby Digital Stereo.
First up in the extras department are four commentary tracks, each presided over by Sorkin and featuring various cast/crew members. On Part 1 of "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," we get to hear Bradley Whitford discuss the impact of Josh's fictional shooting on his family, and listen as Sorkin celebrates the work of the Secret Service. But this sparse discussion is mostly spent in awe-inspired silence as the participants silently swoon over the show they are watching. At least on the commentary for Part 2 of this story, Martin Sheen enlivens the proceedings with his high-pitched, hysterical laugh. Sorkin even opens up a little, discussing how a speech in the show inspired a police officer to find the courage and conviction to write the show about the suicide of his son. On the track for "Noël," Brad is again present, this time to discuss the luminosity of his performance (as you recall, the show centered around Josh's mental breakdown) while working in a few kind words for guest performer Yo-Yo Ma. Perhaps the most information is offered during "18th and Potomac," which deals with the death of a major character. The reasons why are explored and the shifting of focus between competing storylines is explained. Director Robert Berlinger also discusses many of his framing and composition decisions, balancing the many threads into a single success. Frankly, these commentaries are a tad underwhelming. They are far too sparse and sometimes go silent for several minutes while the participants simply play audience. We, however, want them to be active participants. Sadly, that is something these behind the scenes chats never really achieve.
Befitting a series of this caliber, Warner Brothers creates a fourth disc that tries to add some context into the show's creation, and there are some interesting presentations here. "Two Cathedrals" is basically a visual commentary featurette with talking heads, a walk through the artistic and technical elements that went into creating the final episode of Season Two. There is more information here than on any of the four alternative audio tracks offered on the discs. There is also an interactive tour through The West Wing that allows you to navigate a blueprint of the building. There you will find several photo galleries as well as a 17-minute overview of the sets. The intricate recreation of some of the White House's most famous locales is explained, as well as the differences between the sets and the real setting. From the Kennedy inspired lobby to the far more spacious Roosevelt Room, we learn that actual West Wing staff members are jealous over some of the lavish locales the cast get to work in (compared to the cramped quarters back home). As with most shows, bloopers abound in The West Wing, but the Gag Reel presented here is only about a minute of muffs: actors blowing lines and technical malfunctions of the set. It's funny but superfluous. Our final extra is a ten-minute series of deleted scenes, which for the most part are trivial. Presented in piss-poor grainy video, complete with time codes, we do gain minor insight into Zoey and Charlie's relationship, the President's unbalanced checkbook, and the ongoing debate over Vermont versus New Hampshire maple syrup. Perhaps the best missing moment is a discussion about evacuating the non-essential staff in the US embassy during the crisis in Haiti. It adds understanding to the process of how such operations are executed.
The politics of partisanship mandate that, when one side or the other is taken, someone is going to be left out (or maybe…right out). People use their party allegiance and the philosophical stands those entities take as a way of measuring their own acumen, and championing one runs the risk of alienating any number of individuals or organizations. The amazing thing about Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing is that it manages to find a way to balance the liberal agenda of the fictional White House presented with the conservative ideology of the opposing side. No issue is forbidden and no discussion is too preachy. Make no mistake about it, though. The West Wing is complete fiction, a never-could-happen-in-real-life ride through idealized politics and equally impractical individuals. Without sounding super cynical, our current crop of elected officials—heck, the vast majority of them—are trapped in an endless cycle of lobbyists, fundraising, and media measured campaigning where every poll is prescient and every photo op a potential term killer. While it would be nice to have such an efficient and effective group of people running the nation, the reality is far more muddled and messy. Just thank the many muses that we have the chance to see such spectacular writing and acting in one place week in and out. The West Wing may not transcend its limits to become something other than a superior one-hour drama (unlike, say Cracker), but it is one of the best television shows ever created. And for being able to successfully skirt the problems of polemics in the performing arts, it's that rarity in entertainment: a smart show about serious subjects. No need to hail to the chief. Praising The West Wing is recognition enough.
The West Wing is found not guilty and is free to go. Warner Bros. is also acquitted on all charges and praised for offering this superior show on DVD for future generations to enjoy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentaries On Four Episodes with Creator/Writer Aaron Sorkin, Director Thomas Schlamme, and Cast Members Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney, Robert Burlinger, and Kathryn Joosten
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.