If you read this site for thorough and involving criticism, don't miss Judge Diane Wild's review of this landmark series.
Our reviews of The West Wing: The Complete Second Season (published August 4th, 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.
"Can you tell the difference between peace time and war time anymore?" Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos)
Ahh, Season Three. Back before The West Wing became The Deadly Earnest Wing. Back before producer John Wells of ER fame took over the creative helm, performed a humorectomy, and started sending characters to the hospital with alarming frequency. He must be kicking himself for not having the prescience to set ER in Washington—imagine the crossover possibilities.
Season Three falters slightly more often than the previous two, but it is still ridiculously good. Hail to the Chief…creator, executive producer, and über-writer Aaron Sorkin.
Facts of the Case
Season Three begins in the aftermath of the revelation that President Josiah (Jed) Bartlet (Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now) has a form of multiple sclerosis, a non-fatal but serious disease that he hid from the public and from his staff. Heading into an election year, he has decided to seek re-election despite the backlash caused by his deception and despite a promise to his wife Abbey (Stockard Channing, Grease) that in deference to his health, he would stand for only one term. A medical doctor, she has become his greatest liability since she breached medical ethics by secretly treating her husband's illness.
His loyal staff is relieved that their President will run again, partly because of their respect and affection for him, partly because of the promise of a challenging campaign. But they also struggle with feelings of betrayal at being left in the dark, and frustration that a congressional investigation into the MS cover-up threatens to overshadow the campaign they want to run.
Craggy Leo McGarry (John Spencer, Albino Alligator) is Bartlet's Chief of Staff, who was previously outed as a recovering alcoholic and Valium addict and faces further scrutiny because of the cover-up investigation.
Toby Zielger (Richard Schiff, I Am Sam) is the "prickly, mumbly Communications Director" who is as grouchy as advertised, but also darkly hilarious. He is one of the most vocal critics of the President's inclination to play it safe, and seriously clashes with him when Toby confronts "The Two Bartlets" (to quote the episode title).
Press Secretary C.J. Cregg is like most of Sorkin's female characters—strong, smart, sexy, goofy—but Allison Janney (American Beauty) brilliantly infuses her with an idiosyncratic personality all her own. This season, C.J. takes a public stand against a U.S. alliance with the fictional country of Qumar, which bears striking resemblance to Saudi Arabia in its treatment of women. She does it again against an undisguised Saudi Arabia, who in this fiction as well as reality is a U.S. ally with a dubious record of human rights. Towards the end of the season, she finds herself the target of a death threat and shadowed by an attractive Secret Service agent played by Mark Harmon, who would be many women's idea of a silver lining.
Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford, Billy Madison) is the arrogant but charming Deputy Chief of Staff, who in Season Three pursues an uncharacteristically mature relationship with Amy Gardner (Mary Louise Parker, Grand Canyon), the leader of a women's organization that is often at odds with the White House (especially when they compromise their ideals for political expediency).
Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe, Wayne's World) is the boyish and idealistic Deputy Communications Director who Bartlet predicts will some day run for president himself.
Charlie Young (Dulé Hill, Holes) is the aide to the President who hears and sees all but reveals nothing. Often underused, he does have some strong moments this season as he stands by his team in the face of the congressional investigation.
Janel Moloney was a supporting cast member in the first season as Josh's assistant Donna Moss, but her continuing habit of stealing every scene she is in put her in the opening credits and gave her a place as an integral member of the ensemble. Her banter with Josh crackles with sexual chemistry, but for now, at least, the temptation to put the two into an inappropriate relationship has been wisely resisted. Instead, this season she accidentally enters into an inappropriate relationship with the chair of the committee investigating the President. Oops.
Each episode of The West Wing is a complete story, but there are overarching storylines that span larger chunks of time, and themes that crop up throughout the series. So rather than discuss the DVD set episode by episode, I'll talk about the evolution of the season as if it were one complete movie—which is somewhat how it plays.
The West Wing inhabits a world parallel to our own, a world that's both idealized and realistic. The President and his staff are kinder and wiser than any inhabitants of the real West Wing could hope to be, though their noble intentions are often frustrated by the political process.
Presidential elections happen every four years—but not in the same year as the real-world elections. Current issues like gun control are explored in fictional scenarios. As in real life, Kashmir and North Korea are political hot spots, Canada is friendly and innocuous, but their Wing-world leaders and specific military and political events differ.
Then came September 11.
The third season opener of The West Wing aired on October 3, 2001. How do you do an issues-driven show set in the White House and ignore the most significant issue facing the United States? But how do you incorporate such unimaginable events and their tangled aftermath, and expect a news-shocked public to care about the fiction?
For the most part during this season, The West Wing stayed its course. It tangentially touched on terrorism, Islamic fanaticism, and anti-Islamic prejudice in a few early episodes, while carrying on with its business of being intelligent escapism. It continued its delicate balance of gravity and silliness, personalities and issues.
But like many shows that struggled to comment on our suddenly changed world, The West Wing made an initial attempt to explain and comfort. In the three weeks between the world-changing events of September 11 and the season opener, Aaron Sorkin and his cast and crew cobbled together a new episode, one that didn't fit in the continuing timeline of the series and didn't commit them to an ongoing storyline. The result is not quite a success, but demonstrates one of the show's biggest strengths: even its failures—to use too harsh a word—come from reaching too far, not from not reaching far enough.
In "Isaac and Ishmael," a group of students are touring the White House when it goes into crash mode—no one is allowed to enter or exit the building because of a security threat. Details are not provided, but the various West Wing staff members come to speak to them about the unspecified terrible events, and about terrorism and the roots of fanaticism. The West Wing is famously left wing, but this episode, like many others, tries to show multiple points of view.
Sam's speech is the attempt at comfort: "Terrorism has a 100 percent failure rate," he claims, saying it serves only to strengthen what the terrorists are fighting against. Charlie compares terrorists to gang members in urban America, both with roots in poverty and the need to claim a sense of power and belonging. Josh points out that there are legitimate grievances against U.S. foreign policy, but Donna counters that the "search for rational reasons why somebody straps a bomb to their chest is ridiculous."
C.J. believes in the need to give up some liberties for the sake of safety, and a related plot involves Leo questioning an Arab-American employee of the White House who is suspected of terrorist ties. This plot acts as a nod to otherwise good people who succumb to prejudice in the face of extraordinary circumstances, and to the people who endure prejudice directed towards them with dignity.
"Isaac and Ishmael"—rushed to air as it was—is mostly talking heads, and though there are flashes of The West Wing's characteristic wit, the episode is more well-meaning than entertaining. With the distance of a few years, it still has an emotional impact, but it is too pedantic to be a success.
Afterwards, The West Wing proceeds with continuing storylines about the hearings, the re-election campaign, and Bartlet's struggle to lead by following his convictions. His folksy, plain-spoken opponent in the upcoming (Season Four) election will be Robert Ritchie, who is the unseen butt of a few jokes questioning his intelligence during this season, and is brought to gloriously dim life by James Brolin in the final episode. After a recurring character is shot and killed in an armed robbery, he responds with the pithy: "Crime. Boy, I don't know," prompting Bartlet to vow to "kick (his) ass."
Season Three also presents many single-episode stories, including that of a sub that may or may not be missing in the waters off North Korea, a poet laureate (played by Laura Dern) who wants to use a White House dinner in her honor to protest the government's refusal to sign a land mine treaty, and the Russians constructing a nuclear facility in Iran.
The structure of episodes often keeps the viewer slightly off-balance. We may not quite realize the importance of some bits of information until the pieces come together by the end. The show never condescends to its audience or over explains. It has a definite point of view, but gives viewers enough information to reach their own conclusions.
Despite its partially continuing storylines and brief forays into the characters' personal lives, The West Wing leaves no soapy residue. The personal storylines—who Josh is dating, Donna's affair, C.J.'s attraction to her Secret Service agent—these are all backburner stories that serve to enhance the major plotlines.
In the latter part of the season, the fictional country of Qumar—a blend of Taliban Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein-led Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—stands in as the enemy for a multiple-episode story arc. In the most direct reference in The West Wing world to the events of September 11, the Qumari foreign minister masterminded a failed attack against the Golden Gate Bridge. In response, the President is encouraged to assassinate the man, which could contravene international and American law.
More than the season opener, the last few episodes are Sorkin's response to Al Qaeda. While the plot is not a duplication of reality, it has enough similarities to bring up issues that weren't always explored in depth on the nightly news at the time: what is modern warfare, when enemies and allies are hard to distinguish? What are the ethics of targeting a person rather than a country?
After that seriousness, it's difficult to convey the humor of the series, but it's such an integral part of the writing that I have to try. The delivery of these lines is the key to their comedy, though. The laugh-out-loud moments frequently punctuate more high-minded dialogue relating to world events and important issues, and arise out of the characters' quirks. For example, a delightful battle of pranks between C.J. and Charlie causes her to throw up the white flag after having her security pass revoked, phone glued together, and desk collapse. "How long do you usually make someone your bitch?" she asks.
C.J.'s goofy side also lets her go off on amusing tangents when she's discussing something like the President's low approval rating after the MS scandal: "They were talking about the lack of yeast in our numbers. Yeast is a fun word to say. Our numbers are less than yeasty."
Crusty Toby often makes fun of his cynical persona. At one point, he takes Leo to task for referring to Toby's wife. "My ex-wife," Toby corrects. "Why do you call her my wife?"
"Because it bothers you," Leo responds.
"Everything bothers me," counters Toby. "But you pick that?"
In one episode, Donna is barred from a White House event by the Secret Service because an error drawing the border was corrected and resulted in her northern Minnesota birthplace now located in Canada. "Canadian, huh?" Amy asks. "Do you feel funnier?"
"No, but I am developing a massive inferiority complex," Donna responds.
Maybe it takes a Canadian to find that hysterical, but that's one of the amazing feats of this show—I am not American, nor do I closely follow American politics. I do know far more than I need to about the U.S. political system because of this show, but The West Wing is not really about politics. It's primarily about people we have learned to care about dealing with issues that affect us all—though we may not deal with them on such a grand scale. It is populated with characters you can't help but fall in love with, hugely intelligent and well-intentioned people with sometimes-huge failings.
A weakness of the show ironically arises from its strength—the ensemble cast. All the regular characters are well-developed and played by talented actors, and a roster of recurring characters add astounding depth to the show. But with so many characters to choose from, some are short-changed. Charlie is the best example this season. His continuing storyline with the President's daughter Zoey in the first couple of seasons doesn't continue in Season Three, and though he appears in many scenes, he rarely has the spotlight. Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter, C.S.I. Miami) is the firecracker Republican lawyer hired by the Bartlet administration in Season Two, and while she has some nice moments here, in one episode she acts mostly as eye candy, and she disappears completely just after her character is given a promotion.
Until his departure from the show in 2003, at the end of the fourth season, Sorkin wrote most of the episodes. His rapid-fire dialogue and quirky humor became hallmarks of the series, as did fellow executive producer and frequent director Thomas Schlamme's distinctive visual style, including his signature walk-and-talk shots. Unfortunately, Schlamme departed from the show at the same time as Sorkin. To be fair to Wells, who I blame for the show's rapid decline in seasons five and six, it began somewhat in Season Four when Sorkin and Schlamme were still at the helm. Still, who said life was fair?
The West Wing is a beautiful-looking DVD, with warm, vivid colors, crisp contrast, and no artifacts, presented in widescreen the way it was broadcast. This is a minor quibble, but there are a few instances of awkward transitions where the commercials used to be, when the usual fade to black before the opening of a new scene is truncated.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is used to good effect for such a dialogue-driven show. The overlapping snappy dialogue is crystal clear, there's frequent stereo separation and the surround sound comes to life when appropriate.
The extras aren't numerous, but they add a lot to the experience of the show. The immaculate transfer is helped by the care paid in filming the series, with its luxurious-looking sets, gorgeous lighting, and attention to detail in costume and props. One of the extras is a featurette dedicated to those detailed props, and includes the revelation that C.J.'s fish bowl is often decorated to match the action of the episode—though it's not often visible on camera.
Three key episodes are presented with commentary by Sorkin and Schlamme, accompanied by one additional participant on each. It's a relief to see Sorkin participating, since the commentaries were obviously recorded after he left the series. He does most of the talking and adds great detail about the writing and filming process.
"Manchester Part II" is half of a complex episode that plays with flashbacks and explores the staff's sense of betrayal and ultimate coming together. The commentary for that episode includes Allison Janney, who unfortunately doesn't contribute much. The "Bartlet for America" commentary includes John Spencer, who is likewise overshadowed by his fellow commentators. That episode delves into the hearings around the MS cover-up and how damaging they could be to Leo both professionally and personally. In addition, a substantial flashback reveals the extent to which Leo was the driving force behind Bartlet's decision to run. The season finale, "Posse Comitatus," is another experiment in unconventional structure, and has the most interesting commentary. With episode director Alex Graves, Sorkin and Schlamme talk about the effects of September 11 on the final episodes of the season, and how Sorkin cleverly entwined the stories of two vastly different murders in the episode.
There are three deleted scenes presented in rough form, but I would have loved to see more after hearing how much some of the episodes had to be cut because of Sorkin's tendency to write long.
"The Chief of Stuff" is the whimsically named featurette dedicated to explaining the role of President's personal aide, both in the series as played by Dulé Hill and in real life, based on interviews with two of Bill Clinton's ex-aides.
The Documentary Special on the extras disc was originally broadcast as a regular episode, and I found it a disappointment at the time—like when you tune in to see what happens next in your favorite show, only to be faced with one of those cobbled-together clips episodes. But it's a treat (though something of a cheat) as an extra. Real White House insiders speak about what it was like to work in that pressure cooker. The interviewees include three ex-presidents (Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford), former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and Clinton-era Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers (who acts as an advisor on the series and looks like she could be understudy to Allison Janney). It's a feel-good look at the wonder and strain of working in incredibly high-profile and high-stakes circumstances, but it's more than puffery. Carter, for example, speaks candidly of balancing doing what's right with doing what's politically expedient—one of the overarching themes of The West Wing. It takes on a real-life spin when he speaks about the Iran hostage situation and his own failed bit for re-election.
I might have been too subtle: I loved this show. The cast, the writing, the direction, they are mostly close to perfect. Don't judge it based on its latter seasons. This is what a drama should be—liberally spiced with comedy and heart. (Incidentally, Sorkin's other television show, the sadly short-lived Sports Night, was what a comedy should be—liberally spiced with drama and heart.)
YOU are guilty if you don't at least rent this series and see what must-see TV used to look like.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio commentary on three episodes
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