..

THE WEST WING
Season One

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly, Dule Hill, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Color, full screen, 1:33:1
Features:  See review
Length:  957 minutes
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Release Date:  November 18, 2003

“We have a $32 billion budget surplus for the first time in three decades…Republicans in Congress want to use this money for tax relief…essentially what they’re saying is ‘We want to give back the money.’”
“Yes.”
“Why don’t we want to give back the money?”
“Because we’re Democrats.”
“But it’s not the government’s money!”
“Sure it is, it’s right there in our bank account.”
“That’s only because we collected more money than we paid.”
“Isn’t it great?”
“I want my money back.”
“Sorry.”
“We’re not done with this.”
“I didn’t think so.”

Show ****

This lively exchange between Josh Lyman and his assistant Donna is the kind of brisk, dialogue, all conducted during a walk and talk through the set of the West Wing, which as we learn in the extras of this four disc set was the largest and nicest ever built for a pilot and which is actually a bit nicer and more spacious than the real one.  The show has been awarded enough Emmys to cover a dozen mantelpieces, and loyal viewership has propelled The West Wing into the pantheon of great television drama. 

When I first saw these episodes, I did not like them because I could not keep up with the pace and was exhausted by the end of the episode.  I also found their arrogance unsettling, as if deciding where congressmen sit at a dinner was more important the work most of us do every day, such as raising families and issuing actual legal decisions instead of just policy.  But I gradually found too many things to like about the characters and their passion, whether I actually agreed with their policies or not.  And as the example above shows, there is much debate on many hot issues.  In fact, there is more thoughtful debate on one episode of this show than a week’s worth of what passes as “news” today.  Many utopian daydreams are bravely launched, shot down, and then we watch in fascination as pragmatism and political realities shape them into more realistic solutions. 

Despite its first few shows using well-worn premises such as Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) sleeping with a prostitute, the first two seasons of The West Wing are as good as any drama series on TV ever, in my opinion.  They seem even better compared with the seasons that followed.  Strangely enough, the show won the Emmy for Best Drama last year even though it won no other awards, which shows its popularity with the entertainment industry who wishes it had a president like this one. 

While the show clearly has a left-leaning bias, since this is a Democratic president after all, that is only part of the show’s popularity.  Martin Sheen plays Jed Bartlett, a Pulitzer-Prize winning economist who has the guts to be president without the usual moral baggage we have come to expect from politicians.   In short, he is what we thought Bill Clinton could have been.  Bartlett has a truculent personality and is an intellectual snob if there ever was one, but it is hard not to root for him, regardless of your political views.  Republicans surely will find themselves disagreeing with him, but they will also laugh at their errors and incredibly inflated sense of self-importance.  If more Democrats were actually like this, there would be more of them.

But political considerations aside, the distinctively brainy writing style, which constantly challenges viewers to keep up the pace and pay attention or be lost, the excellent acting (individually and as an ensemble), even the soundtrack is lofty and inspiring enough to make even jaded, disillusioned Americans want to ask what their country can do for them, much like Star Trek would make any couch potato want to boldly go where no man has gone before.

One of the most interesting guest characters is the pollster Joey Lucas, played by Marlee Matlin.  Being extremely attractive, hearing impaired, strong-willed and bearing a possibly male name, she knocks the arrogant but likable Josh Lyman (played in excelsis by Bradley Whitford) on his Ivy-League patronizing behind. 

The season concludes with an attempt on the president’s life in the episode What Kind of Day Has it Been, a cliffhanger which guaranteed strong viewership for the second season with the Secret Service Agents yelling repeatedly “who’s been hit?”

Episode list:  1. "Pilot";  2. "Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc" 3. "A Proportional Response"; 4. "Five Votes Down"; 5. "The Crackpots and These Women";  6. "Mr. Willis of Ohio"; 7. "The State Dinner"; 8. "Enemies"; 9. "The Short List"; 10. "In Excelsis Deo"; 11. "Lord John Marbury"; 12. "He Shall, From Time to Time..."; 13. "Take Out The Trash Day"; 14. "Take This Sabbath Day"; 15. "Celestial Navigation"; 16. "20 Hours In L.A."; 17. "The White House Pro-Am"; 18. "Six Meetings Before Lunch"; 19. "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet"; 20. "Mandatory Minimums"; 21. "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics"; 22. "What Kind of Day Has It Been"

Video ****

The new digital transfers look wonderful, superior to the best satellite or tape, and are a good enough reason to get the set in the first place.

Audio ****

I always loved this soundtrack, which has also won awards, and it sounds even better digitally.  Dialogue is rarely muffled and sounds even better here.

Features ***

The three commentaries offered by Thomas Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin are surprisingly sparse and dull, and repeat their comments from the featurettes, which are brief and include many of the show’s “greatest hits” but are still wonderful and informative, especially since many of the show’s supporting cast get a chance to speak. 

Summary:

Until this show came along dramas were either soap operas or crime and law related.  Law and Order and its offshoots are good drama, moving at a fast pace, often frenetic enough to exhaust the viewer.  But The West Wing is a whole other animal.   No detail is too small, no dialogue is too wordy to get out, and no problem can be analyzed too much.  The best drama on television is finally available on DVD and worth every penny.