*slides casually into the seat next to you*
Yeah, I’m just trying to sell folks on my best-loved, possibly-most-cried-over, all-time-favorite TV show. No biggie. No pressure.
Let’s begin, shall we?
In the (unlikely?) event that you’ve never heard of The West Wing, I’ll give you a quick summary. The West Wing tells the story of a fictional U.S. presidency, shown through the eyes of senior White House staff. The show was set in the early 2000s, contemporary to the time it aired (1999-2006). Audiences followed Jed Bartlett from his first year of office to his last. The West Wing was, and remains, an American cultural phenomenon. Enormously popular, it won countless Emmy Awards and set standards for both workplace drama and political drama which have never been topped. Dare I say, never will be topped. 😉
*DISCLAIMER*: I understand political stories aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. Notice I’ve titled this “10 reasons to TRY The West Wing,” not “10 reasons to WATCH it.” Some viewers will find it bores them. That’s okay!! You don’t have to keep watching!!! But it’s such a quality piece of media and had such a staggering influence on our pop culture as a whole, I think every American should give it a whirl, at least once.
So I’ll tell you ten reasons why I adore it … and let you decide for yourselves. Fair?
~Part One: Plot & Themes~
1. Masterful pacing. Aaron Sorkin is a legend amongst screenwriters for a reason … man’s just really, really, good at his job. Each and every episode has genuine stakes, each and every season centers around a new, major conflict and makes you care about whether the team wins or loses. No one handles the “finale cliffhanger” with quite the same balance of dramatic subtlety and PUNCH-YOU-IN-THE-FACE-FEELS, as Aaron Sorkin. I swear I have no idea how TV audiences managed to wait months for the resolution of “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” at the end of Season One. Like. Holy mother of fireballs. I would’ve driven straight to Aaron’s house, kidnapped him, and held him at gunpoint until he agreed to tell me what in the Sam Hill would happen next.
2. An inspiring vision for America. No, the soaring idealism and gritty humanism embodied by Jed Bartlett, Sam Seaborn, and the rest of the gang no longer rules our political arena … perhaps it never truly did … but at the same time, we can always be better. You don’t have to be a Democrat in ’90s TV-Land to forgive your enemies, the way Sam does in “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.” To admit your mistakes, like Bartlett in “Take This Sabbath Day.” To listen to your opponents, like Josh in “The Supremes,” or Sam in “It’s Surely To Their Credit.” To stand with the vulnerable and the struggling, like Toby in “Twenty Hours in America.” To show compassion–to have a heart, period–the way Leo McGarry does in TOO MANY EPISODES TO COUNT. Over and over, this show has humbled me, encouraged me, and taught me. I believe it could do the same for others.
“Whatever its faults in the past, or in the future for that matter, government can be a place where people come together … where no one gets left behind.
“No one gets left behind.”
3. Good, clean, family-friendly fun. Look, I’m not saying The West Wing is the most enticing show for your little ones … but I’m saying, it’s a pretty SAFE show to watch with anybody, young or old. It’s tense, but never graphic or smutty. There’s never much foul language. There are a few back-burner romances, involving a few (very few) bedroom scenes, but even those stay tame and brief. There’s very, very little blood or violence. Trust me on this: I have an EXTREMELY LOW tolerance for scary content, but I can watch The West Wing before sleep with no negative repercussions. In addition, as a workplace drama which sticks to the same setting–the same well-loved rooms and hallways–for seven seasons, there’s an element of Soothing Familiarity™ to even its worst nail-biters.
4. It’s not afraid to get its hands dirty. Sure, from the vantage point of 2020, with He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named occupying the White House (#i said what i said), The West Wing may look quaint. But for its time, it was bold and progressive, tackling every substantive issue then facing our nation. Not just the usual suspects, either, like abortion, gay rights, gun control, school prayer … but slavery reparations, the voting age, the partisan divide, terrorism, executive overreach, sex scandals, covert assassinations, and racial profiling. (That’s only the episodes I can remember offhand. There’s much, much more.) The Bartlett team examined both sides of the issues, and didn’t always give the answers you’d expect, either.
~Part Two: Characters~
5. Friendship is key. Over and over and over again, The West Wing proved itself a show about friends … comrades … people who chose each other, challenged each other, built each other up, and watched each other’s backs, no matter what. Emotionally, that’s the heart of the show: friend chemistry. And boy, oh boy, do we have some stellar, sparkling friend chemistry here. Bartlett and Leo. Toby and Sam. Toby and CJ. CJ and Bartlett. Leo and Josh. Sam and Josh. Josh and Donna (yes, they fell in love over time, but they were friends first.) There are so many great moments I could pull for illustration here, but in the end, I’m going to go with this old classic,
“The guy says, ‘Are you crazy? Now we’re both stuck down here.’
“His friend answers, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before … and I know the way out.'”
– Leo McGarry
6. It never feels male-dominated. Yes … reflective of the realities of government in our patriarchal society, there ARE more men than women in the West Wing cast. But the female characters get enough serious screentime, enough serious weight, that they never feel like side players. They’re never “the only girl on the team.” I really love, too, how women are shown in both the more traditional, secretarial roles which women in government have historically held (Donna, Margaret, Carol, Ginger), and in positions of real political power (CJ Cregg, Nancy McNally, Kate Harper). There’s no “divide” between the two female groups. They don’t tear each other down. They support each other. The women calling the shots never sneer at the women who run the schedules for being “subservient,” and conversely, the latter never snipe at the former for being “uppity.” They each have a role to play: the role they’ve chosen. And when Donna Moss makes the transition from assistant to boss, herself, it feels both natural and enormously satisfying, the fitting end to her seven-season character arc.
Talking of the West Wing women brings me to my next point …
7. CJ Cregg. Yep, she gets a paragraph–or three–all to herself. Because she’s a goddess, that’s why. Six feet tall even without heels (although that never stops her from wearing them), suave and smooth and slinky, CJ has the eye of most of the men in the West Wing … but don’t let that fool you. She’s all business. CJ has the tenacity of a bulldog and the ferocity of a bull terrier, when she needs it. Never shy about getting in the faces of presidents or generals or admirals, but never jumping in without the requisite facts, expertise, and professional demeanor to back herself up, CJ gets stuff done around Washington. She runs the town, basically, and you’d do well to remember it. First as press secretary, later moving on to even higher office, CJ is one of the most pivotal members of Bartlett’s team.
And her character arc. Holy smokes, her character arc. I would be hard pressed to come up with an example of the “strong female character” trope done better–a tough-as-nails woman who still has deep, complex feelings, not because “women must be emotional” or some such drivel, but because humans have feelings, dangit!!!! CJ is driven, success-oriented, image-oriented, something of a workaholic, insecure in her ability to maintain romantic relationships … and she’s allowed grace and space to BE all those things. Yes, she gets the guy in the end. But she never stops being herself. And ya know what else? It’s never suggested she “should.” Glory hallelujah.
I’d like to give a shout-out to Allison Janney, the actress who played CJ, for absolutely slaying the role. Remember all those Emmy Awards I mentioned? Four of those went to Allison Janney alone. FOUR. She deserved ’em, too. She played CJ with such restraint, such subtlety, yet such power. Every little turn of the head and quirk of the mouth told the audience something. The Atlantic ranked all 100 or so characters who ever appeared on The West Wing, and CJ Cregg made the number one spot. A huge part of that is due to Allison Janney’s tremendous talent.
8. The men aren’t too shabby, either. Like I said, it’s a guy-heavy cast. A rather lot of testosterone about. 😉 But fear not, these male characters are handled just as skillfully as the women. Sure, they work hard. They play hard. They fight hard. But they never devolve into cardboard cut-outs of Tough Manly Men … not even close. They have dreams, fears, vulnerabilities. They’re allowed to cry on-screen. They show open affection, and freely admit their mistakes. Even Leo McGarry, the lion of the White House, with his Vietnam War background and his habitual cigar-chewing scowl (no, he doesn’t actually smoke cigars, but he looks like he ought to), gets some of the softest, most touching scenes in the entire show. When Leo cries, ain’t NOBODY’s eyes dry.
9. If you don’t ship Josh and Donna, what are you doing with your life? Apparently, the aforementioned Atlantic writers who ranked the characters don’t fancy Josh with Donna, and I can only say … I pity them. This ship is one of the truly epic slow burns of TV history. I’ve written elsewhere about my adoration for them, how perfectly they embody the friends-to-lovers trope at its best. Just, watch the show, y’all. Stick with them for their eight years of ups and downs. I promise, when they finally kiss, IT WILL BE WORTH IT.
“I’m just saying, if you were in an accident … I wouldn’t stop for a beer.”
“If you were in an accident, I wouldn’t stop for red lights.”
10. This. Flipping. Scene. This masterpiece of a scene, where Martin Sheen draws on every bit of his acting virtuosity to yell at God in fluent Latin in an empty cathedral. FLUENT LATIN, I ask you. There is simply nothing like it, anywhere, in the history of television. There will never be anything like it again. Watch it and be blessed, my dudes.
So there you have it: ten reasons to try The West Wing!
Let me know what you think!
CJ is my favorite but I like ’em all. Or at least there’s nobody in the main cast that really annoys me that much. Been enjoying “watching them with you” … many states apart. ❤
I love watching it with you, too. ❤ Yessssss, CJ *heart eyes*
I’ll give you 10 reasons – seasons 1 through 10!!! (I’ve got the full 10 season box set of the DVDs)
Ooooh, lucky!! I should get myself a box set, too …
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Yes, it came with a bonus DVD with commentary and stuff about each season!
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That’s the best 😀
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I’ve never in my life heard about this show, but now I am extremely intrigued…
Squeeeeeee!!! I’m excited!!! IT’S SO GOOD
If you do watch it, please let me know what you think!! 😀
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As you know, I’m Very Interested in this show. I’ve seen bits & pieces, and while I don’t know that I’d become invested enough to follow it for x number of seasons, I feel like I sort of . . . vicariously appreciate it, if that makes any sense? Like, you and I have talked about it so many times that I feel like I already know & love the characters, haha.
[Also that cathedral scene was Very Fun. (I mean not that someone died. Obviously. But human/divine tension? AND Latin? GIMME.)]
Haha, yessssssss! I totally get that! I have shows like that, too, which I love/enjoy learning about because I associate them with a friend. ❤ That's so sweet!
YAS QUEEN. *snaps* I can never get over the sheer drama, the Weight, of that scene. I love how the writers in general portray Bartlett's Catholic faith and his close relationship with God … which includes *gasp* getting angry with God sometimes … because as humans, how can we have close relationships without tension sometimes boiling over?