Review: The West Wing – Season 1 (1999)

The West Wing: Season 1. Created by Aaron Sorkin. NBC, 1999-2000.

Premiere Impressions

            Why am I reviewing The West Wing, a political drama from twenty years ago? Well, friends, after years of shrugging the series off, I am just now getting around to starting it. While bingeing the first season, I kept thinking, “why did no one ever tell me to watch this?” The answer, obviously, is that everyone has told me to watch it. If you ask someone if they’ve seen the show, they will tell you it is amazing. One of my close friends recommends it to me daily. Literally daily. Every single day. The West Wing is her religion. She’s a Wingist (name in development). The show also is frequently mentioned in scholarship exploring television. Jason Mittell’s (2015) analysis of complex television lists The West Wing as one of the series that laid the foundation for the complex television narratives we’re so familiar with today. Perhaps the reason it took me so long to jump on the ship was because I felt like I already knew too much about the show or that it wouldn’t live up to the expectations. Well, now the time has come. I will forever more—or at least until I watch more seasons and see how the series develops—be one of the people who tell you that you have to watch The West Wing.

            If you’ve ever engaged with pop culture, you’ve probably seen several parodies of the “walk and talk” scenes featured consistently throughout the show. During the pilot, I definitely chuckled as the characters scurried from office to office passing witty banter back and forth as the camera glided through the narrow halls of the White House. However, once the “oh, that’s where it comes from” effect wears off, it becomes clear just how effective the technique is to not only bring a sense of urgency and action to dialogue-based drama, but also to really develop each of the individual characters. It is in these sequences, imbued with pressure and immediacy, that we learn how the ensemble thinks, feels, and reacts, which is so important to the show because the plot is not nearly as important as the interaction between the characters.

            In a character-driven drama, the performances are essential in capturing the essence of the series. The West Wing is, and I do not say this often, perfectly cast. As a retrospective viewer, I was so impressed with how frequently my pre-conceived notions were undone by the actors’ performances. Rob Lowe plays Sam Seaborn with a convincing naivety I did not know Lowe could pull off. Dulé Hill’s expertly reserved portrayal of Charlie Young gives me even more respect for the performer, especially when juxtaposed against his performance in Psych (which I happen to be re-watching concurrently). And Allison Janney, well, actually, no surprise here. Allison Janney is the best part of the show. She’s Allison Janney. The only disappointment I have with the cast of characters is the lack of diversity. The only main character of color, at least in the first season, is Charlie Young, and the show does a bit of a clunky job exploring race around his character rather than directly including him in the thematic material.

            More than anything, I found watching the show both anxiety relieving and inducing because of the surprising timeliness of the narrative. On the one hand, it was quite therapeutic to watch the political figures on screen speak in coherent sentences. That may seem like a low bar, but, given our current state of affairs, watching a president who can articulate ideas and a press secretary who speak in full sentences really was a medicine I did not know I needed. On the other hand, the more thematic episodes, those dealing with cultural issues or the ideological war between the right and the left, feel like they could have been written right now. Sure, this could be attributed to Sorkin’s writing genius actually involving some sort of clairvoyance, but it also speaks to the infinite and inescapable nature of politics.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • THE MF JACKAL

The Final Tea

            There is no reason not to watch The West Wing. Even if you’re like me and are finding yourself quite busy during quarantine, you need to make time for The West Wing. Want to watch something with impressive performances? The West Wing. Dramatic impact? The West Wing. Brilliant dialogue? The West Wing. Genuine belly laughs? The West Wing. Allison Janney Allison-Janneying? The West Wing.

GRADE: A

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