Rewind: “The West Wing”

One political show stands above all the others. No matter how much time passes, especially at this rate, that fact is never going to change. Most aspire to be like this show, but usually fall way short, and at best, becoming exactly the type of show they need to be. If anything can truly continue to be learned from this series, it’s that any one viewer can fall in love with politics and be inspired.

The Warner Bros. Television pilot for “The West Wing”, is one incredibly constructed episode that never slows down once it gets going.

This drama episode stars Rob Lowe (upcoming episodes and film “Code Black”, “Monster Trucks”), Moira Kelly (“Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces”, “Drop Dead Diva”), Allison Janney (upcoming episodes “Mom”, “The Girl on the Train”), Richard Schiff (upcoming episodes “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”, “Ballers”), John Spencer (“The Outer Limits”, “L.A. Law”), Bradley Whitford (“Better Things”, “Other People”), and Martin Sheen (upcoming “Rules Don’t Apply”, “Grace and Frankie”).

The series was created by Aaron Sorkin (“Steve Jobs”, “The Newsroom”).

The series originally aired from Sept. 22, 1999 to May 14, 2006. The series would go on to be nominated for 95 Emmy Awards, winning 26; 20 Golden Globe Awards, winning two; and 20 Screen Actors Guild Awards, winning seven among countless other wins and nominations throughout its run.

It’s been a long week. Well, actually, long four days. If you’ve paid any attention to the news, you know that the United States just elected (whether a majority likes it or not, or the world’s citizens) Donald Trump as the next president. On the day of the election I wrote a piece on a political film, but I wasn’t actually expecting the outcome we all ended up with. So, now I find myself here. Still in desperate need of some happiness. I’m not sure how to get that, but seeing as this search for happiness stems from politics, why not try and use politics, in the form of a classic television show, as my happy pill? It can’t hurt. It’s a show I love and one I’ve set aside for some time now. Going back and looking at the pilot seems like a pretty good and easy pill to swallow.

A pilot episode is supposed to convince you that a series is worth your time and that over time, you’ll come to love the characters and all that they do. Well, even 17 years later, that’s exactly what it does.

Yes, I’ve seen this episode numerous times, in at least the last six years, plus I declare freely, like always, that I’m biased when it comes to Sorkin (How could I not be?), but that didn’t stop me from being simply blown away.

Even when the character introductions are happening there’s a sense of speed. It’s not slow in any way, and you get around to meeting the principal cast rather quickly. Mind you that’s accomplished form the simple fact that each scene where we meet a given character isn’t that long. This in turn allows for Sorkin to throw us all right into the action.

It’s another day at the White House.

And apparently, like with any other day, the moment a White House staffer walks through the doors and down the long historic corridors, he’s bound to be in for one exciting day. Thing after thing happens. Sometimes it’s mere seconds after the previous thing happened, be it a meeting confirmed, a paper or folder being handed off, or a quick hello, that the next thing has already begun. There’s no time to breathe, which isn’t just because of Sorkin and his style of writing, which in this case underscores the importance of what the people do in this building, but the desire to create a busy atmosphere and (probably/hopefully) show that due to the seriousness of the work, things must happen quickly. This also allows for a feeling of authenticity. It’s the details that surround all characters, which due to brilliant cinematography you see so clearly. Desks with papers on them, folders in character’s hands, the communications bullpen and so on, are on full display it’s a wonder you don’t run into something as you try to keep up. There really isn’t a need for imagination as just about every detail can be seen. It certainly allows for you to be there quickly and move with every character at a pace only this series can handle. As a viewer, you have no choice but to run to keep up. If you lag behind, you’ll probably stay that way for the rest of the episode.

If you’re a viewer who likes slower shows, ones that don’t demand you pay attention to every second of a given episode, then this episode, or the show itself, isn’t for you. The keeping up thing wasn’t just to have an idea of what this week’s issues are, but because Sorkin goes right ahead and makes one massive assumption, and he’s better for it. He just assumes you’re smart. Or at the very least, smart enough too know how to do some basic research. There’s so much going on and so much to cover and explain, that Sorkin forgoes the whole prospect of dumbing it down. I remember when watching this episode and the show itself the first time, I had to focus. There were times I needed to take a step back and figure out what the hell just happened. While having these really smart characters is a huge upside, it makes things challenging at times. Because of Sorkin and his writing, I also had to make sure I could keep up with the multiple plot lines going on. It was never just a one case of the week type deal. If you lost one thread, you may as well give up or start again at the beginning. A true credit to Sorkin as he can juggle that much material and still have it make sense.

What Sorkin also found himself expertly juggling, which I admit I was loving and surprised by, were comedic and dramatic elements. He just wove everything in a way I don’t even think I see too often in other shows. Some drama’s just can’t have that balance, even a little. Because it comes off so naturally here, it also speaks volumes to Sorkin’s abilities as a writer. For instance, one running joke in this episode alone, is the proper spelling of Gaddafi. In the spelling I used, it may or may not be the one most commonly used, but it’s mostly wrong in this episode. Spencer (may he rest in peace) finds himself distracted by the day’s New York Times Crossword. The 17 across word is wrong. Spencer, as Leo McGarry, says, “… and tell him that Khaddafi is spelled with an H and two D’s and isn’t a seven-letter word for anything.” I didn’t come up with that spelling or anything, but it goes to show there’s so many variations on the name. Anyway, this is the running joke and it never gets old. Point of fact, as it comes up multiple times, it works well to briefly alleviate the drama. Nothing too heavy, but it certainly is nice to be able to chuckle.

It also speaks to the actors. Each one just naturally brought out the funny and managed to make sure that the dramatic never strayed too far. Camp or overacting was never an issue this episode had to deal with. This allowed for the actors to introduce you to their respective characters, and while at first it was brief, you fell in step with them. From a pilot standpoint, you didn’t get much. Very brief looks at the fact that they try to lead private lives, but mostly it was them all at work. Who were they on the job? Passionate. Patriots. There to serve. With everything else, including top notch performances, which would only get better with time, you were given all that you needed to make an informed decision on whether this was worth your time. I must say too, the fact that upon finishing the pilot, all I wanted was to keep watching. It was that effective.

You also got, and I couldn’t leave it out, so I’ll tack it here, one of the best character introductions I’ve ever seen in a Sorkin written anything or some other television show. The entire episode revolves around the president. That seems like a given, given where they all work, but it really does. He gets into a bicycle accident, which sounds funny and as it’s brought up time and again, continues to be funny. However, it’s not until about the last 10 minutes of the episode (I really have no idea if it is, so it could be less), that you finally meet President Bartlett. During a heated discussion on religion, and more specifically the 10 Commandments, the president makes his appearance. One side of the argument insists the first commandment is “Honor Thy Father”, but Schiff’s character says it isn’t. Upon it being asked what the first really is, in walks Sheen. He says, “I am the Lord your God. Though shalt worship no other god before me.” Boy, those were the days, huh?” And everybody stands. Sheen then proceeds to beat down this group of visitors, which not only sees our first major monologue, but also a highly entertaining scene. If the introduction to Sheen’s character had been bad, this certainly would’ve made up for it. But, fortunately, it wasn’t, and the episode is able to progress to the amazing conclusion that tells you this is what you’re in for. This is why you should watch.

Shows become classics for many different reasons. They became more than just entertaining and good. For some, some shows become a true escape. This show seems to fit well into that category. After this series aired, and probably throughout its run, an interest in politics changed dramatically. Now, over a decade after it want off the air, this series seems to be more important than ever. It’s not solely because it provides a better world to live in than what, at the time of this writing, seems to be in store for many American’s and the world, but because it offers a look at politics that isn’t so bleak. There’s hope. Optimism. A clear sign that if you do your part, speak up, vote, that you too can make a change.

With this episode done with, and this write up, it’s now on to the rest of the series. It may be a bit early to be getting into it especially as living under a Trump presidency is still a little over two months away, and I may truly need it then, it’s certainly going to do what I want. Make me happy. Perhaps not to the point of complete delusion, but enough, that for the time being, the real world won’t look so bad.

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