The Good: Surprisingly funny, Poignant, Great dialogue, Incredible characters, Amazing acting, Clever, DVD Bonuses, Respect for fans
The Bad: Bulky packaging (That's a stretch, too!)
The Basics: The deluxe package includes all of The West Wing and some nice bonuses, chronicling the entirety of the mythical Bartlet Administration. A must have for anyone who loves great drama!
It takes a lot to be considered a perfect series in my estimation. I know it might not seem that way given how I am constantly touting the perfection of the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and the way I have rated both Lost The Complete Series (click here for that review!) and Aaron Sorkin's short-lived dramedy Sports Night (click here for that review!) as "perfect series'." Indeed, when I think of perfect shows, I frequently forget about the short-lived Sports Night and think more about The West Wing. So, today I proudly add The West Wing to that esteemed collection of perfect television shows.
The West Wing - The Complete Series on DVD is a 45 disc masterpiece that illustrates how consistently great television may be when it is written, produced, directed and acted by genuine talents who are consistently working at the top of their game. It is no accident that Aaron Sorkin is behind two of the perfect series' in my limited pantheon. Despite his personal problem, Sorkin is a genius and no one on television writes dialogue like him and no one has the ability to translate Sorkin's writing into a masterful presentation on screen than director (and executive producer) Thomas Schlamme. Together, Sorkin and Schlamme, and John Wells preside over a body of work that is astounding for its complexity, character and overall greatness.
Opening at the beginning of the second year of the administration of President Josiah Bartlet, leader of the United States of America, the staffers who work to make his Administration work find the agenda stalled. In the second year of their tenure, they are feeling like a lame duck presidency bullied by a Republican Congress. Then, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman publicly denounces the Religious Right and the staff of the West Wing of the White House are awakened to the political realities of running the nation and fighting for what they believe in.
Against all odds, the Bartlet Administration begins to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda based on equal rights, honesty and accountability and fiscal responsibility. Their foreign policy is based on responding to terrorism and warfare with diplomacy. Problems arise with their press to progress the United States and its laws in a positive, progressive direction when Bartlet is forced to admit that he has lied to the American people and his staff and that he suffers from multiple sclerosis.
The West Wing follows that essential plot, with numerous political issues and debates peppered into every episode and several longer arcs per season that involve issues of lasting importance. This is a show that believes that not everything may be nailed up neatly in 45 minutes. It is a heavily serialized television show, so episodes have consequences and often what happens in one episode will come back to haunt characters later on. Indeed, the story begins with characters with such extensive backstories that consequences from Chief of Staff Leo McGarry's past involving drinking and drug abuse plague him throughout the series (especially the first season).
The West Wing is largely a positive body of work that presents an alternative to the reactionary policies the United States of America pursued in the early part of the new millennium. In stark contrast to the current regime, President Bartlet encourages debate and while he has very strong views, he illustrates respect for his subordinates and is known to be swayed when one of them is convincing and passionate about an issue.
It is a very progressive view of American politics and it involves characters who are educated, articulate and who fight for the principles they believe in. They stand their ground and, even better, they own their mistakes. So, when they fail they go down fighting and when they are wrong, they suffer the consequences - personal and professional - of those mistakes. For example, characters debate on the presence of homosexuals in the military, they discuss legalizing marijuana and bed pardon for cold war spies. It's an intriguing and comprehensive array of domestic and foreign issues that are presented and it is done in such a way that it is entertaining.
The primary method of keeping the show entertaining is the dialogue. The West Wing has exceptional dialogue that moves rather quickly. Characters deliver monologues and rapid fire back-and-forths with one another that set an exhilarating and entertaining pace. As well, this show rarely gets credit for being as funny as it is, but it is often very funny with jokes that are shot out a mile a minute, usually as rapid fire banter in the dialogue.
But any great drama is about character. Here's who the principle characters are in The West Wing:
Sam Seaborn - Deputy Communications Director and formerly a lawyer at a prestigious firm engaged in insulating oil companies from accountability. Sam is articulate, liberal and fights to maintain the message that the Bartlet Administration is functional and positive. He is responsible for writing most of the President's speeches. He struggles with his personal life (he unwittingly dates a call girl for a time), is closest with Josh, and becomes rather defined by his professional life until one day a new opportunity opens itself to him,
Toby Ziegler - Communications Director who is responsible for crafting the message of the Bartlet Administration. Toby is quiet and introverted but exceptionally passionate about populist politics. He spends a lot of time dismayed by the compromises Bartlet is forced to make and his integrity often puts him in tricky situations, including one that forces him to make a significant sacrifice,
C.J. Cregg - Press Secretary (later something more!) for the Bartlet Administration, she deals with the press. Half cool and controlled under pressure, half complicating the lives of the staffers and the President by speaking the truth, she is idealistic and professional. C.J. is also a hard worker whose tenure in the West Wing is exhausting and leaves her little time for a social life,
Leo McGarry - Chief of Staff and the seniormost member of the West Wing's staff, he is the man who convinced Bartlet to run for president. McGarry is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and he is a stern paternal figure whose job it is to keep everyone on the President's staff in-line and focused,
Josh Lyman - Deputy Chief of Staff working directly under Leo and with Toby and Sam, he fights the battles for the President and represents the Administration in meetings with key politicians. He is friends with Sam, has an attraction (mostly latent) to his assistant, Donna, and is vocally liberal and almost as tired as Toby is of the compromises the Administration is forced to make. When a tragedy befalls Josh, he ends up deeply scarred and scared and it takes him some time to get any sense of a fighting spirit back,
Donna Moss - Senior Assistant to Josh Lyman, she is an attractive and efficient aide who provides Josh with materials he needs to fight his battles. She is sometimes flighty, but always kind, she is sometimes the most human aspect of the staff of the West Wing,
Will Bailey - Mid-series he enters as a campaign guru and speechwriter whose talents rival Sam's. Bailey becomes integrated into the staff and adapts to their close-knit mannerisms to become vital in the waning years of the Bartlet Administration,
Charlie Young - Personal Aide to the President, he is a young black man who lost his mother to gun violence. Charlie is an attache who often serves as a voice of interethnic issues on the show, though his presence complicates some moments of the Administration, including when he dates the President's daughter,
Abigail Bartlet - Doctor and First Lady, she is the most powerful woman in the United States and a vocal First Lady, pressing agendas of her own, occasionally in conflict with the President's agenda. Deeply hurt by Bartlet's political decisions, Abby begins to question the strength of their marriage when Jed starts prioritizing the political battles he is fighting over their marriage,
and President Jed Bartlet - He's president! Bartlet is a progressive economist who has a strong sense of faith and a lot of tolerance. His multiple sclerosis begins to affect him and he is unable to deny its effects, which begins to complicate and cripple his presidency. As he is forced to deal with lying to the nation, other nations - and independent terrorists - make moves that force Bartlet to intervene.
What makes the characters work so well are the actors who portray them. This is one of \the most solid ensemble casts ever assembled on television and all of the actors are gold. From great supporting performances by Dule Hill (Charlie Young), Janel Moloney (Donna), Stockard Channing (Abbey Bartlet), Joshua Malina (Will Bailey), and the stern brilliance of John Spencer (Leo) to the front and center roles of Rob Lowe (Sam) and Allison Janney (C.J.) this is a strong cast that is unparalleled in the consistency of the greatness of their performances.
Allison Janney is brilliant as C.J. Craig. She creates a character who has the ability to look exhausted constantly, but present a message with realistic articulation and detachment that makes her character completely compelling. Janney brings an inner strength to C.J. that makes it believable when she stands up for herself that a lesser actress could not do.
Bradley Whitford was genius casting for the role of Josh Lyman. Whitford has a youthful exuberance to him that makes the level he debates and fights at interesting, realistic and he adds an energy to the show that keeps it fresh. No one makes the fast-paced dialogue seem more natural that Whitford does.
Martin Sheen, originally intended to be a recurring guest star as President Bartlet is perfectly presidential. He is articulate and his steely gaze has a resonance to it that makes it believable that he could order people. More importantly, his delivery of passionate lines makes it perfectly realistic that he could lead and inspire people. Sheen's performance can be summed up, consistently, with the word "wow!"
The hidden gem of The West Wing, though, is actor Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler. Schiff mumbles through his lines for the early seasons as a man who has been beaten down by politics, but who still wants to make a difference. Schiff is able to articulate when it counts and he is so thoroughly in his role the entire time he is on screen that when his character smiles, it becomes an event. That level of self-control and devotion to his character is amazing and the results are extraordinary as he creates a character who is a memorable fighter.
This DVD presentation includes the 45 discs that were previously released in the Seasons 1 - 7 boxed sets. The especially nice thing about this set is that it rewards fans of the series, without penalizing fans who supported the show while it was still on the air. Thus, there are no additional DVDs in this set, no extra video features on these discs. Instead, The West Wing - The Complete Collection includes a copy of the pilot episode script along with an episode guide in one giant, bulky collector's display case. It's a nice reward for buying the whole kit and caboodle all together, but it's nothing that even die hard fans can't live without. I like that.
The result is that this is an great way to buy one of the most acclaimed, intense and truly great series' of all time. It is worth your time, it is worth your attention and it is worth rewatching. Often.
For individual seasons of The West Wing, please check out my reviews of:
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© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.