Monday, October 18, 2010

The Bartlet Administration Survives An Attempt, The Midterms, And The Impending Disclosures: The West Wing Season 2!

The Good: Excellent writing, acting, and characters, Funny!, Decent DVD bonuses
The Bad: None
The Basics: Following a shooting that critically wounds Josh, the staff of the White House continues an ambitious platform to reform the U.S.

Coming off the perfect first season of The West Wing (click here for that review!), writer-executive producer Aaron Sorkin must have felt some serious pressure to perform as the series entered its second season. If he was feeling any anxiety about the sophomore season, it does not show on The West Wing - The Complete Second Season. Please note that in order to discuss this season, the climactic moments of the first season have to be acknowledged, so if you've not started the series and want the surprises to shock you, stop reading now, pick up The West Wing - The Complete First Season first and check this out afterward. I'm snickering as I write that because if you watch the first season finale, you'll be aching to pick up this boxed set; I doubt you would stop to find this review again.

That said, buying this boxed set would not disappoint you. With four discs, covering all twenty-two second season episodes, The West Wing - The Complete Second Season is a cinematic triumph that reminds the viewer just how great television can be.

Beginning moments after gunshots ring out in the night, the Bartlet Administration is rocked when Bartlet and Josh are shot. While the president is barely wounded, Josh lies near death in the hospital while the staff waits. Josh survives, as does the Bartlet Administration, which receives a bump in the polls as a result of the attempted assassination. The midterm elections arrive and the make-up of the House and Senate do not change significantly, leading the White House to soon find itself often fighting the good fight against a Republican Congress that is working contrary to its direction. As the big question of whether or not Bartlet will run for a second term slowly rises, so too does the necessity of the staff of the West Wing to find out about his medical condition.

The season basically deals with the shooting as a real, deadly and dramatic attack, with elements resonating throughout the whole first half of the second season. As that plot seems to be milked, the focus turns toward Bartlet's multiple sclerosis and his slowly expanding the circle of people who know about his condition. The season climaxes on this issue and the big question of whether or not Bartlet will run again.

Of course, like the first season, the serialized plots are peppered with episodic issues that deal with real, vibrant and controversial political and legal matters. The second season introduces a new recurring character, Republican Ainsley Hayes, an articulate and beautiful republican who mops the floor with Sam on a television program, earning her a position on the White House's legal staff. Ainsley makes it easy for the show to easily debate such issues as background checks for small businesses, civil rights legislation and sexual harassment. The season has episodes that focus on the battles between pharmaceutical companies and poor African nations, the nuclear test-ban treaty, the missile defense shield, victims of religious persecution, the end of cold war mentalities (when Russia refuses to ask the U.S. for help in putting out a missile silo fire), and disintegrating relations as a result of the drug war in South America. Much of this hits close to home for the staffers as the staff finds themselves out maneuvered by Republicans ("The Leadership Breakfast"), Columbian drug lords ("The War At Home") and their own staff, like the Surgeon General ("Ellie").

What makes the series so watchable episode after episode is the strength of the characters. Beginning with the two-part season premiere ("In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen" Parts 1 and 2), The West Wing may present issues, but it remains tightly focused on the characters. For those who have not seen the first season, the second season is remarkably accessible as it focuses in its first two episodes on extensive flashbacks revealing how the various characters came to work for the Bartlet campaign and later the administration. As Josh lays in critical condition, the team silently reminisces about how they came to be there. It fills in a whole lot of backstory that fans were not privy to in the first season, making it a wonderful place to start.

The characters drive much of the story here as they take principled and often difficult stands working for President Bartlet and dealing with being victims of the shootings. The characters in the second season include:

Sam Seaborn - Deputy Communications Director. After saving C.J.'s life at the shooting and working to help Josh get back on his feet, he finds himself enthralled with Republican Ainsley Hayes and on the outs with Leo's daughter. Sam deals with his father's getting a divorce and with the legislative problems the team encounters,

C.J. Cregg - Press Secretary, finds herself deeply shaken by the shooting and she pushes Danny Concannon away. She finds herself working to save a turkey's life at Thanksgiving, outmaneuvered by the press when the staff meets with the new Congress, and placed in the difficult position of realizing that she has lied repeatedly about the President's health to reporters,

Toby Ziegler - Communications Director, the voice of change following the shootings. Toby becomes obsessed with using the opportunity the shooting affords to attack hate groups using the authority of the White House. Toby becomes the first member of the staff to realize something is wrong with the President when he begins to work with Vice President Hoynes on policy issues,

Leo McGarry - Chief of Staff, no longer beleaguered by his past, he soon finds his hands full managing the staff of the West Wing. After hiring Ainsley, he saves Josh from firing as his deputy deals with post-traumatic stress disorder and he becomes the liaison between the staff and the President as they learn about his medical condition,

Josh Lyman - Deputy Chief of Staff, nearly killed in the opening moments of the season, he survives with huge medical bills and a sense of vulnerability that haunts him. Having been shot and nearly killed, Josh is far less aggressive this season, though he does work to bail out Mexico when its economy collapses,

Donna Moss - Assistant to Josh, she is shocked by Josh being shot. Soon, however, she is flirting with ambassadors and acting as Josh's moral sounding board. After he gets help around Christmas, Donna works hard to simply support the Deputy Chief of Staff,

Charlie Young - Personal Aide to the President, he is left shocked by the shooting, especially when he learns who the intended target was. Charlie continues to date the President's daughter, though their relationship simmers and Charlie reasons out one of the President's potential problems while he fills out college forms,

Abigail Bartlet - First Lady (a recurring guest star in this season), she finds herself upset with Jed after he all but declares his intent to run for re-election during his State of the Union Address. Abbey is plagued by the knowledge that the President's condition could begin to deteriorate and the man she loves may not survive long after the second term,

And President Jed Bartlet, a liberal who has now has the chance to make a difference and finds the world spinning out of his control. As he deals with the staff learning about his multiple sclerosis and the implications of that, Bartlet fights the good fight, though finds things tense between himself and Abbey and his own staff when they begin to lose the initiative.

The characters of The West Wing are well-defined and very principled, making them a joy to watch episode after episode. The character of Mandy disappears without a trace or a line of explanation this season (it's no big loss as she was largely redundant, though I think they should have actually killed her in the premiere as that would have at least written her out) and Donna becomes a fully-credited character as Janel Moloney joins the cast full time.

Part of what makes the characters so well-defined is the quality of the actors and acting behind each and every one of them. Dule Hill (Charlie) gives an excellent performance early on in the season as the realities of his character's situation resonate with him. Hill plays shock, horror and disappointment astonishingly well. Recurring guest star Stockard Channing (Abbey) and John Spencer add maturity and discipline to a mostly younger cast. Janel Moloney does wonderful work emoting as Donna, easily becoming the heart of the office environment on the show. Rob Lowe continues his ability to portray Sam Seaborn as articulate, principled and remarkably disciplined with wonderful delivery of complex lines and strong body language. Similarly, Allison Janney continues to give a strong showing as C.J. Cregg.

My favorite from season one, Richard Schiff as Tobey Ziegler, continues with a strong ability to perform. While his usual mumbling demeanor continues, Schiff is given the chance to expand the emotional range of Tobey. As he plays detective in "17 People," he delivers a wonderful performance that takes his character from carefully analytical to angry to compassionate and he embodies a wonderful character journey. Schiff does more than simply slouch through the role, adding genuine angst to the role with brilliantly deliberate pauses, an amazing control of his vocal tone and timbre and an astonishing ability to emote using only his facial expressions.

Acting legend Martin Sheen continues his masterful performance as the complex President Bartlet. Sheen adds a sympathy and humanity to the character that leaps well off the page. A perfect moment comes in "Noel" when Sheen perfectly emotes without speaking a word after Josh explodes at the President.

But this season's winner is easily Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman. Whitford emotes incredibly well, creating Josh as alternatively wounded, inspired and traumatized over the early part of the season. Whitford plays frustrated with an ease that is impressive. Whitford evokes empathy for the damage that he suffers from the shooting and as the season ramps up, it's nice to see Whitford slowly reassert confidence into Josh's character. Whitford makes the role.

For a non-special effects show, The West Wing - The Complete Second Season has decent enough bonus features. There are insightful commentaries on various key episodes of the season as well as deleted scenes and featurettes exploring the rising popularity of the series. There's even an easter egg on the bonus disc. As well, the series keeps itself relatively discreet by providing the episodes on dual-sided discs.

All in all, this is an impressive outing and enjoyable to anyone who likes great drama. It ranks right up there with the first and second seasons of NYPD Blue. This is a must-own for any fan of great drama and essential for fans of the work of Aaron Sorkin. For those who love The West Wing, The Complete Collection (click here for that review!) might be a better investment.

For other sophomore seasons, please check out my reviews at:
Lost Season 2
30 Rock Season 2
The Big Bang Theory Season 2


For other television reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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