Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wishing You Were President, The First Perfect Season of The West Wing.

The Good: Exceptional acting, Character and character development, Stories, FUNNY!, DVD extras, Everything!
The Bad: Um, it's not real, Mandy
The Basics: In a perfect first season, The West Wing The Complete First Season sets an ambitious agenda and pace for the series about the staff of the White House.

The West Wing - The Complete First Season on DVD is a perfect season that, try as I might, I cannot find genuine weaknesses with. There are very few first seasons that come out of the gate at or near their peak, NYPD Blue is the only other one that comes right to mind. I suppose I should not be surprised, though, as one of the creators of The West Wing is Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the perfect, short-lived series Sports Night (click here for that review!). While I will continue to refer to the first season of The West Wing as perfect, it is worth noting that after rewatching it yet again, I have knocked it off the pedestal of absolute perfection because . . . well, frankly, I can’t stand Mandy. Mandy has to be one of the most annoying characters ever to grace television and there was no real reason for her.

The West Wing is an hour-long drama that follows the personal and political foibles of a mythical presidency of U.S. President Josiah Bartlet. With twenty-two episodes on three discs (front and back, with a fourth disc solely of bonus features), this boxed set follows the second year of the Bartlet Administration. The episodes generally focus more on the behind the scenes workings of the President's staff, as opposed to the actions of President Bartlet.

Following the staff rallying to save the job of Josh Lyman when he speaks out against religious extremists on a Sunday morning talkshow, the Bartlet Administration finds itself politically. Forced to compromise their ideals on issues like gay rights and gun control, the staff works for victories that might be obtainable, like figuring out a more reasonable method for taking the census, reforming elections through the F.E.C. and fundraising.

Soon, though, their problems are multiplied from within and without. India and Pakistan clash which raises the possibility of nuclear war. The White House Chief of Staff comes under fire when a Republican Congressman accuses the White House Staff of using drugs, which seems to indicate he knows about Leo McGarry's history of drug and alcohol dependence. Bartlet, tired of being denounced by the liberals who put him in power, begins to fight by nominating a liberal justice to the Supreme Court, even as the poll numbers drop.

Over the twenty-two episodes in this set, there's almost not a single moment that is fun and brilliant to watch. In fact, the only thing that comes right to mind from the first season that just didn't fit was C.J. Cregg lip synching a song for the entertainment of the staff. Outside that, which just was weird, the season is flawless top to bottom.

What characterizes The West Wing is Aaron Sorkin's fast-paced writing style where dialogue is delivered quickly and articulately by people who sound like they are in a hurry almost all the time. The show, which could easily have suffered from a feeling of being stagnant or trapped inside, keeps a rigorous pace and sense of movement by having characters talking while moving almost all the time. They walk and talk (and I'm sure could chew bubblegum, too!) and the flow of the episodes is so constant that the viewer never feels like they aren't truly engaged by the show.

Which leads me to something that is almost never talked about when discussing The West Wing. The first season of The West Wing is very funny. There is an extensive amount of humor written into the dialogue, as characters quip back and forth. There is humor in the transitions of scenes as well. After a particularly quick exchange of dialogue, for example, Sam Seaborn finds himself standing outside a closed door in a hallway far away from his office, so there is an awkward pause as he waits, then lurches into motion to head back from where he came. And there is a lot of situational humor. In "Celestial Navigation," Sam and Toby head to Connecticut to get their Supreme Court nominee out of jail and they navigate using the stars. Don't ask why.

But what I was unprepared for from all of the praise heaped on this dramatic series was the amount of humor in the series. Almost every episode has some moments that are, at least, wry, though some have moments that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. The moments balance well against the dour, heavy moments that dominate many of the political machinations the staff has to deal with.

As a strong character-driven serialized show, it behooves the viewer to know who the main characters are. In the first season, the primary characters are:

Sam Seaborn - Deputy Communications Director, he is essentially the President's speechwriter. A former lawyer and generally decent guy, Sam finds himself accidentally dating a call girl who is studying to be a lawyer. Sam works hard to fight for Josh's job and later works behind the scenes to protect Leo McGarry,

C.J. Cregg - Press Secretary, she deals with members of the press. One of the White House correspondents, Danny Concannon, begins to pursue C.J. romantically, which throws her for a bit of a loop. Efficient and articulate, Cregg becomes the voice of the Administration and speaks her mind whenever possible,

Toby Ziegler - Communications Director, he is responsible for crafting the message of the Administration. A disaffected liberal who is tired of compromising, Toby spends much of the season disappointed by a president who will not stand up for the core values of the constituents,

Leo McGarry - Chief of Staff, essentially the day to day boss of the White House staffers and liaison between them and the president whenever possible. Leo is a recovering alcoholic whose marriage falls apart because of his devotion to his job. Finding himself alone, his staff becomes his family when they move to protect him,

Josh Lyman - Deputy Chief of Staff who nearly is fired right off the bat. Surviving that, he Josh works to keep Leo in power when machinations look like they might unseat him. Josh is friends with Sam and wants to progress a more radical agenda and when he has the opportunity, he springs enthusiastically into action,

Donna Moss - Assistant to Josh (and only a guest star in all 22 episodes the first season), she is efficient and caring, though she finds herself often neglected or snapped at by Josh when tensions flare,

Charlie Young - Personal Aide to the President, he is hired when he his mother is killed as a victim in a gun-related crime. Charlie comes aboard and begins dating the President's daughter, while confronting the racism of Middle America for doing that,

Mandy Hampton - Media Consultant and redundant character. She works to provide Toby with a message and prepare the President for eventual reelection. She has a history with Josh, but is generally a flat character the show doesn't know what to do with,

And President Jed Bartlet, a liberal who has been kept on a short leash by a Republican Congress, Leo and his own party. Bartlet is crippled by the desire to retain power, thus wasting the effectiveness of the office. As well, Bartlet is hiding a secret known only to him, his wife and a very few others . . .

What makes the characters click so well are the actors who portray them. The West Wing features the perfectly cast ensemble of Dule Hill (Charlie), Rob Lowe (Sam), Janel Moloney (Donna), John Spencer (Leo), and Bradley Whitford (Josh). The choices cast for each role are perfect and the actors bring their a-game to every single episode, every single frame of the show.

Notable among the cast is Allison Janney, who plays C.J. Cregg. She has a quality to her that allows her to portray exhausted and articulate within a heartbeat. Seeing the way she moves and speaks completely in character on these 22 episodes, it's easy to see how she was nominated all seven years for the Academy Award (winning 4, including for her work in this season). Janney embodies a character who is an esoteric mix of professional and scatterbrained and she pulls it off expertly.

Martin Sheen plays President Bartlet and the best possible way to describe his performance is "presidential." He embodies a president. Without flaw, with all of the complications and dignity, Sheen plays Bartlet. Sheen's performance is so solid and direct that 100% of liberals in my family would rather have Sheen portraying the fictional Jed Bartlet running the nation than the current occupant of the White House.

The surprise acting genius in The West Wing comes in the form of Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler. This was the sole season Schiff won the Academy Award for his work, though he was nominated for other seasons, as well. Schiff plays Ziegler with a brilliant detachment and mumble of a man who has simply gotten used to giving up. He throws his whole body into the performance, slouching from episode to episode speaking up but rarely looking his coworkers in the eyes. It did not surprise me to learn, via one of the DVD commentary tracks that Schiff's acting technique was so serious he would appear on set for his scenes, then retreat to study his lines, rarely engaging in conversations or such with other castmates the first season.

For those who have not experienced The West Wing, this season begins it all and the featurettes and commentaries on the DVDs are entertaining and insightful. The only real drawback of the set is when you watch the episodes, you'll want to go get season two right away! For those who are familiar with The West Wing, the supreme boxed set The West Wing - The Complete Series (click here for that review!) would be a better investment.

For other worthwhile television series’, please check out my reviews of:
The Big Bang Theory – Season 2


For other television reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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