Aaron Sorkin's American political drama The West Wing
is more than mere feel-good viewing for sentimental US patriots. It is among the best-written, sharpest, funniest and most moving American TV series of all time. In its first series, The West Wing
established the cast of characters comprising the White House staff. There's Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), a recovering alcoholic whose efforts to be the cornerstone of the administration contribute to the break-up of his marriage. CJ (Alison Janney) is the formidable Press Spokeswoman embroiled in a tentative on-off relationship with Timothy (Thirtysomething
) Busfield's reporter. Brilliant but grumpy communications deputy Toby Ziegler, Rob Lowe's brilliant but faintly nerdy Sam Seaborn and brilliant but smart-alecky Josh Lyman make up the rest of the inner circle. Initially, the series' creators had intended to keep the President off-screen. Wisely, however, they went with Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlet, whose eccentric volatility, caution, humour and strength in a crisis make for such an impressively plausible fictional President that polls once expressed a preference for Bartlet over the genuine incumbent.
The issues broached in the first series have striking, often prescient contemporary relevance. We see the President having to be talked down from a "disproportionate response" when terrorists shoot down a plane carrying his personal doctor, or acting as broker in a dangerous stand-off between India and Pakistan. Gun control laws, gays in the military and fundamentalist pressure groups are all addressed--the latter in a most satisfying manner ("Get your fat asses out of the White House!")--while the episode "Take This Sabbath Day" is a superb dramatic meditation on capital punishment.
Handled incorrectly, The West Wing could have been turgid, didactic propaganda for The American Way. However, the writers are careful to show that, decent as this administration is, its achievements, though hard-won, are minimal. Moreover, the brisk, staccato-like, almost musical exchanges of dialogue, between Josh and his PA Donna, for instance, as they pace purposefully up and down the corridors are the show's abiding joy. This is wonderful and addictive viewing. --David Stubbs