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This review is from: The Complete West Wing: Seasons 1-7 (44 Disc Box Set) [DVD] (DVD)
A few years ago it used to be common for British critics to crow about what wonderful intelligent drama we produce and how U.S. television lagged far behind us in sophistication. We haven't heard that view so much of late and The West Wing is one of the prime contributing factors to their silence.
The West Wing wasn't just another drama: it was a phenomenon. Literate, clever, witty and profoundly serious, it set out a vision of "liberal" politics that took the ideals of the Clinton White House and recast them on a heroic scale. In Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) the writers created a Democrat president who brought the charisma of the JFK era into the twenty-first century, while his staff - the zealous ideologue Toby Ziegler, pragmatic fixer Josh Lyman, Capra-esque innocent Sam Seaborn, sassy press secretary C. J. Cregg and irascible Chief of Staff Leo McGarry - provided an articulate forum for the ideas under discussion. The acting was rarely less than superb; the scripting consistently evocative of Preston Sturges and the golden age of Hollywood dialogue.
Over the seven seasons, the quality falters occasionally, but never for long. Some of the more sensational plot threads - an abduction, a state-authorised assassination, some improbable foreign policy manoeuvres towards the end of the administration - stretch the credulity of the audience, suggesting that the writers occasionally struggled to maintain the narrative over such a long run. Nevertheless, there are sequences of episodes, such as the assassination attempt on Bartlet, or the long campaigns that dominate seasons six and seven, that can be counted as some of the best political drama to see the light of day in any form. During the long close of the series, the performances by Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda are themselves outstanding examples of television acting at its best, and there are recurring characters (such as those played by Adam Arkin, Oliver Platt and Emily Procter among many) that go a long way to explaining why this has been regarded as one of the strongest ensemble casts of recent years.
Especially noteworthy is the fact that the series only very rarely stoops to soap opera. Tendencies in that direction - the relationship between Charlie Young and Barlet's youngest daughter, or C. J.'s relationship with a Secret Services bodyguard - are quickly curtailed, sustaining the integrity of a body of work whose worst moments of self-indulgence (such as the presidential debate in series seven - which was performed live by Smits and Alda - or the "Access" mockumentary on the work of the White House press secretary) were always noble in conception, intelligent in approach.
There are full seasons here that I must have seen approaching ten times, and their ability to educate, inform and entertain is unrivalled in my DVD collection. There are plenty of my TV-on-DVD purchases that have failed to repay the investment of purchase ... this is emphatically not one of them.