Aaron Sorkin/USA/1999-2005; R4, 44-disc set
Warner Bros, $250 | Reviewed by Adrian Wilson

WHEN I was fourteen I started watching The West Wing. Unfortunately I only had enough smarts to know that I didn’t understand most of it, and given that it’s a talky and technical political drama you’d think that it would probably only work on a cerebral level. Nevertheless, there was something else about it that hooked me and drew me in. After following it through for seven seasons, over eight particularly formative years, I can’t emphasise enough the profound influence that it’s had on me. I can also attempt to articulate what its “something” is, which to my mind serves to make it the best TV show ever; or at the very least, the best American political drama to come from the network television system in the past decade.

It follows the fictional Bartlett administration through one and a half terms in office. For the most part Bartlett is a manifestation of the Presidential ideal; benevolent, even-handed, considered and intelligent – he’s the aggregate of the best qualities of some of the great political leaders; possessing Clinton’s intellectualism; a ground breaking social conscience in the mold of FDR or LBJ; Truman’s fundamental good heartedness and generosity, and firmness in the face of external threats; and Hillary’s calculative ruthlessness. Just kidding, Bartlett isn’t calculating or ruthless at all.

We come to discover that he had been sought out to run whilst governor of New Hampshire by an old friend, consummate Washington insider, and former cabinet secretary Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who goes on to become his Chief of Staff, and virtual co-president for most of his time in office. Despite the “outsider” campaign profile, Bartlett’s brilliance and inherent goodness attracts a rag tag bunch of principled, dedicated, and talented staff, and the rest is (television) history.

Part of its appeal lies in the fact that it offers proximity to an inherently impressive world; the Office of the President is perhaps the bluntest manifestation of power known to modern times. This fact alone helps to sustain an undeniable majesty; it infuses the stories with an importance of purpose, and the characters with palpable gravitas. But harnessing and truly co-opting this dynamic is a difficult task – especially considering the relative inadequacy of virtually any other filmic portrayal of the subject (most recently the odious Commander in Chief). The West Wing however possesses a depth of intelligence and a sensitivity that elevates it to a higher level.

It benefits from the unprecedented creation of a painstakingly realistic alternate political universe; all of the jobs the characters occupy are real world jobs, or at least analogues of plausible White House positions – Chief of Staff; Deputy CoS (acronyms and initialisms are the lifeblood of the show); National Security Advisor; Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs, and so on; the president actually has five secretaries, and the sets are dressed and populated veraciously. The end result of this attention to detail is an intensely vivid realism. The show is conducted at lightening pace (many meetings are conducted as characters wander the halls to give a sense of frantic activity, which is difficult to convey in an otherwise austere office environment), and the issues that the characters have to deal with are purposefully complex, they aren’t dumbed down to encourage a broader appeal.

The downside of this technical aspect of The West Wing’s approach is that it presents a considerable challenge to the average viewer; a lot of the time the characters are dealing with stuff on a level that makes the plots almost inscrutable. On the other hand, the show could be considered an effective educational tool; it traverses almost everything an administration could encounter – it deals with appointments to the Supreme Court; mid-term and presidential elections with both an incumbent (in the fourth season) and a wide open field – starting with the retail politics of primary campaigning, through to the mass market/please everyone politics of a national election (in the seventh); various world conflicts and humanitarian imperatives that prompt military responses; and the removal of an Ambassador to Brazil after his affair with the Brazilian president’s daughter is uncovered. If you’re willing to invest your time and concentration, you’re likely to be repaid with an impressive and comprehensive understanding of American politics – and take my word for it, you have no idea how many girls will be impressed by a detailed understanding of how the White House can transparently interface with the GAO.

In any event, even if you aren’t vibing with the hardcore politico-babble the show is still engaging; the narrative resonates because at its core it’s concerned with characters and their relationships, and in this sense the function of the hyper-realistic context just helps to confer an importance upon them and what they do, which makes them interesting. The root of its appeal then comes from the fact that it’s an intensely convincing and insightful humanization of powerful and otherwise inaccessible people.

These character elements were interwoven with the technical political aspects most successfully during the first four seasons, when Aaron Sorkin was at the helm. The show became the subject of some quite harsh criticism following his departure before the fifth season. Fans and critics weren’t happy about the new producers getting too heavy into technical side, at the expense of the more expansive stories and the depth of character relations that Sorkin had crafted. I’m not convinced that all of these criticisms are warranted; while the show did take on a more procedural style, some of the best story arcs still came out of the later seasons, especially one involving a fall from grace of one of the main characters when his reckless actions precipitate a congressman switching parties, fatally altering an already precarious balance of power in the lower chamber. It’s dealt with in a realistic way, and has interesting implications for the course of the show’s conclusion. And even some of the procedural episodes made for entertaining viewing, for example one involving Glenn Close and William Fitchner being appointed as devoutly liberal and fiercely conservative political Supreme Court justices after some deft political maneuvering.

Also, while the earlier seasons did draw out some more compelling plotlines (the first and second season cliffhangers are terrific) some of the Sorkin episodes tended too much towards schmaltz, and at times bordered on sanctimony. But taken as part of the whole, this soppiness doesn’t do any great damage, and to a large extent it’s offset by the show’s capacity to be searingly funny and impressively clever (an example which resonates with me in the context of review writing takes place when a senior White House aide is asked by a senior State Department official whether a revised foreign policy section of the state of the union address had been re-written “dramatically”, the aide responds that he likes to think he has a certain flair).

The seventh season denouement picks up from straight after the previous series’ climax where the principled, charismatic, ethnic outsider, Congressman Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) had picked up the Democratic nomination. He’s pitted against the pragmatic and perceptive moderate Republican Senator Arnold Vinck (Alan Alda) in the race for the White House. The campaign grows exponentially more frenetic as the season progresses, leading up to a pre-election episode where there is so much going on (they hit eight states in 26 hours, a feat actually undertaken in the final stages of the real presidential race) that there is virtually no comprehensible sentence uttered. The election coverage is broken up by inversely less exciting episodes focussing on the Bartlett White House in its twilight days. Initially I found these episodes a bit boring, but by the time it got to the end it became apparent that that was almost the point; it was a insightful depiction of what it must feel like to be part of an administration coming to the end of its term, with an attendant and pervasive sense of powerlessness.

A general and persistent criticism of the show is that it considers US politics through rose-tinted spectacles. In that by focusing on a world where most characters, regardless of their political stripes are portrayed as principled, moral, and intelligent, with a relevant point of view, it is at odds with the predominant inside-the-beltway dynamics; it’s missing the slick rhetorical superficiality, the lobbying that borders on corruption, and the pervasive cronyism.

These criticisms also miss the point; the show consistently presented itself as a guide to how decisions should be made (most recently in the seventh season where a senior aide is summarily fired within minutes of revealing that he had disclosed sensitive information to a New York Times reporter, a story which mirrored and directly contrasted the belligerent and Gambino-esque way the current White House bent over backwards to protect officials in a similar position). Perhaps the only problem with it in this regard is the fact that American’s aspirations for and expectations from those occupying their highest political offices has to come from as crude a format as a weekly 44 minute television drama. But insofar as they did, The West Wing delivered.