The best thing on television, TOM FITZSIMONS professes his admiration for The West Wing, its eerie prescience, and its fictional President Jed Bartlet.


LISTEN to a President speaking. He is a devoutly Christian President, a passionate President, and an articulate one too. He is talking to a polemical radio host, congratulating her on calling homosexuality an ‘abomination’ on her show. She has just quoted the chapter and verse of the bible from where the phrase comes:

‘Good ... I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here's one that's really important because we've got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight-Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits.’

Can you guess the President? Perhaps the current occupant of the White House? But no, you’re so quick, you’ve worked it out by now. The quick temper, the wit, the wordiness, the dramatic crescendo: the speaker is surely Jed Bartlet. Or, to you, that’s President Josiah Bartlet, Martin Sheen’s commander-in-chief on television’s The West Wing – the most popular political drama ever. Sure, given the competition, that may not be saying much, but the show’s seven-season American life (which just ended a couple of months ago) certainly speaks loudly enough. At the height of its popularity, The West Wing drew 17 million viewers per episode, gained critical acclamation and won nearly every Emmy imaginable (score!).


Martin Sheen as President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet.

And yet. And yet it seems clear the show never quite made it to the absolute top of the pile. The Sopranos? The unparalleled best, according to the Washington Post. With Tony just out of a coma, it seems almost heresy to suggest another American heavyweight could be better. Six Feet Under? Gritty. Lethal. Terrific. Something like Bodies, the British medical drama? Wow. Knock-your-head-off television.

But they’re wrong. Let me lay it on the line. For all its flaws – a predisposition towards schmaltz, the departure of its creative genius halfway through, an entire season that sagged – The West Wing is still the best television programme ever made. Sometimes dark and tough, sometimes cripplingly sad, but more often informative, entertaining and genuinely inspirational, I return to it.

My own introduction to The West Wing came only last year. I had all but missed the series while it was on normal television, and the couple of episodes I had watched had come off as a bit corny and pretentious. But a friend who had all five available seasons on DVD insisted I try it and I accepted the first season off him.

It took me months. Every time I saw the friend, he asked, ‘Have you watched it yet?’ and I would say, ‘No, not yet.’ Finally, it got so embarrassing that I lied to him. ‘Yes, I said, I’ve watched the first episode. It was okay.’ But he saw through it immediately and started quizzing me: ‘Who comes through the door at the end? What does the phrase ‘New York humour’ refer to?’ And I was revealed.

After watching me squirm for a bit, the friend said: ‘If you really had watched the first episode, you wouldn’t be telling me that. You’d be asking for the second season.’ Turns out he was right.

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ONE OF THE first things that strikes a West Wing aficionado is the show’s astounding prescience. Sure, it’s just blind coincidence, but the number of episodes on issues like campaign finance, immigration and security leaks that appeared shortly before they flared in the real-life White House was eerie. Then when President Bush fell off his bicycle a year or two ago, the trend was confirmed – the very first episode of The West Wing had Bartlet crashing his bike into a tree. Now the show is a cultural reference point in all parts of the political world. Earlier this year, a group of rebel Labour MPs emerged in the British Parliament from hiding to trump a vote going against them. The Democratic caucus had performed the same trick in the sixth season – something the press quickly latched onto.

In the US, similar things have happened – Jon Stewart’s Daily Show snapped a congressman mimicking one of Bartlet’s speeches word-for-word on his campaign adverts. More broadly, the Wing since 2000 has always been an alternative presidency – a ‘what-could-have-been’. One reviewer picked up that the final lines of the final episode captured this entirely. On Airforce One, leaving Washington, Bartlet’s wife asks him what he is thinking about. He replies: ‘Tomorrow’, and that’s the title of the episode. Not so great, right? Until you remember that Clinton’s campaign song in 1992 was none other than Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow’. Genius.

Even so, the show is much more than the foreshadowing of actual-world issues. Unlike almost every other depiction of political leaders on television, The West Wing is almost a player in the discourse. It doesn’t sketch the political issues so it can build a television drama around them; it actively engages with them and demands answers of its players. You want to hear the best answer to the ‘school vouchers’ education system touted by the American right? Bartlet in the debate in the fourth season. The best depiction of how to respond to terrorism? Bartlet in the situation room in season one. The best arguments for we should fund the arts? Toby in pretty much any season. The best political angle on the death penalty? Bartlet in the first season.

Throughout every season, and almost every episode, creator Aaron Sorkin just ploughs into material that other shows would never touch. It’s heavy on the policy detail – they’re flinging acronyms around the Roosevelt room like crazy – and it’s utterly expectant that the viewer can keep up. But the dialogue is not just intelligent; it’s also witty and sharp and so, so fast. One of the most common camera shots on the programme is a wide panning shot that takes in various doors, walls and layers of the building as characters walk through. That’s how busy they are – meetings usually take place on the go.


Vying for the Presidency in the current season of The West Wing: Congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits), and Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda).

The West Wing is also very funny – and not afraid to take the piss out of itself. Take the ‘walk-and-talks’ that I just described. In one episode, two key characters (Josh and Sam) are performing one of these. They talk importantly for a good couple of minutes, moving quickly as they go. Then they stop, and Josh says: ‘Where were you going?’

Sam replies, ‘I thought I was following you.’
Josh stops: ‘Let’s never speak of this again’.

The acting’s good too. Almost every main player has something compelling about them – from Toby’s (Richard Shiff) ceaseless melancholy, to Josh’s (Bradley Whitford) boyish confidence, to CJ’s (Alison Janney) wry intelligence, to Bartlet’s irrepressible idealism. The weak link, I think, is the show’s original star, Rob Lowe, who plays deputy communications director Sam Seaborn for four seasons. Despite good material, he’s the only one of Bartlet’s aides whose delivery consistently comes off as contrived.

Critically, the Wing dominated the American scene for its first four seasons, but it became fashionable to slag it off after that. I think it’s fair to say the fifth season was a dip, but unfair (as one critic did) to say the show ‘jumped the shark’ when Josh gets out of a cab and shakes his fist at the Capitol building. Certainly, as I’ve already admitted, there’s a tendency towards melodrama (both kidnappings and assassination attempts are features, for example), as well as a dose of patriotism that’s a little too strong for New Zealand tastes, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough to drag the show down, to pull it back from what it is – stellar.

All I need, I think, is season two, final episode – undeniably the best episode of the seven seasons – to back me up. I defy anyone to watch the first two seasons as they build towards this torrential, overwhelming climax and not become a fan. And I defy anyone with even the most passing interest in how human beings govern themselves to be able to resist the inspirational quality of the whole series. There are no exceptions – everyone who borrows my deluxe six-season set watches it greedily for weeks on end and finishes up dreaming of being a White House aide. And when we’re talking about politics – that dirtiest of all spheres – and when we’re talking about America – with the dirtiest of all politics in the first-world – then that’s some achievement. The Sopranos kicks you in the guts. The West Wing picks you up again. It’s better.


Courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Video, The Lumičre Reader has one copy of the The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season on DVD to giveaway. To enter, simply subscribe to our mailing list by emailing your name and address to lumiere@lumiere.net.nz under the subject heading "SUBSCRIBE + WW". Current subscribers can also enter. New Zealand residents only. One entry per person. ENTRIES HAVE CLOSED. Standard terms and conditions apply.