Television Revision: The West Wing – Season 1

The West Wing S1

By Andrew Williams
May 15, 2014

Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and the rest).

Now, this is a story all about how… Newly elected Democratic President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his closest advisors navigate the murky waters of governing while trying to hold on to their ethics (and some semblance of a personal life).

The West Wing S1

Happy days? Good lord, the DVD cover for The West Wing looked boring. I remember being at the video store (this was a bygone era) searching the aisles for a new television show to become addicted to after watching the eleventh episode of Alias and it dawning on me I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Awoken from my Garner-induced stupor, I looked at the drab-suited set of character actors (and Rob Lowe) that populated the cover of The West Wing‘s first season DVD and decided I’d give it a go. I like politics, right? How boring could it be?

Two weeks, four seasons and a frankly disappointing amount of showers later, my life would never be the same. This is my favourite show of all time, with directing, acting and writing working in tremendous harmony to produce an entertaining, witty, thoughtful program with a point of view that amounts to more than “Everything is terrible. Gee, isn’t everything just the worst?” The show’s defining optimism and idealism might make it unfashionable, but it also remains deeply relevant and necessary in an increasingly cynical world. The West Wing isn’t just a good show; it’s an inspiring show, and you can count on one hand the series that earn that moniker.

Funny, passionate, devastating, and positively riddled with compelling drama, The West Wing is flush with great scripts and a cinematic feel but it’s really elevated into the pantheon of all-time greats by the cast. From the fast-talking charm of Lowe to the indelible work of Allison Janney to the sheer power of Sheen’s performance, this is a cast that could go toe-to-toe with any in the history of television. These are 22 of the finest episodes of TV ever produced and if you can just get past those damned covers, I promise you there’s something wonderful inside. You, too, can shower not nearly enough.

The final frontier: The impeccable first season of the greatest show television’s ever come up with.

The West Wing S1

Top three episodes: 1) Pilot. From the beginning, in which every supporting actor is given a short scene illuminating a key element of their personality, to the end, where President Bartlet gets one of the most effective introductions in history, pilots don’t get much better. 10) In Excelsis Deo. Deftly mixing comedy with quiet, meaningful drama, the funeral at the end of this episode is absolutely spine-tingling. 14) Take this Sabbath Day. A perfect example of how this show is far less blinkered in its political thinking than it’s often accused of; the death penalty is debated and characters fail their better judgement in an episode that above all is about the enduring power of religion.

Worst episode: 4) Five Votes Down. It kills me to have to complete this section, but the scenes where Leo McGarry (John Spencer) and his wife end up getting a divorce feel one-dimensional in a way the show almost never does. While the reverberations of the storyline are felt and effective as the series moves on, the complete non-characterisation of Leo’s wife means the scenes lack weight.

Season MVP: It’s far too hard to pick an actor, so I have to go with show-runner/writer Aaron Sorkin. The West Wing has the best dialogue ever written for TV, and that’s all down to Sorkin, who was still perfecting his craft on Sports Night and did possibly irreparable damage to his personal brand with Studio 60 and The Newsroom. He’s in career best form here, juggling high-stakes drama, witty banter, real-world political issues and relationships with so much aplomb there was no aplomb left for anyone else.

5/5

The West Wing is available on Quickflix.

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