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… All eyes are on the White House following President Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) stunning revelations at the end of Season Two, with his team simultaneously contending with a crisis and running for re-election.
Happy days? There’s a darker tinge to Season Three of The West Wing. In between seasons, 9/11 had destroyed America’s relative innocence, leading to a more paranoid, cautious nation. It was a tremendous challenge for all areas of the entertainment industry to try and find a way to provide joy to a deeply sombre populace. The circumstances were especially difficult for a show like The West Wing, which dealt with matters like terrorism, foreign relations and national security on a regular basis and whose defining trait of optimism was never more required and never more at risk.
On top of those off-screen challenges, The West Wing had the task of maintaining its high-standard of quality (it was by this time a critical and commercial hit) in the face of on-screen upheaval. The status quo had been irrevocably altered in the world of the show, and it remained to be seen if The West Wing could continue its spectacular run. Despite a shaky start (more on that later), it doesn’t take long for this remarkable show to whirr right back into top gear, balancing season-long arcs with multi-episode threads and episodic plots in a way most shows still can’t satisfactorily do.
It helps when the machine is this well oiled. If the script is occasionally weak, this incredible cast can carry it off with aplomb. If the plotting is occasionally off track, the sparkling dialogue makes it work. The direction, as always, remains stellar, and the show goes three-for-three with epic, spine-tingling finales.
The final frontier: Even in the face of momentous challenges, The West Wing continues to be triumphant television.
Top three episodes: 10) Bartlet for America. Just try not to cry during the final scene. Go on. I dare you. 21) Posse Comitatus. Boy, that Sorkin is a piece of work. This is a heartbreaking season finale that still features on ‘most shocking TV moments’ lists, and contains yet another stunning musical choice. 13) Night Five. Adam Arkin’s Dr. Stanley Keyworth – one of my favourite guest stars in a series embarrassingly rich with them – pops up again to prod the President’s psyche. But did he see anyone he knew on the plane?
Worst episode: Aaron Sorkin, like many of his ilk, tried to make sense of an unspeakable tragedy with Isaac and Ishmael, technically the first episode of Season Three. It’s referred to as an out-of-continuity play; an alternate universe episode where 9/11 appears to have taken place and the characters are the same, but not quite. It’s a valiant but deeply flawed attempt on Sorkin’s behalf to try and heal the nation’s collective soul that comes off as preachy, clunky and condescending. Lucky it’s not a ‘real’ episode.
Season MVP: There’s a certain breed of actor that excels at the small moments. John Spenceris one of those actors. His Leo McGarry is one of The West Wing’s many indelible creations – a warm, fiercely intelligent and single-minded man; the glue that held the show together. When Spencer passed away during the seventh season, it became apparent to everyone involved that the show could not go on without him. Watch him during the end of ‘Bartlet for America’ and find out why.
Check out Andrew Williams’ previous instalments:
The West Wing is available on Quickflix.