TV Roundup: The West Wing, #8
Before I get into my eighth pick - a show who I've seen the best seasons at least three times - let's review the entire list thus far:
21. Kids In The Hall
19. How I Met Your Mother
17. The Simpsons
16. The Daily Show
15. Mad Men
14. Arrested Development
12. The Office (UK & US)
9. Six Feet Under
The next show in my TV Roundup is one I admit isn't for everybody, certainly not the folks on the far right of the political aisle. It also features some of the very best writing and acting in any television show I've ever seen.
While I've been called a liberal apologist on actual political grounds, I'm on fairly secure grounds here with the selection of this show -- with a few specific caveats.
a) I'm primarily talking about the first four seasons (those with Aaron Sorkin as the head writer and executive producer), though the next few seasons certainly contained good, quality programming.
b) I'm ignoring the entire character of Mandy, played by Moira Kelly, who was so annoying that when the first picture I found contained her, I reflexively winced.
That's probably it. Sure, the show was preachy at times (in particular, the 'special episode' after 9/11 called "Isaac and Ishmael" was painful, but many other examples made me squirm at times, and I agreed with them.) And when Sorkin left, the creativity and tone waned substantially. That's a big deal - in fact, I stopped watching the final season, when Jimmy Smits ran against Alan Alda in what turned out to be (both intentionally and not so) a preview of the 2008 election.
So why, then, is it my eighth favorite show of all-time?
The show is constructed beautifully -- each of the main characters (again, except Mandy, who left quickly enough) providing compelling character studies and numerous people we actively root for.
There is, of course, President Jeb Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen. Originally, Sheen was meant to just make occasional appearances and the show be more focused on the staff, but Sheen was so compelling and charismatic that they expanded the role, shaping the series completely.
From Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney), the senior staff were incredible. It's one of the first times I took Lowe seriously and the rest were actors I'd either never seen or noticed before - and all absolutely defined their roles. Lyman and Ziegler are two of my all-time favorite characters and it's simply a crime Schiff and Whitford don't work more often.
You'll notice I didn't include Stockard Channing as First Lady Abbey Bartlett or Elisabeth Moss as daughter Zoey Bartlett. While they did great work and had many important episodes based on them, neither were reasons I loved the show. This seemed important to mention.
I'm just saying, these things help.
The show sometimes had episodes based obviously on incidents that occured during the Clinton administration, and portrayed them in the most idealistic way possible -- that's going to bother some folks and as noted, in some occasions that group included me. But what the show was so brilliant at was making it unambiguously clear why the characters were so passionate, so driven.
It's also worth singling out what very well may be the single best episode of any show ever -- yes, I just wrote that - which would be "Two Cathedrals." Without spoiling much, there is a funeral at National Cathedral, and the deceased was a person close to President Bartlett. He screams a rant - at God - in Latin, while grinding out a cigarette on the floor of the cathedral. That speech is not translated, but it's painfully obvious his furor, his rage and pain. (I later heard that this wasn't just a nod to the audience's intelligence, but a reality that if it had been translated, it never would have been approved by the network. Yelling at God isn't exactly non-controversial territory. I still like to think it was because Sorkin knew we didn't need the actual words.)
Check it out here:
The show was not afraid, and the confidence of its team showed through in almost every episode. As noted, I've watched the entire first four seasons at least three times, and I am completely entertained each time -- I once sliced my finger open washing dishes and before going to the hospital made sure my VCR was programmed to tape the show (yes, this was before the days of DVRs and I'm glad we'll never go back).
That's just a little bit of the dedication this show warranted, which makes it an easy choice for my #8 show of all-time.
Thank you, Mrs. Landingham.