All the president’s people
It is always thrilling to watch alumni from a beloved television series rub shoulders and share a screen long after the show has run its course. Those of us who haven’t ever been able to get over The West Wing were, therefore, in a bit of luck this week during the 90th annual Academy Awards.
The incomparable Allison Janney (who played C.J. Cregg on the show) picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (for her frighteningly good work in I, Tonya), Bradley Whitford (who played Josh Lyman on the show) was part of the ensemble for the highly acclaimed horror-satire Get Out, nominated, among other things, for Best Picture, and the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for his directorial debut, Molly’s Game.
There they were, in the same room, scarlet dresses impeccably ironed, bow ties in place, ears cocked for names called from an envelope, smiles at the ready. A far cry, really, from the relentless firefighting these people had to do to keep the razor-sharp, multitasking dynamics of The West Wing in place.
All seven seasons of that show are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and today, when satires about current presidents seem too tame—despite the savage profanity of Veep (Hotstar) or the single-minded Trump-slaying aspirations of Stephen Colbert’s disappointing Our Cartoon President (Hotstar)—in comparison to real governments that beat any caricature, it may be a fine time to revisit Sorkin’s show about hope.
The West Wing is about an inspirationally upright president and his White House staff, made up of idealistic and motivated people. Everyone is smart-mouthed, everyone has incredibly clever ideas, everyone is far too aware of pop-culture references, and everyone wants to make a difference. Naturally, this can now only be consumed as a fantasy. Even back when it aired (1999-2006), however, it felt politically naive and simplistic. What it did have were charismatic characters, an ambitiously cinematic storytelling structure and—quite simply—the finest dialogues on television.
The words sing right from the pilot episode, which has one of the best cold opens in television history.
We open with a handsome man in a bar trading smiles with an attractive woman. We cut to an older man, grumpy about the crossword when he is interrupted by the phone. We cut to a woman, trying to make conversation while using a treadmill, failing—then falling. We cut to a young man asleep on his desk, waking up and attending to his phone. We cut to another man, asked to put away his laptop on a flight, something he refuses to do because of the ridiculous notion that an advanced aircraft could face interference from simple electronics, when he, too, gets a phone message.
After all this, we go back to the first man (Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe) getting out of the shower in the house of the woman he met at the start. She gives him a message about a friend of his with “a funny name” who had a bicycle accident. She’s amused by his urgency, and, on his way out, he corrects her: “He’s not my friend, he’s my boss. And it’s not his name, it’s his title.” “Potus?” she asks, puzzled. “President of the United States,” he explains. And only then do the titles begin.
This is why Sorkin is considered a television deity. The elegance, the structure, the relentless activity. So relentless, in fact, that people are always on the move in The West Wing, the show cementing Sorkin’s style for writing superb walk-and-talk dialogue, because his characters and their mouths don’t stop moving.
That first episode—with many a crisis brewing, including the religious right, a refugee situation, and a senior staffer’s ex-lover coming to work at the White House—sets the hyperactive wheels in motion and keeps them spinning till the very end, where the president, played by the redoubtable Martin Sheen, finally appears, and, with a smile on his face, takes charge. It’s hard not to be stirred.
Sorkin left The West Wing after its fourth season—having individually written or co-written 85 out of the 88 episodes—and while the three remaining seasons, written by John Wells, build well on Sorkin’s work and respect those superlative characters, it isn’t the same. The show is fine, but, bereft of Sorkin’s tripwire dialogue, the urgency doesn’t remain. What I would recommend, for those of you new to the series as well as those wishing to revisit it, is that you watch only the first four seasons. Sorkin’s presidential term, as it were.
One of the most remarkable things about Sorkin is the way he depicts the workplace as a place of such stimulation and like-minded problem solving that it made me, who types from all over the place, miss being in an office — though that can immediately be remedied by watching Ricky Gervais’ The Office. It is hard to create an entire team of White House staffers who are uncynical yet indubitably cool (albeit somewhat square), which is why it felt so special to see Janney pick up her Oscar. Those of us who loved her as no-nonsense press secretary C.J. Cregg were thinking of The Jackal, a song she lip-syncs with great swagger on the show.
As we look at television drama today, with its murderers and adulterers and drug dealers and incestuous queens, it throws Sorkin’s achievement into even sharper focus. With shows like Sports Night, The West Wing and even The Newsroom, Sorkin gave us a few workaday heroes we could choose to be like. A fitting legacy for the writer who created A Few Good Men.
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The writer tweets at @rajasen