In only a few short days, I’ve plowed through the first 10(!) episodes of The West Wing. Benefits of graduating college ladies and gentlemen! I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to write about the episodes because straight recaps would be boring after the fact, and I’m still reading up on the various issues. However, there a few things I think could power a conversation that will headline today’s post.
One of the interesting choices made by Aaron Sorkin for whatever reason — I haven’t been able to find anything specific — is to shape the show, at least initially, around characters who worked in the communications side of things. It could have been easy to base the series on the cabinet or even just the Chief of Staff. The idealistic side of things, from which the series is obviously coming from, can paint the speech writers and communication folks as arbiters of truth, people who help President Bartlett say all the inspirational and uplifting things that he says. I’m going to guess that series never takes the communication team down a dark path or anything where they start spreading an untruthful message, but especially in the Bush II era, that would have been an interesting choice.
Not that the two series are on any sort of similar quality level, but ABC’s V has done a somewhat intriguing job with discussing how the media’s portrayal of certain events shapes public opinion. It’s basically the only good part of the series at this point. So far, The West Wing doesn’t really approach the outside opinion of the citizens except in passing dialogue, and will surely only continue to use the White House as our entry point of perspective. However, it could be compelling to see more public opinion and the response to those events.
Moreover, I’ve read a few pieces that criticized the series for being too optimistic in its portrayal of the White House and its response to crucial world events, and I can see that. Every episode includes a idealistic speech from one of the characters and most episode include more than one. Sure, that’s uplifting in the moment, but even now, there is a little fatigue with characters solving issues with rousing diatribes against the evils of the world. I’m not sure how I’ll feel once the series ends. Interestingly, my response to those elements in the series is actually based on my disenfranchised feelings towards the Obama administration. As a voter, I was all riled up with President Obama’s speeches and plans when he was a nominee, and I feel like people like Sam, Toby and Josh would fit right in with his administration. And with many of those feelings now replaced with disappointment, I guess I’m relating to the speeches in the series more negatively. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else could feel that way as well.
The third point I wanted to discuss is the transition of focus from Sam to Josh/more ensemble. Various pieces I’ve read about the series’ development note how it was originally supposed to focus on Rob Lowe’s Sam and because everyone else was so damn good and perhaps even more interesting, the writing shaped the series more as a ensemble. This eventually led to Lowe’s departure in season four. Maybe it’s the coloring of those readings, but just 10 episodes in, I didn’t feel like the series was ever really built around Sam. The pilot definitely focuses on his personal entanglements more, but even then, the controversy within the White House is all about Josh Lyman — and so are many of the following stories. The West Wing already feels like Josh’s story, or even Leo’s more than anyone else. Maybe Sam gets more to do in the back half of season one, maybe not. But if Lowe was promised a series built around him, then I could see why he was angry because that series never really existed.
Finally, I guess should talk about the quality a little bit. Yeah, pretty damn good, just as suspected. The performances are fantastic, the writing is sharp and I do love the walk and talks. However, one thing that is apparent when watching a slew of episodes in quick succession: Things almost always work out for the better. I understand that antagonism has to come from somewhere, so there’s always a vote that needs saved or an international incident prevented, but I’m more connected to the character-centric stories like Leo’s drug problem and the relationship between Josh and Donna. I’m hoping for more character-based stories in the future, but so far, the series has done a good job of making broader stories tell us important things about characters.
I’ll be back in the middle of the week with more!