Recently, a friend admitted to me she’d read 18 reviews of the penultimate Breaking Bad. I couldn’t judge her for this. I’d just enjoyed a scathing critique of the Dexter series finale, and I saw approximately 45 minutes of that eight-season series. Minute-by-minute, frame-by-frame analysis of TV is ubiquitous now. And that’s because it’s fun to read what someone else thought of your favorite show, or that show you use as white noise, or that show you tried for half a season and gave up.
Granted, it isn’t always good for this coverage to become all encompassing. When production teams listen too closely to viewers, things get messy. But mostly, whether the coverage is positive, negative, or anywhere in between, it feels OK for readers and critics—and perhaps production teams as well, although they may want to steer clear of comments sections. What I wonder is how minute-by-minute, frame-by-frame coverage would read for shows I’m watching today, relatively older shows—in particular, The West Wing.
(In the interest of full disclosure, the only full seasons I’ve seen of The West Wing are the first three. I know Aaron Sorkin relinquished control of the show after season four concluded, and I know there’s a drop-off in quality at that point—preceded by Rob Lowe’s departure midway through season four. That’s where I am, and I’m trying to love Joshua Malina as his de facto replacement. Sometimes, for five-minute stretches, it works.)
The pre-title sequence of The West Wing’s pilot is objectively strong and subjectively great. Within a matter of minutes, viewers meet each member of its main cast aside from the President himself. You doubtless know The West Wing is about the inner workings of a fictionalized White House. You probably know Lowe, Martin Sheen, and Allison Janney are involved. What you might not know is each character feels fully realized in that pre-title. This sets the tone for the next three seasons in such a way I imagine Aaron Sorkin had a vault in his basement filled entirely with scripts for each episode.
Sure, The West Wing has its clunkers, and they become more frequent as the show progresses. The dialogue can be cheesy, the plots contrived, and the character interactions stale. But those flaws are overshadowed by how it feels when it works—and I’d argue that 80% of the time throughout those seasons, it does.
The early West Wing doesn’t talk down to its audience. It’s assumed the audience is able to follow what’s going on, whether it pertains to the fictional country of Qumar or house committees that don’t even sound real. There’s no handholding here. And yet it’s approachably intellectual—as long as you can watch someone walk while they talk, you can keep up.
Plot contrivances are canceled out by how the collective administration responds to them. Sheen’s Jed Bartlet is not perfect and addresses challenges the way a liberal with evident religious beliefs and an air of pretension would. The few conservatives in the Bartlet White House—particularly Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter)—are portrayed as intelligent, thoughtful people who may not have voted for Bartlet but have a stake in his success and cling to integrity because of that. When Janney’s Press Secretary CJ Cregg and Bradley Whitford’s Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman respond emotionally to questions from reporters, or Lowe’s Deputy White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn enters into a relationship that may call Bartlet’s judgment of character into question, there are repercussions, and they continue to echo through several episodes.
Thanks to a combination of snappy writing and superb acting, Sam Seaborn is a delicate balance of intellectual, confident, and flawed. In the same way, CJ Cregg is downright heroic, the kind of Strong Female Character audiences desperately seek (just without a stake or FBI-issued flashlight in hand). And Josh Lyman is irresistible in his combination of self-doubt and swagger. Every member of the main cast is solid—and when they weren’t, when they belonged firmly in the 20% of the show that didn’t work, the writers ditched them and replaced them with someone who was.
I’ve watched countless television episodes since I watched each of The West Wing’s first three finales. I’ve watched outstanding pilots, remarkable mid-season cliffhangers, and series finales that left me speechless. But I can’t think of any individual episodes that caused quite the reactions I experienced watching these finales. (There is one exception, but it’s a season two episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender and I really don’t want to talk about it.)
Everyone who touched those finales, everyone who had a hand in them, was clearly trying his or her hardest to make Good Television, the kind of television that gets described as cinematic. And they succeeded. The emotional beats ring true. The scripts are airtight. And even if a Bartlet speech would read melodramatically on paper, when Sheen speaks the words, you can’t help being captivated and convinced his words are gold.
Are Aaron Sorkin’s gender politics unsophisticated? Is it hard to take him seriously in a post-Newsroom world? Does his public persona taint his body of work? In 2013, I’d say yes. But were it 1999-2002 and I were judging purely by minute-by-minute, frame-by-frame analysis of The West Wing, I’d say all I knew of Aaron Sorkin was he knew how to helm a damn fine TV drama.