First Term

Hints have been popping up here and there about another one of the many shows I've just wrapped up a full season's worth of watching, so here we are. If Mad Men is an example of a show that succeeds at character-driven storytelling, then The West Wing would be up there as an example of one that succeeds at plot-driven storytelling. Writing episodes based on real-life policy issues may not be as difficult as finding inspiration for fictional ad execs in the 1960s, but adapting the grist of the Washington, D.C. mill into actual entertainment clearly carries its own set of challenges.

Reading things about Aaron Sorkin can be as interesting as seeing things written by Aaron Sorkin, and I knew a lot about his talent, his quirks, and his foibles long before I consumed any of his actual work. I enjoyed The Social Network, but as I mentioned in one of the links above, my only experience with his TV shows was the dreadful Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Now that I've finished the first season of The West Wing, his batting average has gone way up. I don't know if I'd feel the same way if the fictional president and his staff didn't have a lot of the same liberal leanings that I do, but in any event, watching the Bartlet administration struggle through political opposition and wavering public opinion was pretty addictive. Plus, as a new viewer, I can play a little mini-game in which I spot guest actors with tiny parts that would go on to become stars in their own right. Hey, there's Ron Swanson! Hey, there's Sara Sidle! Hey, there's Peggy Olson!

Speaking of Peggy Olson, I didn't pull out individual episodes of season 5 of Mad Men for discussion, because all of them were pretty stellar. And although I enjoyed this inaugural season of The West Wing (no pun intended), it had definite high and low points. Standouts include "Mr. Willis of Ohio" (which includes an interesting debate about the methodology of census-taking), "Celestial Navigation" (gee, who would ever think there would be backwards racial politics surrounding a Latino Supreme Court nominee?), and the aforementioned "Let Bartlet be Bartlet".

Not every episode struck a chord, but it's pretty amazing how topical many of them still are these fourteen years later. Any episode that puts Allison Janney (as White House Press Secretary C. J. Cregg) in center stage gets an automatic bump, because as with most things she appears in, Janney is absolutely fantastic in this show. The rest of the cast is also very good, but Janney is one of those actors who always manages to give her characters that extra something special that makes them truly memorable. So all in all, I'd consider the first season a pretty unqualified success, and I'm definitely looking forward to diving into season 2. It sure beats the hell out of following real-world politics.

The West Wing - Season 1: B+


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