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Observations on "The West Wing" (One of the Best Political TV Shows of All-Time)

I wrote film reviews for over a decade in a variety of formats.

Many people revere "The West Wing" and consider it one of the greatest television shows ever made.

Many people revere "The West Wing" and consider it one of the greatest television shows ever made.

Is The West Wing the Best Show Ever?

Many people revere The West Wing and consider it one of the greatest television shows ever made. Detractors refer to it as The Liberal Wing for its obvious liberal politics.

Sometimes TV shows stand the test of time and sometimes they don't.

I never watched The West Wing when it originally aired. Of course, many people told me I had to watch it. So recently, some 15 or so years after it aired, I began watching.

The show is incredibly engaging and crisply written, a product of Aaron Sorkin. It's smart. And it imagines a White House where everyone is committed to making the world a better place and doing their best. Their ideals motivate them. These are smart people making hard decisions.

Given our political climate many years later, watching the show now is interesting, to say the least. Here are some of the things (interesting, I hope) that I've noticed about The West Wing.

Among the things I find most fascinating about the show are the small group of characters that grow and the large group of characters that don't.

Among the things I find most fascinating about the show are the small group of characters that grow and the large group of characters that don't.

Characters Who Grow and Those Who Don't

I'm almost done with season 4 at this point. I just passed the point where Rob Lowe left the show and Josh Malina took his place.

Among the things I find most fascinating about the show are the small group of characters that grow and the large group of characters that don't. Here's a list of the characters that grow:

  • Charlie Young (Dule Hill)
  • CJ Cregg (Allison Janney)
  • Donna Moss (Janel Moloney)

Here's a list of most of the characters who don't grow:

  • President Barlet (Martin Sheen)
  • Leo McGarry (John Spencer)
  • Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford)
  • Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff)
  • Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe)
  • Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing)

What Does it Say About the People Who Don't Grow?

Watching character development paints a very interesting portrait of these characters in terms of both politics and drama.

All the characters in the show are incredibly intelligent. Many of them have Ivy League educations. Many of them are lawyers. At one point, President Bartlet mentions that he scored 1590 on the SATs and he's mad about the one question he missed. He can't figure out how he missed any.

The vocabulary on the show doesn't pander to the viewer, which is a quality in some of my favorite TV shows. Whether it's academic dialogue or "street" dialogue, I absolutely love when a show seems authentic and doesn't pander.

However, creator Aaron Sorkin ends up making a statement about people and politics I don't think he intended to make. And it's this:

People who know everything or think they know everything don't grow as people easily, if at all.

Sorkin loves his liberal elite characters. However, the fact that most of them don't grow as people, don't learn anything, don't change much, is disappointing. For a group of people with supposedly open minds, the show actually says that they are remarkably close-minded. And, of course, that is one of the central criticisms of liberals lobbed by conservatives. It's a very interesting and inadvertent characteristic of the show.

One Black Man and Two Women

The characters that grow? One black man and two women.

That's obviously noteworthy. They're clearly the most interesting characters on the show. I find myself wishing that the show featured Charlie a lot more than it does. Clearly, he grows more than any other character. He begins the show as this nervous, tentative kid. He turns into a major force. He turns into a surrogate son for the President and their relationship is fun to watch. It's a wonderful transformation. He's confident and amazingly effective by season 4.

CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) is another character that grows quite a bit. She starts out also unsure of her place. We also know she takes a huge pay cut. She makes some mistakes early on, but once she gets her feet under her, she doesn't take any crap from any of her colleagues.

I will discuss Donna's relationship with Josh more later, but Donna Moss also grows a lot. She becomes more confident and better at her job. She learns what her boss needs. She also begins to understand the power she has with Josh and becomes less of an underling and more of a colleague. Their relationship is both interesting and somewhat uncomfortable at the same time.

It is tough to tell whether the borderline sexual harassment in the show is just inappropriate, or serves to create conflict necessary for any drama show.

It is tough to tell whether the borderline sexual harassment in the show is just inappropriate, or serves to create conflict necessary for any drama show.

The Relationship Between Josh and Donna

The relationship between Josh and Donna is the most problematic in the show. It's the part of the show that ages the least well.

Basically, most people would consider Josh's treatment of Donna borderline and not-so borderline sexual harassment. While Josh doesn't seem to have any ill intent aside from his attraction to Donna, he does discuss things with her in the workplace he should not. He makes her feel uncomfortable. What we've learned over the years is that Josh's intent doesn't matter. It's still sexual harassment.

As much as possible, I think creator/writer Aaron Sorkin makes their relationship a two-way street. Donna gives as good as she gets. However, it just seems like Josh should know better. He has an attractive assistant and he should err on the side of being professional. Their relationship is probably the least professional in the entire show. Given that he's consistently asking her to work overtime and do things for him, he should leave all sexual banter out of their professional lives.

What's interesting about the show is that it seems to know what it's doing. In fact, there's an episode where Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) makes an obviously sexist comment to Associate White House counsel and token conservative, Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor). Ainsley doesn't seem to care much, but one of the other secretaries hears it and calls Sam on it. It's an interesting acknowledgment that the male characters on the show seem moderately clueless about where the line is between sexist behavior and non-sexist behavior.

Of course, this kind of tension is important for any show. Conflict is essential to drama, so it's hard to know about the intentionality of what's going on. I suspect it's intentional to create conflict not to promote sexual harassment.

Charlie Makes What?

I really like that the show discusses salaries.

One of my biggest pet peeves in movies and television is that Hollywood often seems to be oblivious to what people make and what they can afford. Many movies like to give their characters $50,000/year jobs and have them live like people making ten times that.

I know that Charlie makes $36,000/year. Given the amount of work he does and his importance to the President, this seems like an absurdly low amount of money. Presumably, he gets a raise at some point, although I haven't heard about it yet.

We also know that CJ Cregg made about half a million dollars a year in her previous job and took quite a pay cut to join Bartlet's staff.

Talking about money is something that isn't done enough in movies and television and I admire The West Wing for making mention of it.

Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) looks like he's really working when he's working.

Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) looks like he's really working when he's working.

Toby Really Looks Like He's Working

More than any other character, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) looks like he's really working when he's working.

As Communications Director and one of the President's main speechwriters, Toby does a lot. However, it's a rare show that bothers to show its characters really working.

There's an episode in the fourth season after Sam has left where Toby is trying to write the inaugural address. He's getting nowhere. He sets fire to the pages he's written that he doesn't like. There's a real, visceral sense of work in those scenes.

Most shows don't bother with work. We know the characters have jobs, but we rarely see them working. Mostly, they're doing something else.

The Portrayal of Conservatives

For the most part, the interaction between the liberal Barlet administration and its conservative opponents is handled as a reasonable exchange of ideas. Discussions are disagreements. The show portrays those disagreements as different ideals.

I've already mentioned Ainsley Hayes. She's a bit of a token, but the show does treat her fairly. She's super smart. She's competent. And she holds her own in an ideological debate with the smartest characters on the show. Of course, the show does marginalize her character, which is telling. However, it's a show about Democrats. Sorkin has mentioned that they just couldn't figure out how to fit Ainsley into the show more even though they loved Emily Proctor.

What Happened to That Thing?

The show is amusing for the plot lines it drops without mention.

Among them are Charlie's relationship with President Bartlet's daughter, Zoey (Elizabeth Moss), reporter Danny Concannon's (Timothy Busfield) disappearance from the show, and Mandy Hampton's (Moira Kelly) disappearance from the show.

Often there's so much going on and so many characters coming and going, it's hard to follow all the characters, but the three things mentioned above were major plot points in the show that just vanished. I think that because the show has so many cameos, it can get away with forgetting about some things.

The West Wing is known for its walk and talk scenes. Sometimes people walk and talk and walk off and never come back.

The Intelligence of Jeb Bartlett

One thing The West Wing tells us about its view of the presidency is that it believes our president should be smart.

Jeb Barlet is smart. Don't be fooled. His intelligence is a message. Simply put, you can't make good decisions in that job without knowledge of American History and a comprehensive understanding of issues. Everyone on Barlet's staff has these things.

However, Bartlet himself is even more exceptional. As stated, he scored 1590 on the SAT test and seems annoyed he missed a question. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in American Studies and theology. He has a Ph.D. in Economics. He speaks four languages. He won a Nobel Prize in Economics.

The dude is smart. There's no debate. The show believes our leaders should be smart.

President Barlett in the Situation Room

I'm not a fan of top-down leadership in the sense that somebody at the top of a pyramid should be making all the decisions.

In fact, research shows that better decisions are made in groups.

That's why I find the dynamics of the situation room a little puzzling. It's mostly one man in the room with a whole bunch of smart people barely asking for their opinions. Frankly, I don't think the President should be making decisions in this fashion. It would be much better to discuss decisions and solicit opinions and then use that information to make those decisions.

Given the number of political people associated with the show, I imagine there's some truth to how this works in reality. If so, it's disappointing. There's no shame in asking people what they think. That's not a weakness. It's a strength. I wish things in the Situation Room were more collaborative.

People Affiliated with The West Wing

The list of real-life political people associated with The West Wing is impressive and lends to the authenticity of the show. They include:

  • Lawrence O'Donnell
  • Dee Dee Myers
  • Marlin Fitzwater
  • Peggy Noonan
  • John Podhoretz
  • Gene Sperling
  • Pat Caddell
  • Eli Attie

All of these people, some recognizable, some not, have real-life experience working in The White House.

Definitely Worth Your Time

Whether you know The West Wing like the back of your hand or you have never seen the show, watching the show all over again is worth the time.

© 2020 Allen Donald


Liz Westwood from UK on September 11, 2020:

This show was very popular in the UK.

Allen Donald (author) from Colorado on September 10, 2020:

Thanks, Eric. Always appreciate you taking the time to comment.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 10, 2020:

Did not follow this closely, this is an interesting look at an obviously great show.