The hit Washington drama remains sharp, witty and moving.
The West Wing
THE HIGH CONCEPT:
Voting can be exciting, professional politicians can be sexy, Martin Sheen can have a career in television.
The West Wing, a sort of political fairytale for the American Liberal Left, mixes drama, soap, humour and good-for-you educative lecturising in a single glossy package that, for a while, kept many people warm as the Clinton administration turned into the Bush government and the hopes and aspirations exemplified in Aaron Sorkin’s stylish dream-show went fluttering out the window.
Prozac for the political conscience, The West Wing hit the critical and award-winning highs, for a while, before drifting down the ratings and then gently going away.
Spread over seven series, The West Wing started wordy – with sparks of usually sharp humour – largely set within the White House West Wing, before becoming glossier, adventurous and, you know, more expensive.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
Sort of lost its way a little bit between seasons three and four, after Sorkin left his baby, but came back into its own in season six, with a smaller budget and a return to the kind of detailed plotting which made its name.
Introduced walk and talk dialogue, made much use of reverse and over-lapping narratives and put into the public consciousness one of the most distinctive (and just damned pretty) television theme tunes of all time.
HIT OR MISS?
Slightly bemusingly for the critics at the time, The West Wing quickly became a critical and (get this) rating hit for parent network NBC. Some put this remarkable state of affairs down to the writing (polished, pointed, provocative and tummy-tickling), acting (look at me, I’m Rob Lowe!), direction (smooth, assured, delicately paced) as well as the disorientating charm that is Martin Sheer (originally pencilled in as a sort of cameo but who went on to dominate the entire series – who’s The Daddy?).
Part of the success of The West Wing, however, must come down to the sheer wish fulfilment at the heart of the series. A competent, Liberal Left administration staffed with smart, sexy and funny people concerned about their fellow men and women?
Oh yeah, I think we could tune into that each week.
REMEMBERED MAINLY TODAY FOR WHAT?
For the walking and talking about, you know, big stuff; for John Spencer as itchy, slightly scratchy Secretary of State Leo McGarry (whose physical demise before the camera as the series reached its peak is an affecting display of his real skills as an actor); for the dramatic peaks which took everyone by surprise; the shooting of the President and for Twin Cathedrals (during which President Barlet scolds God for his troubles, in Latin!), as well as for the sensuous charm that is Stockard Channing playing the First Lady.
So it went soft and soapy after So