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The West Wing? More Like The Best Thing! - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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December 8th, 2013


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11:33 pm - The West Wing? More Like The Best Thing!
I have been wanting to watch The West Wing for years. I loved Sports Night, and The West Wing was considered Aaron Sorkin's magnum opus, consistently appearing on lists of the Best Television Shows of All Time, both critically and personally. It was a huge part of popular culture, but it was also a massive undertaking! Seven seasons, 156 episodes, the longest show I'd ever mainlined. It took me ten months to get through it all, but, honestly, I could have done it much faster had I actually quit life as I wanted to from the moment I started.

The West Wing, though it appears to be a non-genre show, is, in fact, a fantasy. It follows the administration of Democratic President Jed Bartlet, who is a good man who truly wants to improve the country, and he is magically able to effect a positive change with the help of his staff. Leo McGarry, his BFF and Chief of Staff, the stern Daddy to his warm Mommy, who tells him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear. Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, wheels and deals Littlefinger-style to make policies happen. Toby Ziegler, Communications Director, hates everything but that's only because he holds humanity to a higher standard than it lives up to. Sam Seaborn, Deputy Communications Director, writes beautifully because of his incredible idealism, a trait that pervades the show in general. CJ Cregg, Press Secretary, liaises between the administration and the press, forced to field the tough questions and deliver a strong, consistent message. Charlie Young, the President's Aide, provides a useful Everyman perspective to Bartlet. Donna Moss, Josh's assistant, provides a useful Everywoman perspective to Josh. And Mandy? Fuck Mandy.

I love this show because it believes in a government that can get things done. Any obstacles—usually Republicans—can be overcome with negotiation, compromise, and the occasional stunt. All of Sorkin's shows are about people who are both incredibly competent and extremely passionate about their jobs: they never work a day in their lives because they love what they do. As such, I admire his characters for their drive and sense of purpose. They are committed to doing good, and we can root for them to get that tax passed, to shoot down that bill with a horrible rider, to something something politics. (Many times, I could not follow the intricacies of the politics, domestic or international, but I trusted that the characters knew what they were doing and the music would tell me how to feel about it.)

I love this show because behind all the witty repartee and walking-and-talking, behind the bravura tracking shots and eloquent monologues are living, breathing, multifaceted people. Although their jobs are their lives, they do have histories, and the show explores what makes them tick. What kind of a man chooses to become leader of the free world? What makes Josh walk so fast? What are Donna's aspirations? The cast, uniformly excellent, rises to the task and imbues the characters with dramatic weight, making simple conversations as powerful and tense as any action scene.

I love this show because it gives me ALL THE FEELS. Yes, at times, it's transparently emotionally manipulative, but The West Wing makes you cry happy tears as often as it makes you cry sad tears. Thanks to its spirit of hope and faith in democracy, we feel the catharsis of success. Plus, the staff become family, and the love they share for each other manifests itself in lovely ways. But the show can also twist the knife and break your heart. One emotionally destructive episode is easily one of the finest television episodes I've ever seen, leaving me a wreck for hours afterward. When the show fires on all cylinders, its energy is palpable.

The show is not without its flaws, of course. Despite creating some fantastic female characters, Sorkin does have a sexist bent that rears its ugly head all too often. Characters often disappear with no explanation, their stories dropped. Romantic plots rarely develop well. Continuity can be haphazard.

Many fans advise new viewers to stop after the fourth season, as Sorkin left the show then, but I could not disagree more. While the fifth season is rough and transitional, without a doubt the show's worst season, seasons six and seven slyly reinvent the show and return to confident, assured storytelling.

The West Wing gives us a picture of politics as we wish it operated, an ideal to which to aspire. That it tells entertaining stories about characters we love is a bonus. I'm going to miss my politics babies.
Current Mood: grumpygrumpy
Current Music: Nine Inch Nails - I'm Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally

(22 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:musesfool
Date:December 9th, 2013 05:13 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, having done a recent rewatch (though I skipped almost the entirety of s5, watching only the beginning/resolution to the kidnapping, "The Supremes" and then the last few episodes where Donna takes center stage), I have to say, I enjoyed seasons 6 and 7 a lot more this time around than I remember doing when it aired.

One emotionally destructive episode is easily one of the finest television episodes I've ever seen, leaving me a wreck for hours afterward

Ooh, which one? Do tell!
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 9th, 2013 05:24 pm (UTC)
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I have to say, I enjoyed seasons 6 and 7 a lot more this time around than I remember doing when it aired.
They're so good! I was baffled to find reviews from that era still complaining so much. I heart The West Wing: Campaign Edition.

Ooh, which one? Do tell!
DO GUESS. I'll bet you can get it in three tries.
[User Picture]
From:musesfool
Date:December 9th, 2013 05:32 pm (UTC)
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Well, I think it was a such a huge change, and most of s5 was pretty dire, that it was hard to really enjoy the show as it was instead of what we wanted it to be/remembered it being, you know? Once you know that things are good in the campaign seasons (with some hiccups - I still hate the Toby storyline) it's easier to watch and enjoy them without harping on what the show used to be.

Huh. I have to guess either In Excelsis Deo, Noel, or In the Shadow of Two Gunmen (I count ItSoTG as one episode), because those left me a wreck, and are also among the best the show has done - Two Cathedrals is powerful but not quite as emotionally devastating. Posse Comitatus is powerful and I cried, but I also was annoyed at being so blatantly emotionally manipulated, so I can't say it was among the best.


Edited at 2013-12-09 05:33 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 9th, 2013 05:53 pm (UTC)
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I seem to be in the minority in not being affected much by "In Excelsis Deo," but it was indeed "Noel"! Holy shit that episode. Amazing.

Well, I think it was a such a huge change, and most of s5 was pretty dire, that it was hard to really enjoy the show as it was instead of what we wanted it to be/remembered it being, you know? Once you know that things are good in the campaign seasons (with some hiccups - I still hate the Toby storyline) it's easier to watch and enjoy them without harping on what the show used to be.
I guess after being in the fandom vacuum chamber of negativity for a whole season, it may have been hard to recognize the quality improvement in the last two seasons (which I knew about but you guys didn't).
[User Picture]
From:sdwolfpup
Date:December 9th, 2013 05:17 pm (UTC)
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I wouldn't advise people to stop watching TWW after season 4 (especially given how S4 ENDS), but I would advise them that the quality changes after that. I watched the show live as it was airing until about 3/4 of the way through S5 when I couldn't take it anymore and gave up. Then came back for the last half of S7, so I don't know how S6 was, but I felt pretty complete watching through mid-S5 at least.

I'm curious - which episode are you referring to as the emotionally destructive one?
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 9th, 2013 05:27 pm (UTC)
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Then came back for the last half of S7, so I don't know how S6 was, but I felt pretty complete watching through mid-S5 at least.
Seasons six and seven are SO GOOD. Wells stopped trying to imitate Sorkin and began telling his own story, and he gives nearly every character a new role, and it works so well and reenergizes the show.

I'm curious - which episode are you referring to as the emotionally destructive one?
Ha, I figured people would know which one I was talking about, but I suppose there are a lot of emotionally destructive ones. You guess too! I think you can get it in three tries.
[User Picture]
From:sdwolfpup
Date:December 9th, 2013 06:40 pm (UTC)
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AHH hasn't seen ANY TWW yet, so I'm going to start him on it someday; we'll make sure to stick it out through season 5. Although I hate what they did to Toby in S7.

Let's see....um, I'd guess Two Cathedrals, or maybe Requiem? Or...hmmm...Noel?
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 9th, 2013 06:45 pm (UTC)
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Got it in three! "Noel" destroyed me.

Yeah, I'm not sure about Toby in S7 either. That whole storyline kind of got away from itself.
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From:rufinia
Date:December 9th, 2013 09:39 pm (UTC)
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I only have one quibble, and that's that Leo is the Mom. He has to deal with all the messy, day to day stuff, vomit and squabbling children and who hasn't done their homework, while Bartlet gets to be the jokey Dad who occasionally is called upon for discipline.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 9th, 2013 10:56 pm (UTC)
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I THOUGHT I HAD IT BACKWARDS. But my way maybe works too.
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From:missquita
Date:December 9th, 2013 11:50 pm (UTC)
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One might say they trade off "good cop/bad cop" roles frequently.
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From:missquita
Date:December 9th, 2013 11:48 pm (UTC)
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God, I love this show so much. It reminds me of why I can be proud to be an American when the actual government makes that hard to do.

Also, don't remember if I wrote so in FB comments previously, but I felt like the showrunner change and subsequent changes in the show served the story productively. Happening at a time in the story that dealt with big transition and uncertainty -- some clunkiness made things more realistic. How could anyone be counseled not to watch season seven. That would be a travesty!

Very sad that your West Wing posts have come to an end though. What's next?
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 9th, 2013 11:59 pm (UTC)
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I see what you did there.

A much-needed break and focus on Futurama and Louie, as well as shorter series like Orange Is the New Black and The Dresden Files.

Also, I agree with those who welcome the showrunner change if only because it's likely we wouldn't have gotten such great stories for CJ and Donna otherwise, as Sorkin seemed determined to keep them in their place.
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From:missquita
Date:December 11th, 2013 12:37 am (UTC)
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Looking forward to your thoughts on Louie and Orange Is the New Black!
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From:shamoogity
Date:December 10th, 2013 12:29 am (UTC)
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I'm so glad you liked the later seasons! I remember really enjoying six and seven and it always makes me sad when people trash them.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2013 12:33 am (UTC)
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I know! It annoyed me so much when I came across reviews or posts that were so "UGH REMEMBER WHEN THE SHOW WAS GOOD" like Christ look at the show it is still good geez what is your damage.
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From:ethanvahlere
Date:December 10th, 2013 01:08 am (UTC)
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Rufinia is correct.

Also, they may have been incredibly competent - in fact, they were much better than that - but part of what made the show so great was how they could screw up on more than one occasion, and it didn't feel like writer-sponsored hubris, but just the characters making mistakes like people do. Who can forget Josh's press conference, when he comwetely impwoded, or Sam getting photographed while hugging Laurie ("It would deny me the pleasure of throwing you through a plate glass window"), or Toby rescheduling the press conference in "The State Dinner", or any of a number of examples? It helped make all the times they did triumph all the more meaningful, and even though the show is a fantasy (and a much more appealing fantasy than real life), it kept the show grounded.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:December 10th, 2013 01:14 am (UTC)
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I agree! The characters were hypercompetent but fallible and human.
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From:soundingsea
Date:December 10th, 2013 12:33 pm (UTC)
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Great writeup!

I first watched TWW all in one go during the 2008 election season. People made a big deal of the Obama-Santos comparisons. Really, to me, the entire Bartlett administration was indeed a delightful fantasy, and I wish I'd been watching it during the Bush years. Another fantasy element, though, was reasonable Republicans - Ainsley and Vinnick are pretty thin on the ground these days!
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 12th, 2013 01:12 am (UTC)
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Although the show did have its fair share of REPUBLICANS, I like that they had several Republicans who weren't demonized.
From:rssrss
Date:December 12th, 2013 01:06 am (UTC)
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I just watched this a few months ago - the dvds were just sitting there and I was bored. I am excusing myself for not watching this when it was showing by saying that you can only have one addition at a time (VM), right? Anyway, of course, I loved it too.
[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:December 12th, 2013 01:13 am (UTC)
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The show began in 1999! That's not an excuse. But we are both the better for having finally gotten around to it.

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