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.