‘The West Wing’
The West Wing is one of the most highly regarded television dramas ever. The programme focuses on the operations of a fictional US Democratic president, Josiah Bartlet, seen through his eyes and those of some of his administration’s staff as they juggle major international crises and smaller problems like persuading Senators to vote for a bill, all with liberal doses of humour mixed with drama. The staff and President are intelligent, decent people, working hard to do what they think is right. Most of the events of the programme take place in the West Wing of the White House, which is where the offices and work areas of the staff are located, and from which the programme takes its name.
On several occasions, the programme has used flashback sequences to tell stories, such as how the staff came to join the campaign, which adds to the backstory of the show. One of the flashbacks revealed the origins of a particularly idiosyncratic feature of the programme the ‘walk and talk’ (or ‘pedeconferencing’), where instead of sitting down for meetings, the staff discuss things as they walk. The flashback showed this practice began because the staff couldn’t find the rooms they were meant to be using for meetings! Also, in series three, a special The West Wing documentary was aired, talking to Presidents Ford, Carter and Clinton as well as former White House staffers. One of the major episodes was a live partly improvised debate between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Two versions were made, one for the East Coast audience, another for the West Coast audience. The audience was asked to vote on who they thought performed the best, and it was believed that this would be the method that the show used to choose who would win the election.
The West Wing has wrestled with problems ranging from foreign aid, drugs, Hollywood, and education to terrorism, diplomacy and foreign policy and the census.
Readers should note that this entry includes spoilers of both the major and minor varieties.
President Josiah Bartlet: I was watching a television programme before, with a kind of roving moderator who spoke to a seated panel of young women who were having some sort of problem with their boyfriends apparently, because the boyfriends had all slept with the girlfriends’ mothers. And they brought the boyfriends out, and they fought, right there on television. Toby, tell me: these people don’t vote, do they?BackgroundThe West Wing was created by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the play A Few Good Men, and had previously scripted the feature film The American President, which starred Martin Sheen as the Chief of Staff and best friend of the President (Michael Douglas). Sorkin has said that The West Wing developed from all the stories he didn’t have time to tell in The American President. When TV executive producer John Wells1 asked Sorkin if he was interested in writing a TV programme, Sorkin decided to give these stories an airing: this was the genesis for The West Wing.
Sorkin’s The American President also featured other actors who would later appear in The West Wing, including Anna Deavere Smith and Joshua Malina, while Janel Moloney and Joshua Malina had starred in another of Sorkin’s TV successes, Sports Night; actor Timothy Busfield also worked on that show as a director of two episodes.
The pilot episode aired in the USA on 22 September, 1999. It was originally going to air in the autumn of 1998, but was delayed due to the Monica Lewinsky scandal network bosses were concerned that a political drama would not be well received in that climate.
WG ‘Snuffy’ Walden provided the theme tune for the show. We would later come up with the theme for Sorkin’s next show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Awards and TV RatingsThe show has been critically acclaimed since its beginning and has won the most Emmy awards ever for a single series (nine awards, in its first series). These included awards for writing, casting, direction, theme music and best supporting actor and actress awards for Richard Schiff and Allison Janney. Most of the principal actors have been nominated for, or have won, awards at some stage for their acting on the programme. The West Wing also received four consecutive Emmy awards for Best Drama. This is a record for this category held jointly with Hill Street Blues.
The West Wing’s ratings have never been enormous, but are fairly respectable, though they did drop after Aaron Sorkin left at the end of series four. The West Wing’s highest rated episode was Isaac and Ishamel at the beginning of series three, which was Aaron Sorkin’s response to the World Trade Center Attack and took place outside of the series’ timeline. This episode earned 25.2 million viewers. Additionally, the programme’s viewers are attractive to advertisers because they tend to have considerable disposable income.
CharactersPresident Josiah ‘Jed’ BartletPlayed by Martin SheenBartlet is a Catholic, Democratic president from Manchester in New Hampshire, where he served as Governor (elected with 61% of the vote) and a Congressman. His ancestor, also called Josiah Bartlet, was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, so politics is in his blood. He attended Notre Dame University (because he was considering becoming a Catholic priest) where he studied economics, and later to the London School of Economics. He is also a winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics.
Bartlet is in his late fifties or early sixties. He is married to Abbey, a doctor (see below), and has three daughters, Elizabeth2, Eleanor and Zoey. His brother Jonathon is head of the Bartlet Presidential Library Commission. He has never lost an election in his life. His Secret Service codename has been both ‘Eagle’ and ‘Liberty’. As the first series begins, he is in his first term as President (beginning in the second year of the term, though some of the first year is occasionally seen in flashback), and was elected with 48% of the vote.
Bartlet was shot in an assassination attempt on Zoey and it was revealed that he had MS. An investigation was launched that mirrored the attempts to impeach President Clinton. After Zoey was kidnapped, he decided to leave office as he felt his judgment may be questionable, he was replaced for a few weeks by the Speaker of the House, Glenallen Walken after the Vice President had resigned just days earlier.
Bartlet won his second term by beating Florida Governor Robert Ritchie. Ritchie came across as a rather simple guy with the ability to produce good sound bites. His persona as a ‘man of the people’ was very much like that of George W Bush. In the presidential debate Bartlet debated Ritchie out the hall, securing him a land slide election.
By the later series, the President was not in great health and walked with the aid of a cane.
Bartlet had the abilty to recall an incredible amount of trivia which was sometimes useful in briefings and dinner parties but mainly just for annoying his staff on long journeys. The West Wing staff dreaded getting the President involved with economics. Since he held a Nobel Prize in the field, he often knew more about the subject than his advisors. CJ then had the task of trying to get him to explain the policies to the press without him returning to the manner of an university professor.
Initially, the President was due to be a recurring character, appearing in about one fifth of the episodes, and Martin Sheen was originally only signed to appear in four episodes, but production staff were so impressed with the actor’s performance that they asked him to become a permanent cast member.
President Josiah Bartlet: Good. I like your show. I like how you call homosexuality an abomination.
Dr Jenna Jacobs: I don’t say homosexuality is an abomination, Mr. President. The Bible does.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yes it does. Leviticus.
Dr Jenna Jacobs: 18:22.
President Josiah Bartlet: Chapter and verse. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police? Here’s one that’s really important because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you? One last thing: while you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the Ignorant Tight Ass Club, in this building, when the President stands, nobody sits. Leo McGarryPlayed by John SpencerLeo is the White House Chief of Staff, and the President’s best friend. It was Leo who persuaded Bartlet to run for President, and he is relied upon and respected in the White House. Leo is an old friend of Josh’s father, and it was this connection which enable him to persuade Josh to join the ‘Bartlet for America’ presidential campaign.
Leo was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and later served as Secretary of Labor. He is a recovering alcoholic and is also addicted to Valium (he spent time in rehab and has only once subsequently succumbed to temptation3.). He has a daughter, Mallory, a teacher, who becomes friendly with Sam. Leo’s assistant is called Margaret. She infuriates him sometimes, but they are close. Leo knows everything.
Leo is a very hands on chief of staff and has strong views on policies. When he found himself unable to support Bartlet’s position on the Middle East, he agreed to stand down. Minutes later he suffered a heart attack. He returned to work as Special Counsellor to the President. He was asked to sort out the Democratic nomination for Bartlet’s successor as the conference looked like descending into farce. He tried to talk Matt Santos into standing down, but Santos used his concession speech to reinvigorate his campaign and won the nomination, asking Leo to be his running mate.
Leo’s lack of charisma was often seen as a stumbling block in the Presidential Campaign, he even leaked his own ineptitude in debates to the press to lower the expectations on him for the Vice Presidential debate. After the tragic and unexpected death of John Spencer, Leo had to be written out of the series. Just ninety minutes before the polls closed in California he was found dead in his hotel room. Like Spencer, Leo had suffered a fatal heart attack.
In the final episode, Mallory leaves a gift for President Bartlet, the framed napkin with the words that Leo scrawled on it, ‘Bartlet for America’. Charlie YoungPlayed by Dul HillCharlie is the President’s personal aide (or ‘body man’), originally from Washington DC. His mother was a police officer killed on duty and he supports his younger sister, Deena. Charlie and the President have a father son relationship, and Charlie dated Zoey Bartlet for a while4. Their dating made them the target of a sniper attack from racists, they missed Charlie and Zoey but got Josh and the President.
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