Man: Governor Bartlet, when you were a member of Congress, you voted against the New England Dairy Farming Company. That vote hurt me sir. I’m a businessman. That vote hurt me to the tune of maybe, 10 cents a gallon. I voted for you three times for Congress. I voted for you twice for Governor. And I’m here sir, and I’d like to ask you for an explanation.
Bartlet: Yeah, I screwed you on that one.
Man: I’m sorry?
Bartlet: I screwed you. You got hosed.
Man: Sir, I…
Bartlet: And not just you. A lot of my constituents. I put the hammer to farms in Concord, Salem, Laconia, and Pelham. You guy got rogered but good. Today, for the first time in history, one in five Americans living poverty are children. One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty, one in five, and they’re children. If fidelity to freedom and democracy is the code of our civic religion then surely, the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says ‘We shall give our children better than we ourselves received.’ I voted against the bill ‘cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk. I stopped money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if you expect anything different from the President of the United States, I suggest you vote for somebody else. Thanks very much. Hope you enjoyed the chicken.
-exchange during flashback in In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part I
So I thought I’d get one or two articles worth of thoughts out there on the first five seasons of The West Wing. Before I get into praising literally everything about my favorite show ever, I consider myself a moderate conservative. I’m a practical idealist. So is Jed Bartlet (the practical idealist part). While I don’t agree with all of his policies on the show, he would be the first person I would vote for in an election. He is principled and sometimes romantic, but beyond brilliant and sometimes harshly realistic. I direct you to Bartlet’s final, lengthy remark in the quote above. Outside of all of the political platforming going on, he says what I find to be the most important thing of all: “I stopped money from flowing into your pocket. If that angers you, if you resent me, I completely respect that. But if you expect anything different from the President of the United States, I suggest you vote for somebody else.” He is such a stand-up guy. He’s not going to lie to you just to get you to vote for him. I love that.
I love Aaron Sorkin, and once I see Studio 60, I’ll have watch at least one episode of every single one of his shows. Sports Night is a brilliant show, too, but The Newsroom, not so much (I’m not even going to go into my opinion on the show). Outside of his oftentimes unnecessary preachiness, he is, by my reckoning, the most talented writer working today. He may not tell the best or most ambitious stories (The Sopranos and The Wire did that best when they were around), but his dialogue is always excellent, brilliantly mixing short comedic interludes in with the always prevalent dramatic elements of the show.
I think what I admire most about the series is that, for all of Aaron Sorkin’s exceedingly liberal viewpoints and preachiness in so many of his television series, The West Wing, a show centered on a Democratic White House, was his least liberal. Every time the majority of the cast voices a liberal opinion on the main political issue of a specific episode, there are always one or two, maybe three, characters who voice a more conservative opinion. It does wonders for evening out the show and I admire him greatly for doing it.
Before I begin, I thought I'd give you an idea of exactly how revered the series is:
Season 1: The first season showed exactly how the rest of the show was going to be rewarded. The season garnered 17 Emmy nominations, winning 9 of them, a record for a freshman series of any genre. The series won for Drama Series, Supporting Actor (Richard Schiff), Supporting Actress (Allison Janney), Writing for a Drama (Sorkin and Rick Cleveland for In Excelsis Deo), Directing for a Drama (Thomas Schlamme for the Pilot), Main Title Theme Music (Snuffy Walden), Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series Episode, Casting for a Drama, and Art Direction for a Drama. In addition to its remarkable amount of Emmy success, the season garnered numerous awards elsewhere. The first won a Peabody Award, possibly the most prestigious award given in television. It was nominated for 3 Writers Guild Award, for Enemies (Patrick Caddell, Rick Cleveland, Lawrence O'Donnell, Ron Osborn, and Jeff Reno), In Excelsis Deo (Sorkin and Rick Cleveland), and Take This Sabbath Day (Sorkin, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Paul Redford), with Sorkin and Cleveland winning for In Excelsis Deo. Other than that, the Golden Globes, Directors Guild Awards, Producers Guild Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards are hard to categorize by season because of their timeline, so I'll address those at the end of all of the seasons.
Season 2: The second season continued the strong trend, with 18 Emmy nominations and 8 wins. The wins were for Drama Series, Supporting Actor (Bradley Whitford), Supporting Actress (Allison Janney), Directing for a Drama (Thomas Schlamme for In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Parts I & II), Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series Episode, Casting for a Drama, Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Series Episode, and Single-Camera Sound Mixing for a Series Episode. In addition, this season also won a Peabody Award just like the first season. It was also nominated for 2 Writers Guild Awards, for Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail (Sorkin and Paul Redford) and Two Cathedrals (Sorkin).
Season 3: The third season added another 21 Emmy nominations and 5 wins. It won for Drama Series, Actress (Allison Janney), Supporting Actor (John Spencer), Supporting Actress (Stockard Channing), and Special Class Program (The West Wing: Documentary Special). It was also nominated for 1 Writers Guild Award, for Game On (Sorkin and Paul Redford).
Season 4: The fourth and final of Aaron Sorkin's seasons as showrunner resulted in 15 Emmy nominations and 2 wins. The 2 wins were for Drama Series and Directing for a Drama (Christopher Misiano for Twenty Five). It was also nominated for 1 Writers Guild Award, for Disaster Relief (Alexa Lunge and Lauren Schmidt).
-Season 5: Despite Sorkin's departure, the fifth season didn't actually suffer a noticeable decline in awards recognition, with 12 nominations and 1 win. The win was for Actress (Allison Janney). It was also nominated for 2 Writers Guild Awards, for The Supremes (Debora Cahn) and Memorial Day (John Sacret Young and Josh Singer), winning for The Supremes.
-Season 6: The sixth season ended up with a noticeable decline in awards recognition, but still nothing to be ashamed of, with 5 nominations and no wins. It was also nominated for 2 Writers Guild Awards, for Overall Drama Series Writing and for A Good Day (Carol Flint).
-Season 7: The seventh and final season was rewarded with 6 Emmy nominations and 2 wins. The wins were for Supporting Actor (Alan Alda) and Multi-Camera Sound Mixing for a Series. It was also nominated for 1 Writers Guild Award, for Election Day, Part II (Eli Attie).
-The Golden Globes: Due to the timeline of the Golden Globes, assigning Globe nominations to specific West Wing seasons is literally impossible. That being said, the series received 20 total Globe nominations and 2 wins, both of which it won in 2000 for Drama Series and Actor (Martin Sheen) (that would be for work both in Season 1 and in Season 2). Overall, the series was nominated 5 times for Drama Series, Sheen was nominated 5 times, Rob Lowe 2 times, Allison Janney 4 times, Bradley Whitford 3 times, and John Spencer 1 time.
-The Directors Guild Awards: While the years don't exactly mesh with the seasons of the series, I'm going to split this up by season. Season 1 received 1 nod from the Guild for In Excelsis Deo (Thomas Schlamme). Season 2 was recognized with 3 nominations, for The Portland Trip (Paris Barclay), Noël (Thomas Schlamme), and for Two Cathedrals (Thomas Schlamme), with Thomas Schlamme winning an award for Noël in 2000. Season 3 received 2 nominations, for The Indians in the Lobby (Paris Barclay) and Posse Comitatus (Alex Graves). Season 4 also received 2 nods, for Debate Camp (Paris Barclay) and Twenty Five (Christopher Misiano), with Misiano winning an award for Twenty Five in 2003.
-The Producers Guild Awards: The series received 6 nominations for Producer of the Year for an Episodic Drama, winning 2 times. The numbers and years don't mesh though.
-The Screen Actors Guild Awards: The series was nominated for 6 awards for Best Cast in a Drama, winning 2 of them. Additionally, individual cast members received 14 nominations, winning 4 of them. Those 4 victories were split evenly between Martin Sheen and Allison Janney. Both Sheen and Janney each received another 3 nominations on top of their wins. Stockard Channing received 2 nominations while Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda each received 1.
-Overall: The series was monstrously successful, raking in 94 total Emmy nominations with 27 wins, with Allison Janney winning for awards than anyone else on the entire production team with 4. In addition, it was won 2 Peabody Awards and was nominated for 12 Writers Guild Awards, winning 2. It received 20 Golden Globe nods with 2 wins, 8 Directors Guild Award nods with 2 wins, 6 Producers Guild nods with 2 wins, and 20 SAG Award nods with 6 wins.
Anyway, I thought for a long time about how I wanted to review the first five seasons, the first four of which are as close to perfect as you can get and the fifth of which is still great. I haven’t seen most of the series in 5-8 months, so I’m not going to go through each season episode by episode. Instead, I’m going to go through each season and give you 8-to-10 excellent episodes, many of which are perfect. After that, I’m going to go through and do short, two-to-three-sentence profiles of all of the main cast members and their character personalities, etc.
Season 1: The first season has eight main cast members: Martin Sheen as President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet; Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn, the Deputy White House Communications Director; Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg, the White House Press Secretary; Richard Schiff as Toby Ziegler, the White House Communications Director; John Spencer as Leo McGarry, the White House Chief of Staff; Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff; Dulé Hill as Charlie Young, the Personal Aide to the President; and Moira Kelly as Mandy Hampton, a Media Consultant working for the presidency. Janel Moloney and Stockard Channing recur as Donna Moss, Josh’s assistant, and Dr. Abbey Bartlet, the First Lady. Some other notable names also appear at various points. There are so many, in fact, that I’m just going to leave it at that rather than list some of them.
Notable Season 1 Episodes (Okay I’ve just decided not to give short summaries, because it’s just too hard to do concisely. So much happens in every single episode that to try to do each one justice would simply be, well, an injustice.):
-The Crackpots and These Women
-In Excelsis Deo
-Take This Sabbath Day
-The White House Pro-Am
-Let Bartlet Be Bartlet
-What Kind of Day Has It Been
General Thoughts on Season 1: This is a perfect season of television, with at least 8 pretty much perfect episodes. A great place to look for great episodes for The West Wing is the Emmy submissions the show gives for Best Drama, and the 8 that they submitted for the 1999-2000 TV season are the 8 you see listed above. Pretty much every episode has some sort of great aspect to it. In my opinion, the two best episodes are In Excelsis Deo and the Pilot, followed by (in rough preferential order): Take This Sabbath Day, Celestial Navigation, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet, The Crackpots and These Women, What Kind of Day Has It Been, and The White House Pro-Am.
Season Score: 10/10
Season 2: Every main character save Moira Kelly (good riddance) returns in their roles. Janel Moloney joins the main cast, while Stockard Channing spends one more season riding the recurring character train. Numerous recognizable faces once again appear.
Notable Season 2 Episodes:
-In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part I
-In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II
-The War at Home
General Thoughts on Season 2: Talk about repeat perfection, this season outdoes its perfect predecessor in essentially every way. It takes on a wider-ranging scope of legislative issues and is the better for it, never sagging under the added narrative weight, a weight also increased by the revelations of several important developments first introduced in the first season. It also offers arguably the greatest episode of television episode produced, Two Cathedrals, by far my favorite episode of the series. The episodes listed about above are, once again, just the episodes nominated for the Emmy Award. I’ll think about updating the list once I rewatch it. When that will be I honestly have no idea. I’d rank the episodes thusly: Two Cathedrals, Noël, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II, In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part I, Shibboleth, 17 People, Galileo, and The War at Home.
Season Score: 10/10
Season 3: The exact same main cast returns once again this season, plus Stockard Channing joins the regular cast, though she only appears in the opening credits for episodes in which she appears.
Notable Season 3 Episodes:
-The Women of Qumar
-Bartlet for America
-The Two Bartlets
-Dead Irish Writers
-We Killed Yamamoto
General Thoughts on Season 3: This is definitely the weakest of the Aaron Sorkin-written seasons, but that isn’t to say that it’s a bad season. It is still far better than most anything on television ever. I’m having trouble remembering some of the episodes listed (I really need to rewatch the series), so this list is definitely subject to change at any time. My rankings currently would be: Posse Comitatus, Night Five, We Killed Yamamoto, Hartsfield’s Landing, Bartlet for America, Dead Irish Writers, The Two Bartlets, and The Women of Qumar.
Season Score: 9/10
Season 4: The exact same main cast returns for the 4th season. Rob Lowe departs the main cast in Red Haven’s on Fire and Joshua Malina joins the main cast as Will Bailey midway through the season.
Notable Season 4 Episodes:
-20 Hours in America, Parts I & II
-Inauguration, Part I
-Inauguration: Over There
-Evidence of Things Not Seen
-Life on Mars
General Thoughts on Season 4: This is a season helped tremendously by a few spectacular episodes. I think this is a better season than season 3 is, but it still isn’t up to the same amazing standards of season 1 or 2. I’d rank the episodes as follows: Twenty Five, Holy Night, Inauguration: Over There, Inauguration, Part I, 20 Hours in America, Parts I & II, Evidence of Things Not Seen, Life on Mars, and Commencement.
Season Score: 9.5/10
Season 5: The entire regular cast returns. They are joined later in the season by Mary McCormack in a recurring role. She will become a regular cast member starting at the beginning of season 6.
Notable Season 5 Episodes (I’ve included three extras to make 10 since the number of Emmy episode submissions was decreased by 2 starting for the 2004-05 TV season):
-7A WF 83429
-Abu el Banat
-The Stormy Present
General Thoughts on Season 5: This is not a bad season of television, by any means, but it’s just nowhere near some of the material put out in the first four seasons. The writers had to work themselves out of an awkward story area left by Sorkin at the end of season 4, but they took a really long time to do it. That said, there are still some great episodes to be found here, particularly The Supremes, which, quite frankly, blew me away in comparison to the rest of the fare presented in the season. I’d rank the episodes as follows: The Supremes, An Khe, Gaza, Memorial Day, Access, The Stormy Present, 7A WF 83429, Abu el Banat, Full Disclosure, and Constituency of One.
Season Score: 8/10
-President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen)—President Bartlet is an interesting fellow. He has tremendous integrity and is absolutely brilliant. He’s funny in his own odd sort of way, and he’s touch but compassionate. There’s so much more to say about him, but I think the show should do it all for you, since it does it so brilliantly. Sheen’s best episode is undoubtedly Two Cathedrals, which also happens to be the best episode of the entire series, but he’s also brilliant is so many others (Take This Sabbath Day, Night Five, and Twenty Five all come to mind).
-Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe)—The Deputy White House Communications Director, Sam is a brilliant speech writer but sometimes struggles on policy issues. His flawed romantic endeavors are highly entertaining. His character is defined by his firm belief in the American political process and the good that government can do for its citizens. He is the most idealistic character. His best episode is probably Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.
-Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg)—The White House Press Secretary, C.J. is a strong and capable woman. C.J. is such a damn likeable character and Allison Janney, the monumentally underrated actress that she is, plays her perfectly. Let’s just say that there’s a reason why C.J. seems to have more focus episodes than anybody else. As such, it’s nearly impossible to pick Janney’s best episode, though I’d probably say The Long Goodbye (she’s also excellent in Access). C.J. is often kept out the loop on issues, much to her chagrin. She’s also known for taking strong views on certain issues and having a tough time letting go and not letting her emotions get in the way.
-Leo McGarry (John Spencer)—The White House Chief of Staff, Leo is Jed’s best friend and closest confidant (outside of Abbey, of course). There’s a really touching piece of advice Jed gives the Secretary of Agriculture just before delivering the State of the Union. It goes: “‘You got a best friend?’ ‘Yes, sir’ ‘Is he smarter than you?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Would you trust him with your life?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘That’s your Chief of Staff.’” Leo is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, a fact appropriately described by one of the staff members as the worst-kept secret in Washington. He is described as the greatest political mind in the Democratic Party and shows it regularly. The former Secretary of Labor, Leo acts as a father figure to his younger staff members. John Spencer had been doing TV for ages and was one of the most respected unknown character actors in the business. My favorite quote of his comes from Noël and it perfectly explains his father figure role and his best friend role as well as his calm, collected demeanor and brilliance: “This guy’s walkin’ down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you! Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes him a prescription and throws in down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole; can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me, Can ya help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are ya stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’” I just think that’s so perfect. Leo is a magnificently loyal person and, while he’s not my favorite character, I respect him more than any other, even Bartlet.
-Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff)—The White House Communications Director, Toby is a very interesting character. He is so often a cold individual. Perhaps the most appropriate quote for Toby is a quote from Five Votes Down. He is being picked on and responds: “There’s literally no one in the world that I don’t hate right now.” While this may just make Toby come across as a completely negative, completely unlikeable individual, he isn’t, but he very easily be. He isn’t malicious in any way, but he’s just not happy. Tons of credit go to Sorkin and Richard Schiff for molding Toby into the oddly loveable guy he is. He is, however, capable of fantastic bouts of compassion and emotion that surprise even him. His series best performance is in the first season’s In Excelsis Deo, and it amazes every damn time. It’s just incredible how powerful Schiff nails every single one of the many powerful emotional scenes in the episode. Toby is also a brilliant speechwriter and probably the most vehement liberal working on the staff.
-Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford)—The White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh is a brilliant political mind, but he's sort of stuck up. He makes up for his sometimes excessive self-confidence with his boyish charm. His relationship with his assistant Donna is priceless. Bradley Whitford is perfect for the part and does wonders for it.
-Charlie Young (Dulé Hill)—The Personal Aide to the President, Charlie is a driven, responsible 21 year old. Much of his characterization comes from his interactions with the president.
-Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly)—Chief Media Consultant to the White House, Mandy is by far my least favorite regular cast member of the entire show. She is boring and useless and she never really sparks any sort of interest whatsoever. I am eternally happy that she never appears after the first season.
-Donna Moss (Janel Moloney)—Special Assistant to Josh Lyman, Donna is one of my favorite characters on the show. Her relationship with Josh is absolutely hysterical. She starts out sort of a victim of the dumb blonde stereotype (though not completely), but gradually becomes a force to be reckoned with on and an oftentimes valuable asset to the senior staff. Janel Moloney is so perfect for the role.
-Dr. Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing)—The First Lady, Abbey doesn’t appear in every episode, but she starts appearing more and more often starting with the third season, before which she had appeared in maybe 10 episodes or so, if even that many. I never really fell in love with her character, but I never dislike her other. I just don’t feel like she’s in the series enough in any sort of high enough capacity to really form much of an opinion on her.
-Will Bailey (Joshua Malina)—Sam Seaborn’s replacement as Deputy Communications Director, he has considerable political savvy, as shown by his ability to lead a dead Democratic candidate to a victory in a solidly Republican California district. He is a gifted speech writer, though not as gifted as Sam. Relatively soon after becoming DCD, he is offered and accepts a position as Chief of Staff to the VP. I like Joshua Malina. He’s not the most versatile actor ever, but he’s really great in Sorkin stuff. In fact, I’d give him an Emmy for his work in Sports Night. He has great comedic timing. Will is a pretty easy character to like, but like the rest of the characters, he isn’t without his flaws.
Of the first five seasons, I’d rank them as follows:
Best 10 Episodes of the First Five Seasons:
1. Two Cathedrals (2.22)
2. In Excelsis Deo (1.10)
3. Pilot (1.1)
4. Noël (2.10)
5. In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Parts I & II (2.1 and .2)
6. Twenty Five (4.23)
7. Holy Night (4.11)
8. Posse Comitatus (3.21)
9. Let Bartlet Be Bartlet (1.19)
10. The Long Goodbye (4.13)
10. The Long Goodbye (4.13)
Honorable Mentions: Oh my goodness! Like 25 other episodes could fit here.