The West Wing: Season 1

The West Wing: Season 1


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Americans treat their leader with undue respect. Calling him Mr President seems a bit pompous to European ears. The only movie that punctured the myth was Nixon and that didn't go far enough. Also, having a Welshman in the lead let them off the hook to a certain extent.

It comes like a bolt from the blue that a TV drama series, starring Daddy Sheen and ex-teen hunk Rob Lowe, about the workings of The White House, could be anything but sycophantic. For it to be intelligent, entertaining and supremely well-written is hard to imagine. How the British love to belittle US television! Exceptions are made for personal favourites, but on the whole Springsteen's 51 Channels And Nothing On sums up UK disdain for all things tubular, Stateside.

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The West Wing bucks the trend, if, indeed, there is a trend. Aaron Sorkin's scripts are witty, informative and character-driven. His cynicism never cuts the umbilical cord between Mother America and her ambitious smartarse progeny. However hard these professional spin doctors and their overstretched support staff endeavour to control events, genuine emotion, like Banquo's ghost, keeps popping up to spook the speech writers.

On the surface, this is the story of a charming hayseed President, who goes with his gut feeling, waxes sentimental and lets everyone else pick up the pieces. He never carries money, or puts his coat on by himself, and appears to be out to lunch when it comes to the business of running the country. He's good with people, touches their heart, but leaves politics to the hyenas on Capitol Hill, well protected by his team of overqualified profile benders who spend their time building fire walls against snoopy journos and aggressive TV anchorettes, inventing stories to disguise the stories that should not be told outside the Oval Office.

Under the surface, the President is capable of turning up the heat when required, forcing union leaders to stop flaffing about, cutting an argument to the bone with the military men, using his power to get something done rather than waste time in discussion. On the one hand, a softy. On the other, tough as nuts. Sheen pulls this off superbly. Above all, he makes his man human.

The real business of the series is amongst the manipulators - the speech writers, press secretary and chiefs of staff. Sorkin has created a fascinating assortment of razor tongued team players who keep falling down on the personal level. Emotional commitment comes so much harder to these guys than loyalty to The Chief, except, even here, you feel that what turns them on is the challenge, the job itself, being better at it than their colleagues. There is a competitive streak running through everything they do, even if it's relaxing at a bar. They have to have the last word. Although, to be fair, in a crisis, like finding one more vote for some vital legislation, they pull together to inject dirt into the box of tricks.

Using a technique, originated in ground-breaking cop shows, such as Hill Street Blues, the office is always busy and the camera switches from one group to another in a single take, keeping the flow constant and the pace active. Storylines cross and countercross, weaving in and out of focus. The actors - Lowe, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff - work together with perfect/imperfect harmony. Their contribution is the icing on an exceptionally fine piece of quality confection. To call it a TV series somehow diminishes its individuality. Let's call it Number One.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2002
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Behind the scenes at The White House when Martin Sheen is President.
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Read more The West Wing: Season 1 reviews:

Stephen Carty ****1/2

Director: Thomas Schilamme

Writer: Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Rob Lowe, Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford, John Spencer, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Stockard Channing, Moira Kelly, Tim Matheson, Janel Moloney, Timothy Busfield

Year: 2000

Runtime: 925 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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