Thoughts on The West Wing – Season One

I’m watching The West Wing for the first time and decided to keep a record of the journey through.  So for anyone who has not watched the show and intends to do so HERE BE SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE.

You know you are in safe hands with a story when you realise that the writers are a step ahead of you.  Not a million miles, but not so close that you can see things coming.  I was, I don’t know, about ten episodes in to Season One when I was thinking to myself – are they really going to be like this for the rest of the run?  This… wussy?

Obviously a complex series featuring at least six principal characters and a dozen smaller, yet important characters is going to have to spend time setting things up and introducing the audience to them.  But the first few episodes, fun though they were didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.  And to be honest, I thought the main problem was the President, who was less the Leader of the Free World, more like a kindly grandfather.  I couldn’t, at any point, see how the hell this nice guy had made it through the cutthroat world of politics to the top job.   There had been only one line that showed any kind of steel – when Bartlett argued with his Vice-President, Hoynes, the latter asking why Bartlett treated him like crap, the President uttered the words “You shouldn’t have made me beg” and I thought “finally!”

Except the writers knew this and were stringing me along.  The polling results come in, everyone is tired and treading water – suddenly the Oval Office explodes with anger.  They realise they are just floating along, dealing with their own personal issues and too scared to try anything, always looking to compromise and it is killing their administration and their re-election chances.  Leo McGarry stops feeling sorry for himself about his alcoholic past and turns into the hardass character that a Chief of Staff should be – especially one who persuaded Bartlett to run in the first place.

(It is mildly distracting, however, that McGarry sounds like Moe the Bartender from The Simpsons.)

Stepping outside the story and into the mechanics of making American TV shows, I do wonder if the change happened because the writers knew they had a successful series.  It happens in Episode 19 which production timing wise is close enough to perhaps have been affected by outside influences.  It also marks the point where everyone stops being touchy feely nicey nicey and starts showing the edge that got them elected in the first place.  To be honest, as enjoyable as the show had been to that point, I think it needed it.

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