Between 1999 and 2006, The West Wing gave TV audiences a glimpse behind the bulletproof curtains of the White House, offering a realistic if idealised depiction of what would happen if a bunch of democrats tried to keep America on the rails without driving their principles over a cliff.
Its mix of real-world issues and personal stories, arcane legal rulings and intellectual banter was a hit with America’s chattering class, and also provided plenty of ammunition for right-wing critics and chat-show hosts. The show hit the ground running, winning nine Emmys in its first season and the award for Outstanding Drama Series for four consecutive years (putting it on a par with Hill St Blues, LA Law and Mad Men).
Put it down to writer Aaron Sorkin (yes, the man who made Mark Zuckerberg interesting in The Social Network). Sorkin’s witty, wordy scripts provide engrossing, challenging stories about politics large and small. It means the show treads a fine line, with sentimental idealism on one side and challenging political drama on the other. It’s sometimes smug, but often smart; sometimes schmaltzy, but more often truly emotional. And it makes you want to know what happens next.
Sorkin’s White House is fast-moving, because he has a lot to tell us – and he does. There are big, calorie-laden slabs of dialogue, delivered via a “walk and talk” mechanism that gets the characters and their words moving around the corridors of the building. These bite-sized scenes are feats of verbal as well as physical engineering, and some long, single-takes have a Robert Altman feel. But you will have to hit rewind if you eat crunchy food while watching, or you’ll miss some vital explanation on the way to the briefing room.
Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet is wise father to his White House family, a mix of Roosevelt, JFK and James Stewart, as Capra as you like. During the original run of the series, his two terms in the White House allowed viewers to sprinkle a little fairy dust on the real-life frustrations of the George Bush years – in fact, towards the end of the show, researchers were sent to the fledgling Obama camp to bone up on what a real Democrat contender looked like.
And Bartlet’s staff became (with the exception of Rob Lowe, who started with top billing but became rather eclipsed) stars through the life of the show, people like Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney, boosted by guest stars including Alan Alda, Ron Silver and Marlee Matlin. The minor characters dip in and out of episodes depending on which stories Sorkin has up in the air at the time – and he can keep quite a few going at once.
And if, after seven seasons, you’re really sad and, after the credits roll at the end of episode 156 you fire up episode 1 again, you will see all those characters, younger and puppy-dog eager, fully formed from the very first scenes. But if, as happened to original fans, it took you seven years to get to that end point, maybe you’re owed a reminder.
Box Sets of series 1-7 of the West Wing now available on demand with Sky