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October 21, 2008


The greatest West Wing episodes (Season 1)

by quaesitor

Indulgent but important! This is the start of a little blog series, season by season.

TWW is seminal television. And let no one dissuade you of the fact. It is not just because Season 7 was an almost word perfect prediction of the 2008 US Presidential race; nor because it’s essentially left-of-centre political fantasy; nor even because it (still) seems to be at trendy thing to be in to. [I’d just like to point out, as i do frequently, that i was THERE, hooked from the VERY FIRST episode on Channel 4 way back in 1999.] No, the reason is that it is just great drama. It is television at its best – it’s entertaining with great characters, it’s thought-provoking on serious issues without preaching (well not that much); Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is just a feast for the ears (pacey, brittle, witty, concise and even occasionally hugely informative – in short, just brilliant). And it manages to make me laugh – sometimes a lot.

Now there are of course nay-sayers. They usually object to the rosy-tinted view of the world where earnest, well-motivated and essentially honest people try to do their very best for their fellow man and woman. We all know that life just isn’t like that. I remember a good American friend describing Washington (and he might easily have described the worst corners of Westminster as well) as ‘a white-washed tomb’. But hey – a bit of escapism never did anyone any harm, surely? Then, because it is American TV and because I’m a cynical world-weary Brit, there are definitely moments of American schmaltz and sentimentalism which even a diehard like me can’t quite stomach. But truth be told, there’s a part of me that wishes we weren’t always so cynical.

So here is my list from Season 1 – in airing order because I can’t think of any other order to put them in. The reasons for inclusion range from being dramatic to dealing with real matters of substance, from being downright hilarious to being genuinely poignant. Do let me know what you think and what you’d add/subtract.

  • 1:5 – THE CRACKPOTS & THESE WOMEN – One of Leo’s big block of Cheese days. Some great dialogue and especially good to see CJ trying to take the wolf highway people seriously. Also, quite poignant when Josh gets the Secret Service card admitting only him to safety in the event of a nuclear attack.

Toby: It’s “Throw Open Our Office Doors To People Who Want To Discuss Things That We Could Care Less About… Day”

  • 1:14 – TAKE THIS SABBATH DAY – The death penalty one. Mixes both high drama (will Bartlet commute a drug-pusher’s death sentence?) and almost slapstick humour (Josh wearing Sam’s all-weather sailing dungarees, after a boozy stag night, at his first meeting with the wonderful Joey Lucas). But the final scene with Karl Malden (cameoing as Bartlet’s old priest, Fr Cavanaugh) is simply amazing. As Martin Sheen himself said of this episode: To see the most powerful man in the world get down on the floor of the Oval Office and ask forgiveness for his sins – finally I got to do something personal.

Father Cavanaugh: You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’ The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, ‘Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back, ‘I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.’ A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, ‘Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.’ But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?’ God said, ‘I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?’

  • 1:21 – LIES, DAMNED LIES & STATISTICS – The FEC campaign finance one. All about the machinations involved in getting the people you want into the positions you want. Seeing Barry Haskill’s face as he gets ushered into the Oval Office in the Leo-prompted assumption that it’s ‘where we keep the drinks’ is a peach. Also good is the moment where Bartlet asks an old businessman friend (Mitchell) to hire an ambassador:

Bartlet: Let me just tell you, I need a favor. I need you to hire a guy.
Mitchell: Who sir?
Bartlet: A former ambassador to Bulgaria.
Mitchell: Who is that, sir?
Bartlet: Ken Cochran.
Mitchell: Well, isn’t Ken Cochran the current ambassador to Bulgaria?
Bartlet: Not for long. Look, he’s a good man, a smart man, I think he’d make a very good corporate officer.
Mitchell: Why is he being fired, sir?
Bartlet: Gross incompetence. I’ll be right back.


On a separate but not unrelated note, here is the transcript from an imagined conversation between President Jed Bartlet and Senator Barack Obama from the New York Times last month.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oct 22 2008

    Thanks Brie – but not wanting to be too picky about it, i did link to it at the end of the post above!
    Happy days

  2. brie
    Oct 23 2008

    that’s what you get when you read blogs!!!!


  3. brie
    Oct 23 2008

    at work. and try to post to them at work also.

  4. Oct 24 2008

    Can I pitch in for series 3 episode 7 (I think). Ok, ok I know this is about series 1, but I want to get ahead of the game. The following from Toby struck me as a superb definition of teamwork or, indeed, church:

    We’re a group. We’re a team. From the President and Leo on through, we’re a team… We win together, we lose together, we celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories sweetened because we did them together…And if you don’t like this team… then, there’s the door… It’s great to be in the know. It’s great to have the scoop, to have the skinny, to be able to go to a reporter and say, “I know something you don’t know.” And so the press becomes your constituents and you sell out the team…

    So, an item will appear in the paper tomorrow, and it’ll be embarrassing to me and embarrassing to the President. I’m not gonna have a witch hunt. I’m not gonna huff and puff. I’m not gonna take anyone’s head off. I’m simply gonna say this: you’re my guys. And I’m yours… and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.

    Blessings on your day Mark, rgds Marcus

  5. Oct 25 2008

    You can Marcus, but please realise this is very naughty – i will get to season 3 when i get to season 3. We’re a team, heh?

    But this is a point well made. Thanks…

  6. Graham Caskie
    Nov 6 2008

    I think nothing can quite compare with the impact that episode one makes. I still remember the first time I ever watched this episode it was like nothing I had ever seen before with the brilliant script, the excellent camera work such as the walk and talk scenes, all which build up to the dramatic entrance of Bartlett (or POTUS) near the end of the episode.

    I can’t think of any programme which impressed me so quickly. I’m getting excited about just thinking about that moment again!

  7. May 5 2010

    Good list but I can’t help thinking you’ve missed one?

    Episode 15: Celestial Navigation (better known as The One Where CJ Has Root Canal)

    Josh Lyman: [C.J. appears with an obviously a swollen cheek] What the hell happened?
    Claudia Jean ‘C.J.’ Cregg: I had woot canaw.
    Josh Lyman: What happened to your cheeks?
    Claudia Jean ‘C.J.’ Cregg: I had woot canaw.
    Josh Lyman: Why are you talking like that?
    Claudia Jean ‘C.J.’ Cregg: I HAD WOOT CANAW!
    Josh Lyman: [smiling] Yeah, I heard you the first time. I was just amusing myself.
    Claudia Jean ‘C.J.’ Cregg: I can suggest some othew things you can do wiff yourseff.

    Perhaps it’s less significant, poignant or spiritual than the others, but for sheer comedy genius, I think it should be listed.

    • May 5 2010

      yes – spot on – this is a work of rare genius!


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