The greatest West Wing episodes (Season 1)
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.