10 episodes that show The West Wing was drama first, politics second
The cast of The West Wing. Richard Schiff (left), Allison Janney, Dulé Hill, John Spencer, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Janel Moloney, Bradley Whitford
The cast of The West Wing. Richard Schiff (left), Allison Janney, Dulé Hill, John Spencer, Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, Janel Moloney, Bradley Whitford

10 episodes that show The West Wing was drama first, politics second

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.

Considering the show ended just eight years ago, it is a bit early to make this statement, but there’s a significant argument for the following: The West Wing may prove to be the most influential television show of the golden age of television. Not because The West Wing did for the medium what The Sopranos did or Mad Men continues to do, and not because the show is really that brilliant. But outside the realm of television, this series shaped government. The West Wing changed American politics. It was instrumental in creating a sense of mission and purpose about government in a particularly cynical and despairing age. And that, in turn, inspired young people, who went in droves to work for campaigns, make calls for progressive candidates, and agitate for change in government. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine Obama For America’s success without its fictional precursor, Bartlet For America—the campaign for President Bartlet’s re-election in the show.

The similarities don’t end there; it’s uncanny: As Brian Stelter at The New York Times observes, The West Wing offers a prescient view of how Barack Obama’s campaign against John McCain would play out. And whether or not President Obama’s staff are fans of The West Wing (though this video suggests at least Press Secretary Jay Carney is), the idealism of the show lives on in the imaginations of those who expect great things from government. Maureen Dowd invoked the spirit of The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet in a column leading up to Election Day 2012; a group of Burmese politicians told Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton they were watching the show to learn the ropes of democracy.

While it’s hard to prove that The West Wing changed politics, it’s harder still to deny its influence. The piece mentioned above about the Burmese politicians, from Ian Crouch in The New Yorker, goes on to observe that Obama’s speechifying style echoes Sorkin’s Bartlet; indeed, the entire Democratic National Convention in 2012 succeeded based on The West Wing’s formula for success:

After two years spent running away from health-care reform and other contentious achievements, the Obama campaign decided in Charlotte to acknowledge what the Administration had done. That, along with the seizing of national defense for the first time since 9/11, and speech after speech touting the party’s support for abortion choice and gay rights added up to the kind of proud, defiant liberalism that served as animating spirit for The West Wing. And the triumphant return of Bill Clinton, the ultimate “Explainer-in-Chief,” capped it all off, proving, as Sorkin did before him, that percentages, policy papers, and political parables can make for good television.

Though the show was unabashedly liberal, The West Wing’s most significant bias was toward optimism—a belief in good government so galvanizing that it motivated a generation to public service. The show put the viewer squarely in the middle of a political narrative that rarely made it out of the halls of government—that of the bureaucrats and administrators behind the scenes, the people who hammered out the president’s every word, the piles of paper and red tape that had to be untangled before any major policy initiative could move forward. It made that exciting and inspiring, a feat that had not been accomplished until then and is still unparalleled.

The West Wing was born out of Aaron Sorkin’s own rose-colored view of government. The first few seasons are written in direct and defiant response to the demoralizing liberal administration of the late ’90s—a White House embroiled in a sex scandal in 1998, and a gridlocked Congress partially shutting down in 1995. Sorkin’s President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was in some ways the anti-Clinton—an academic from New Hampshire who came unwilling to politics, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who first wanted to be a priest. Where the Clinton administration and the government tactics of the end of the 20th century inspired cynicism, The West Wing exhorted idealism. Around Bartlet, Sorkin created a group of lovable and nerdy political operatives—the policy wonks, speechwriters, and personnel who showed up to work every day out of a strong and almost pathological sense of public service.

But as the nation changed, so did the show. In the middle of The West Wing’s second season, the Supreme Court ruled on the Florida recount scandal, determining that Republican George W. Bush had won the contentious 2000 election. And shortly after that, at the beginning of The West Wing’s third season, 9/11 happened. The show that began as a fantasy in response to a sex scandal became a fantasy in response to a new world order. Though it failed as much as it succeeded, it was at the forefront of a rapidly changing sense of American identity.

In all of the talk of how the show influenced politics, though, it’s easy to forget that it was just a television show. The drama series was an old-school network behemoth, clocking in at 22-plus episodes a season. It seemed to speak a language that only Washington insiders knew—but it was instead a fevered vision by just one man who had never worked in politics. What we now think of as hallmarks of the Sorkin style weren’t first used on The West Wing, but they became famous there. And it is a formula. The statistics-laden monologues; the verbose, high-speed arguments about beliefs and principles in the middle of the street on a Tuesday. The inescapable preachiness—usually well-intentioned, but impossible to ignore. The walk-and-talk, of course. The flirtations marked as much by casual petty violence as by affection or desire. And what Sorkin himself mocked in the season-two episode, “And It’s Surely To Their Credit”: an antiquated idea of duty. As infuriating as Sorkin’s beliefs could sometimes be, it was hard to fault his sense of moral purpose—the energy of each script speaks to the back-and-forth between what is right and what is easy, and pushes back on any piece of arcane policy with arguments of its own.

The West Wing was one of the last great network dramas, a product of the NBC studio machine that had not yet found itself challenged by streaming services and cable’s prestige dramas. Though it was squarely embedded in that system, it still managed to do drama incredibly well. Given that The West Wing is so much about the day-to-day of the White House—and given that the day-to-day of the White House is often spent putting out fires—it seems fitting to view The West Wing’s 10 most representative episodes from the lens of those episodes that fit into established network modes, but then did something incredible with them. It speaks to the power of The West Wing that even though the show did a bottle episode, a live show, and an alternate-history episode, it spoke through those forms to speak (some) truth to (some) power.

The pilot: “Pilot” (season one, episode one): Sorkin didn’t come to The West Wing without experience: He’d already made his bones with two well-received political dramas, A Few Good Men and The American President, as well as the short-lived show Sports Night. The pilot reflects this experience—there’s a confidence with the characters and their place in the show, right off the bat, as well as that signature frenetic pacing and hyper-intellectualism that can’t be at all like what people are in the real world. The pilot also introduces some of Sorkin’s pet issues—the rise of the Christian right, the soulless debate on political pundit shows, and the vagaries of post-Cold War foreign policy, all of which set this pilot squarely in the world of ’90s politics. But there’s nothing that better demonstrates Sorkin’s approach to the show than the slow and suspenseful reveal that the president’s big accident was crashing a bike into a tree. “He’s a klutz, Mrs Landingham! Your president’s a geek,” exclaims Chief Of Staff Leo McGarry, about the leader of the free world. And after being talked about (and mocked) all episode, President Bartlet walks into a meeting with the Christian right by simultaneously correcting them on the language of the first commandment and introducing himself to the show: “‘I am the Lord your God, thou shalt worship no other god before me.’ Boy, those were the days, huh?” It’s a snapshot of the show’s sense of humor and sense of right, all in one moment.

The origin stories: “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen,” Parts I and II (season two, episodes one and two): The West Wing ended its critically lauded first season with a cliffhanger—shots fired on the president, as all the main characters scrambled for cover. “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen” uses the event as an opportunity to dial back the clock, showing us the series’ cast in their early days of campaigning for Bartlet and finding their way into his administration. It’s Firefly’s “Out Of Gas, or The Good Wife’s “A Few Words. It’s the story of how the band got together. The West Wing came at the right time for its fans, and was propelled forward by expert hands. But what kept the show moving was its talented cast of mostly unknowns. Rob Lowe, who played the Princeton-educated Sam Seaborn, was supposed to be the show’s star billing—which is why he is listed first in the opening credits—but he was quickly upstaged by Bradley Whitford’s Josh Lyman, who became the heart of the show. In “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen,” it’s revealed that Josh has been shot—making his flashbacks even more poignant. The two-parter knits the cast together—from John Spencer’s Leo to Janel Moloney’s Donna, Josh’s executive assistant. And that bond in turns sets the stage for the show’s most ambitious and most successful season.

The musical episode: “And It’s Surely To Their Credit” (season two, episode five): Okay, it’s not really a musical episode. But it’s as close to a musical as The West Wing could get—and based on his track record with episodes about Gilbert and Sullivan, Sorkin probably would have made them sing the whole time if he could. The writer’s obsession with Gilbert and Sullivan is part of his obsession for the trappings of the intellectual elite—he name-drops Ivy League institutions constantly, and even works in SAT scores into the storyline of one episode. It can be absolutely intolerable—a fetishization of the appearance of intelligence, without necessarily proving intelligence. But “And It’s Surely To Their Credit” is a great example about how that which was entirely frustrating could also make charming television. Season two introduced Emily Procter’s Ainsley Hayes, a Republican operative whose careful skewering of Sam’s defense of liberal policy is so successful that Leo hires her for the White House Counsel’s office. But not everyone at the White House is thrilled that a nationally recognized Republican talking head is now working for their administration. “And It’s Surely To Their Credit” uses Gilbert and Sullivan to welcome Ainsley to the White House—while taking a detour into John Larroquette’s guest performance as Lionel Tribbey, who walks into our memory wielding a cricket bat, yelling, “I will kill people today, Leo!” 

The bottle episode: “17 People” (season two, episode 18): Sorkin’s tics often gloss over the fact that his writing is really fantastic. It’s no surprise that he burned out after four years on The West Wing—in those four seasons, the show produced 89 episodes, and Sorkin wrote 86 of them. He didn’t conceive all of the stories himself—about half of the first four seasons’ episodes credit Sorkin with the story rights—but he put pen to paper (or key to word processor) for nearly every episode of the The West Wing’s ambitious schedule. At the end of the second season, Sorkin took his show through a dramatic plot arc—the reveal that President Bartlet hid an illness from the public, and the cast’s attempt to weather the storm of public opinion to win re-election. “17 People” is an original bottle episode—one demanded by the network because expensive guest-stars and shooting locations were sapping the production budget. It is also one of the show’s best scripts—a taut hour that revolves around one dedicated staffer, Director Of Communications Toby Ziegler, realizing that his president has lied to him, as the rest of the cast works on writing a speech in the White House mess hall.

The deus ex machina: “18th And Potomac” / “Two Cathedrals” (season two, episodes 21 and 22): Mrs. Landingham’s sudden death was developed by accident—the actress who played her, Kathryn Joosten, took a cigarette break with Sorkin and mentioned leaving the show. As he mulled over how to write her out of the script, he hit on the idea of using her death as a way to force Bartlet to confront his scandal and then inspire him to run for re-election. So Mrs. Landingham, the president’s longtime personal secretary, is killed in a well-timed car crash, by a drunk driver, during her first trip in her new car. (Cue the dramatic-irony waterworks.) It creates for a melodramatic one-two-punch with the season’s final two episodes—the capper on a fantastic season. Though the accident technically happens in the final seconds of “18th And Potomac,” it’s “Two Cathedrals” that mourns Mrs. Landingham—and creates a hero out of President Bartlet, who starts the episode a broken man and builds himself up to be an avenging conquerer by the end. “Two Cathedrals” is widely held to be one of the show’s greatest hours, and Martin Sheen’s skill at making Sorkin’s Bartlet into a character worth rooting for is on display here.

The alternate-history episode: “Isaac And Ishmael” (season three, episode one): 9/11 fundamentally changed the tenor of The West Wing. Suddenly the comedy of the show seemed entirely out of place, because nothing about America’s response to 9/11 was particularly funny. The third season’s first few episodes were already in production, and the show’s producers decided not to write the events of 9/11 into the political universe of the Bartlet administration. But Sorkin couldn’t quite let a teachable moment pass. Hence was born “Issac And Ishmael,” one of the most controversial hours of The West Wing—an alternate-history, extremely preachy hour that puts the characters in a murky reality where 9/11 (or a similar terrorist attack) happened a few months before the episode starts. As a school group tours the White House, the building is put under lockdown because of a vague threat. The senior staff literally explains terrorism to the kids, with a level of patronizing detail that is not wrong, but is still pretty infuriating. This episode seems literally made for kids—in fact, this writer’s high school screened the episode during convocation, presumably so that students would learn not to hate Muslims—and it works purely as an after-school special. It’s the perfect example of Sorkin’s preachiness, wrapped up in the trappings of an alternate-history.

The swansong: “Commencement” (season four, episode 22): Sorkin’s near-fanatical devotion to the work—reminiscent of his characters’ devotion to their work—led him to relapse into cocaine addiction in 2001, and to leave The West Wing shortly thereafter. He took Thomas Schlamme with him—his directing partner who had also collaborated with Sorkin on Sports Night. Schlamme’s influence on the show is easy to overlook, because Sorkin’s flash is what draws attention. But Schlamme was a much-needed counterbalance to Sorkin’s sharp-edged, yelling style; it’s Schlamme who gave the show its Vaseline-hazy views of the halls of government and its muted color palette. That left just one more executive producer—John Wells, who was working on his own show ER during his time on The West Wing. The Sorkin era and Wells era of the show are very different—The West Wing’s beating heart was Sorkin’s particular brand of crazy, and the show became something different under Wells’ supervision. Sorkin’s last episode is “Twenty Five,” the fourth-season finale where the president invokes the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, an action that removes him from the office as he deals with his daughter’s abduction. But Sorkin’s real goodbye is the episode immediately previous to that one, “Commencement.” The episode is about Zoey Bartlet—the president’s college-age daughter, played by Elisabeth Moss—and her abduction the night of her graduation from Georgetown University. It’s a plot point the show mentions as a possibility in the first season. The memory of that story—and the dream-like, trippy quality of the last 10 minutes, where Massive Attack’s “Angel” plays to crescendo over the characters’ final scenes—makes the whole episode feel like Sorkin literally threw everything he had at the wall in his final moments as showrunner. Amy asks Donna if she’s in love with Josh. Toby has babies. Charlie and Zoey declare some kind of love for each other. And underneath it all is a kind of horror—because the nightmare is actually happening. What was always feared has arrived.

The live show: “The Debate” (season seven, episode seven): The later years for The West Wing weren’t terrible, but they weren’t great, either. It took a full two seasons for the show to pick up steam again—and by then it had lost most of its loyal viewers. Under Wells, the show transformed from a talky dramedy to character melodrama. (Some perplexing casting choices had already diluted the original cast’s charm: Sorkin’s girlfriend, Kristin Chenowith, ended up with a recurring role on the show, which never worked.) With ER, Wells had proven he could make character drama interesting; back when Sorkin was still writing, that lens added depth to Sorkin’s character work—which had a tendency to translate more as lip-service to development than actual development. But in the seventh season, Wells starting doing some interesting things with the show, which was looking ahead to the series’ conclusion. And “The Debate” is one of the odder stunts The West Wing pulled—a live debate between the two candidates for president, filmed once for each coast. The election storyline—and its excellent casting—injected new life into the old drama. Jimmy Smits played a new idealistic Democrat, Matt Santos, who had more than a little in common with a real-life politician whose star was on the rise, while Alan Alda brings home the conscientious conservative Arnold Vinick. “The Debate” is a very weird episode, in part because the responses from the audience are obviously staged; it’s a live episode, not a live bullpen. And like debates in real life, it’s pretty boring. But Wells did find Sorkin’s sense of mission in having the candidates own up to their policy stances, and take on each other’s viewpoints in a more engaged way.

The will-they/won’t-they: “Election Day, Part I” (season seven, episode 16): The seventh season also ended debate on one of the series’ longest-running almost-relationships—that of Whitford’s Josh Lyman and Moloney’s Donna Moss, who spent years entirely codependent while theoretically platonic. Sorkin had not intended for the two to have so much chemistry, and the first few seasons hover between indulging their chemistry and trying to throw both actors at other stars—including Marlee Matlin, Mary-Louise Parker, and Christian Slater. Perhaps channeling his ER roots, Wells cheerfully threw caution to the wind in the last half of the final season. Josh and Donna finally consummate their will-they/won’t-they on the eve of the election, as they are both working long hours for the Santos campaign. The episode takes them both through the awkwardness of the one-night stand and the acknowledgment that this has been a long time coming, all while offering a glimpse of just how much these characters have grown since their heady first days in the Bartlet administration.

The finale: “Tomorrow” (season seven, episode 22): After depicting every possible aspect of American public policy, The West Wing got the opportunity to portray what leaving looks like. The episode also says goodbye to John Spencer, who died during filming of the last season—depriving the show of his smart, sober presence that offset much of the show’s neurotic energy. His dynamic with President Bartlet was a bromance for the ages—and their friendship started a dream, in the narrative of the show. The final moments of The West Wing ends with the now ex-president looking at the cocktail napkin on which Leo first planned his presidency, wondering about what tomorrow will hold. Despite many missteps, the show found some grace in its closing episode. The last episode of The West Wing is the Bartlet administration’s last day of work. It’s an episode well past the show’s prime, a goodbye that was a long time coming. It has to do a lot of work, tying up loose ends with pardoning characters and setting others up in happy matrimony. Fittingly, it’s an episode that rests on the shoulders of Allison Janney’s C.J. Cregg, who went from press secretary to chief of staff in her time at the White House. C.J. is one of the show’s best characters, and much of her success is despite Sorkin’s writing. Janney brought a tough yet vulnerable sensibility to C.J., and in the midst of character-altering developments in the Wells era, C.J. mostly keeps her integrity—perhaps because Wells trusted Janney to channel the character. “Tomorrow” is her last day as chief of staff, and as she walks out of the White House, someone asks her if she works there. She is for once able to say “no”—and the moment is both sad and liberating. As was often the case with her character, she seems to be the only person who can fully feel the moment. Everything is ending—but a new world is beginning, too. And that encapsulates the enduring and optimistic spirit of The West Wing.

And if you like those, here are 10 more: the creation of the in-universe holiday: “Crackpots And These Women” (season one, episode five); the Christmas special: “In Excelsis Deo” (season one, episode 10); the off-campus outing: “20 Hours In L.A.” (season one, episode 16); the mission statement: “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet (season one, episode 19); the flashback episode: “What Kind Of Day Has It Been (season one, episode 22); the Very Special episode: “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail (season two, episode 16); the episode about the fans: “The U.S. Poet Laureate (season three, episode 17); the road trip: “20 Hours In America, parts I and II (season four, episode one and two); the hero’s journey: “The Shutdown” (season five, episode eight); the bottle episode with a twist: “No Exit” (season five, episode 20)

Availability: All seven seasons are available for purchase on DVD. The entire series is also streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Next time: Mike Vago takes on a beloved favorite: WKRP In Cincinnati.






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