The West Wing (1999)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on January 28, 2023 @

In this present age of rampant anti-intellectualism, it may be time to suggest a visit back a couple of decades.

The West Wing is calling. It was a special television series that lasted for seven years (1999-2006). Aaron Sorkin created the series; he left after four seasons.

In the initial four seasons Sorkin was writing, The West Wing won the Emmy as Outstanding Drama Series all four times. It whacked The Sopranos.

The West Wing had an outstanding cast.

It was led by Martin Sheen who portrayed Jed Bartlet who became President of the United States. Sorkin had originally planned The West Wing would be about the staff in the White House. The president was not a major character. On occasion he was seen as a figure in the distance. Sheen signed a contract that would be for only three or four episodes the first three seasons.

But sometimes the best laid plans of mice and actors go awry.

Sheen elevated his character with his engrossing demeanor. He gave Jed Bartlet grace, gravitas, and humanity. He inhabited his character with intelligence. It was an impassioned, unforgettable performance.

Unfortunately, although several of the cast received Emmys, Martin Sheen got six nominations, but no award.

James Gandolfini won an Emmy for Best Actor in 2000, 2001, and 2003. Dennis Franz won the Emmy for Best Actor in 1999 for NYPD Blue, and Michael Chiklis won in 2002 for The Shield.

Crime wins. Vulnerable decency loses.

At different times I met two of the main actors. I walked with Sheen in Dayton, his home town, when he was promoting a small indie. He tried to pin a George McCovern button on me. I also interviewed Stockard Channing who eventually became Jed's wife in The West Wing. The interview was in a hotel room in Cleveland. She was promoting her first major film The Fortune (1975) with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. The film bombed, but Stockard is probably the most intelligent actress I ever interviewed.

Obviously the cast was crucial, but Aaron Sorkin was the soul of The West Wing. Sorkin's great gift is credibility. And imagination. And humor. And intelligence. He writes like a rational angel. When his language takes its flights into surprises and challenges, it always is accompanied by credibility.

Credibility is precious. Sorkin also wrote with wit and charm. Wit and charm have been replaced in the contemporary world by hypocrisy and absurdity. Power is the aphrodisiac for dullards. Language mattered for Sorkin. Today dialogue is often "you fucking fucks." The West Wing was a program in which language mattered a lot.

Sorkin's final episode of season 4 is overwrought, but Sorkin has earned it. It is hard to think that Sorkin's stepping down is not mirrored by President Barlet's in the show. The episode seems particularly personal to Sorkin.

For those who don't want to watch the entire series (available on HBO Max without commercials) of The West Wing, let me suggest two episodes that contain the heart and soul of The West Wing. The final episodes of season 2 and season 3 are masterly.

Both use music as well as it may ever have been used on a TV drama series.

Two Cathedrals has one of the most provocative rants ever on one of the major networks. Jed's secretary has died in an automobile accident, and Jed alone in a cathedral curses God. Then he walks in a heavy rain to a press conference. As he walks and talks at the press conference, Dire Straits' song "Brothers in Arms" plays subtly in the background. The scene ends with a significant gesture by Jed. The music gives the scene its wonderment and impact.

The end of season 3 is titled Posse Comitatus. Jed and his family are attending a play in New York. At the same time, an agent is shot in a robbery.

Throughout the sequences at different locations, Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is in background. The showing of the episode is five years after Buckley's accidental drowning at the age of 30. The music is haunting.

Both episodes capture a profound sense of loss, humanity, and commitment.

The West Wing gives language for the mind. And music for the soul.


© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin