In a time when politics is seemingly more-than-ever partisan, when political discussion has severed friendships, it’s hard to think positively of politicians and those in power. “The West Wing” shined a light on the best of politics, even in its worst moments.
Yes, “The West Wing” was, in some ways, a partisan show; it featured a democratic White House, and its staff argued for a more progressive agenda. If it’s not your political leaning, it’s easy to write this show off as Hollywood propaganda. But if you watch the show and listen carefully, you can hear the sound of bi-partisanship and patriotism, of inspiration and romanticism. You can hear the sound of Americans yearning for politicians who may disagree, but don’t bicker, who may have firm beliefs, but aren’t unwilling to listen.
Created by Emmy and Oscar-winning screenwriter and playwright Aaron Sorkin, “The West Wing” follows President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen) and his staff in The West Wing for seven seasons, the first four of which were written by Sorkin.
In an era of television and film that often portrays politicians as dark, savage, inept, and morally corrupt, “The West Wing” still beats out all other political shows by its quixotic tone and execution of writing and acting. Sorkin is known for his dialogue and that signature romantic style of story telling, but there’s much more to “The West Wing” than good writing and a sense of idealism: there are great episodes of drama, peppered in humor and heart-touching moments. If you want a political show that will inspire you, entertain you, challenge you, and make you laugh, here are five episodes to try:
1) Shibboleth: Season two, Episode eight
A favorite among “West Wing” fans and new viewers alike, this Thanksgiving-themed episode brings out the funnies just as much as the drama. The episode opens with the discovery of hundreds of Chinese Christian refugees who escaped persecution by huddling in a container on a ship which lands in San Diego. President Bartlett is now faced with a tough choice: either cause harm to the country’s relationship with China by allowing the illegal immigrants their freedom in America, or send them back to China to face more likely persecution. White House communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) pushes for a particular candidate for assistant secretary of education, which would ignite the debate over prayer in schools. Meanwhile, Press Secretary CJ Craig (Allison Janney) must choose one of two turkeys to be pardoned, and the president’s personal aid Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) must find the perfect turkey carving knife for President Bartlett, who is quite particular about the item.
2) The Crackpots and These Women: Season one, Episode five
“Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House, had a big block of cheese…The block of cheese was huge — over two tons — and it was there for any and all who might be hungry…Jackson wanted the White House to belong to the people, so from time to time he opened the doors to those who wished an audience.” This speech from Leo McGary to his staffers, though fictional, was the reasoning of his “big block of cheese day” — a day in which staffers are required to meet with groups and organizations who have a difficult time getting the ear of those staffers.
“I know the most jaded among you see this as something rather beneath you, but I assure you listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely no one’s servants,” McGary finished. What comes out of those meetings may not be expected, but touching nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Toby argues with White House media consultant Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelley) about the president’s upcoming attendance at a Hollywood mogul’s political fundraiser due to the White House’s recent position on an abundance of violence in his movies.
3) In This White House: Season two, Episode four
The White House staff are shaken up at President Bartlett’s insistence at the hiring of Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor), a Republican advisor, as a White House lawyer after she took to task White House Speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on national television. Meanwhile, the President, Toby and Josh are focused on helping President Nimbala (Zakes Mokae) work with pharmaceutical company executives to attain free or reduced-price drugs to help the fictional African country in its fight against AIDS.
4) Twenty Five: Season four, Episode 23.
The season four finale, for which Sorkin received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, caps off his tenure as the showrunner. On the eve of her college graduation, President Bartlett’s daughter Zoe is kidnapped, leading to an intense search and rescue operation. As the First Family, including the President, grapples with the agony of the wait during the search, challenging defense and military responses which require a clear mind still await the president, which leads him to an agonizing decision. The episode is a stunning and powerful testimony of the 25th amendment and sacrificing partisan politics for the good of a country.
5) 20 Hours in America: Season four, Episodes one and two.
In this two-part season premier, Toby, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Lyman’s assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) are left behind when the President’s motorcade leaves without them following a campaign stop. Stranded in rural Indiana, Toby and Josh argue about how best to promote the campaign and get Bartlett re-elected. Donna, trying to get the trio back to the President’s next location, is the only one of the three to truly hear the residents of Indiana with whom they talked and finally scolds the other two for not caring more about the people instead of the election. Meanwhile, Sam learns how difficult of a job Toby and Josh have as he staffs the President while the two are away, and also must write a speech following the bombing of a collegiate swim meet. President Bartlett interviews more candidates, including a second with Debbie Fiderer (Lily Tomlin), for the position of White House Presidential Secretary, a position previously held by the President’s cherished Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) following her death.
“The West Wing” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.