Thursday, May 18, 2006


RIP The West Wing

After seven years, the final episode of The West Wing was shown in the USA last weekend. We’ve had its third and fourth seasons on DVD for ages, and this has prompted us finally to start watching them. I remember when we first caught it, part-way through the second season; it was so arrestingly brilliant that we dashed out to buy the DVD of the first season straight away. We watched it faster than anything else we’ve seen; usually we’ll only watch one episode of any one show in a day, but we galloped through all eleven in a weekend. As they initially released the seasons in halves rather than complete sets, we then had to gnaw our knuckles over our addiction while waiting three months for the next eleven episodes to be available on shiny silver disc. Including my favourite episode, Let Bartlet Be Bartlet – one which I’d still encourage everyone aspiring to elected office, and particularly everyone who wins, to watch – it was well worth the wait, if the wait was torture. Sharp, witty, and with a not-quite-wish-fulfilment liberal, intellectual but not always successful President, it was gripping television.

So how come it’s taken us so long to start on the rest? Well, we saw the third and fourth years of the show on TV well before the DVDs came out, and I’m sorry to say that it suddenly felt like the life had gone out of it. I think it was towards the end of season three that we realised it was only just starting to gather pace, and that the rest had felt like it was treading water. Not bad, exactly, but no longer reaching out and seizing our attention. It’s a shame, but we didn’t feel in a rush to watch it again. In the meantime, though, later seasons we’ve never seen have been released - and, yes, we are trying to avoid plot details of them - so now we’re catching up. Having not seen the fantastic first two years for a long time now, will the third any better without the weight of expectation?

We’re just three episodes in so far, and one’s a one-off, slightly uneasy attempt to deal with 9/11. The real start to the season was the two-part story Manchester (NH), a non-linear account of the month following President Bartlet’s twin announcements that he would run for a second term and that he had multiple sclerosis. It’s… all right. It feels a bit stretched, with the same arguments running over and over, and a running thread throughout of preparing for Bartlet’s big speech to kick off his campaign, which at the climax he finally strides out to deliver.

What we hear of the speech – entirely in snippets as it’s written and argued over – made me realise two things (in addition to Martin Sheen’s fantastic comic timing, but I knew that). The first is tragic. When a draft talks of the United States being the greatest civilisation, the greatest force for peace, the envy of the world and so forth, at the time it seemed merely over-the-top, as several of the characters pointed out. After the Iraq War it seems no longer amusing but ludicrous in an ugly way, just as the references to the military base at Guantánamo Bay can now never be heard in the same way again.

The other thing I realised is that – well, truth be told, I knew this too – I am not an ordinary television viewer. The speech is trailed through 42 minutes of high-class soap, followed by another 42 minutes of high-class soap, because that’s what viewers wanted. Not this one. I sat through two episodes of high-class soap, but seethed with annoyance when it faded to the credits as Bartlet finally got up to speak. Because, dammit, right then I wanted to know what he said, and I wanted to hear a 42-minute speech, not just the trailers.

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Ahhh West Wing - the first 2 seasons are perhaps the finest achievement of TV: Two Cathedrals is just genius.

After that, you're right it loses momentum. (Especially after Rob Lowe leaves: didn't think I'd ever write that.)

Though the Bartlett/Ritchie presidential debate is one of *the* great moments of the show.
I've really enjoyed it all the way through - even the weaker chunks are stronger than most TV.

I have been enjoying the current series on More4 and then the Evening Standard went and reported who wins the Presidential election which has somewhat reduced my sense of anticipation!
I too have a habit of going through each season very rapidly as soon as I get it back from the shops.

I loved Leo's rage and rant that the NY Times Crossword spelt Ghadaffi's name wrong as a clue in its crossword; so much for his claim to be a 'private citizen'. Probably one of the pithiest moments of the late John Spencer.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the story unwinds in the remaining few weeks we have to watch. I've already spotted that Commander in Chief is starting to filter in conversation at Lib Dem gatherings after we have disected that weeks West Wing so I feel out appetite might still be filled.
Thanks, all! Yes, Stephen, Two Cathedrals is superb. I can only think of one 'season cliffhanger' for any show that beats it…

Good luck with getting your DVDs back, Mac, and sorry for the imposition. It avoids spam, though, and at least means that if people rant and rail they can't do it without, at minimum, a made up name.

Neil, yes, I'm afraid I know that twist and several others. I'm trying not to let Richard know - it's one of the drawbacks of popular television today, though. Papers will always try to 'break the news' and spoil it.

I loved Stephen(II)'s John Spencer moment, too. So true to life. In our home, at least. I have to admit I'm less sold on Commander in Chief so far, though; Mr Sutherland playing Darth Sidious is very entertaining, but it tends towards the easy and the schmaltzy. If you saw last week's, though, any idea what happened in the last two minutes?

Meanwhile, as I wait for Totally Doctor Who, they're showing the last ever Really Wild Show, too. I remember when it was brand new and thinking the presenter was jolly attractive… Sigh.
I have series 1 to 6 on DVD and I think series 4 is the best. I think that the two episodes based around the debate are the best. I think that Ming might want to watch those episodes to see if he can improve his performance at PMQs.
Thanks, Adam (lovely to hear from you!) - we're half-way into Season 3 now, and I think enjoying it more than a few years ago. I'll look forward to the fourth.
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