Sunday, April 01, 2012

Rewatching West Wing Season 1

"One victory in a year stinks in the life of an administration."
                                                                Toby Ziegler

I used to think of The West Wing as a show about political geniuses who were inspiring in the way they overcame all obstacles to advance a progressive agenda.

One thing that my rewatch of the show is hammering home is how not true that is. Really, The West Wing is about a bunch of very smart characters who are in a little bit over their heads. They understand most of the rules of the game, but they don't have a plan. Instead they get distracted by the details, the everyday distractions, and the personal scandals they (often inadvertantly) create.

By the time episode 19 ('Let Bartlet be Bartlet'; the source of the Toby Ziegler quote, above) rolls around, we've seen one genuine achievement (getting a nominee onto the Supreme Court), and two or three minor legislative achievements (including a weak gun-control bill). The team is disenchanted with politics and their ability to make a difference and stay true to their values: a disillusionment that's been growing over the course of the series to date.

But at this point the series turns everything around and fires up the team. It's a really stirring  moment, and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next - mostly because I know it doesn't last: Season 5 (after the re-election) is defined by a sense of 'drift' and aimlessness in the administration; Leo's return to the staff later on is marked by him setting up a chart identifying what they want to achieve in the time the team has remaining in the White House (a focus that is abandoned as the show continues). Even in the turnaround that's shown in this episode, there's no sense of objectives being set - as a result, the show seems to exist to illustrate various aspects of Washington DC political life, rather than show how a team advances their agenda.

However, these last episodes of Season 1 and opening episodes of Season 2 are great, as they remind us why these characters are an impressive team we want to root for.
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