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The West Wing

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First aired: The Signal: Season 5, Episode 8
Credits
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton

Several years before I fell in love with Firefly, my heart was captured by a very different kind of television show, The West Wing. Set during the fictional administration of President Josiah Bartlet, The West Wing follows the President and his senior staff over the course of two turbulent terms in office. The series first aired in 1999 and went on to win many awards over its seven seasons, including nine Emmys in its first season alone.

SAM
Toby!
TOBY
Not yet.
SAM
Our day of jubilee.
TOBY
Not yet.

In many episodes, President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is not centre stage and instead the drama focuses on the attempts of his senior staff to carry out his agenda.

MALLORY
Sam.
SAM
It's my day of jubilee.
MALLORY
I despise you and everything you stand for.
SAM
All right, my day was a little bit better a few seconds ago, but that's all right.
MALLORY
How could you write that position paper?
SAM
Which position paper?
MALLORY
Don't play dumb with me.
SAM
No, honestly I am dumb. Most of the time I'm playing smart.
MALLORY
Sam, the position paper...
SAM
Mallory, you can't be thinking about ruining my day of jubilee by yelling at me about school vouchers.
MALLORY
I was strongly considering it, yes.

No-nonsense Chief of Staff Leo McGarry is aided by his tenacious and combative deputy Josh Lyman, quick-witted Press Secretary CJ Cregg, the gruff but brilliant Communications Director Toby Ziegler and his idealistic deputy, Sam Seaborn. Other memorable characters include Josh Lyman’s personal assistant, Donna Moss, and the President’s personal aide, Charlie Young. This core set of characters is supplemented by a plethora of equally well-written and well-acted minor characters. By the end of the show’s run several new main characters had joined the original set.

C.J.
Period.
JOSH
Comma.
MANDY
Colon
SAM
Semi-colon.
JOSH
Dash.
SAM
Hyphen.
LEO
Ah... apostrophe.
BARTLET
That’s only seven. There are seven more.
TOBY
Question mark, exclamation point, quotation marks, brackets, parentheses, braces and ellipses.
C.J.
Ooh.

The West Wing tackled many serious subjects over its lifetime, including terrorism, the Middle East peace process, hate crimes, genocide, gun control and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. At heart the show is a drama, but it is a rare episode that doesn’t also include the funny. And in fact, humour is often used to great effect in underlining a serious point:

TOBY
A panda bear to replace Dim Sum?
MANDY
Lum-Lum.
TOBY
Do you mean Hsing-Hsing?
MANDY
Hsing-Hsing. That was his name. Hsing-Hsing. Yeah. Hsing-Hsing was given to us as a gift by the Chinese government when Nixon...
TOBY
I know.
MANDY
Then Hsing-Hsing got lonely, so the Chinese sent a mate over, I think, it’s name was Ping.
TOBY
Ling.
MANDY
Ling.
TOBY
It may have been Ping.
MANDY
Whatever. Ping, or Ling, dies. Hsing-Hsing mourns. Panda bears, it turns out, mourn. And for Hsing-Hsing, it seemed like the time was unendurable.
TOBY
I know exactly how he felt.
MANDY
Anyway... as you know, Hsing-Hsing succumbed to liver disease and passed away earlier this year.
TOBY
Yes.
MANDY
And I was thinking that it would be a good idea as a symbol to signal how serious we are about our relationship with China, if... we asked them for another bear.
TOBY
I think it would be a good idea, as a symbol... to signal that China is serious about their relationship with us, if they stopped running over their citizens with tanks.

The early seasons in particular are rife with rapid-fire witty dialogue that, as Zoe might say, “has a kind of poetry to it”. To anyone who enjoys words that are well-written and well-spoken, The West Wing is a delicious feast, to be savoured again and again.

TOBY
Sam?
SAM
This should...
TOBY
Yeah?
SAM
Oratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place. We should be talking about not being satisfied with past solutions, we should be talking about a permanent revolution.
TOBY
Where have I heard that?
SAM
Permanent revolution?
TOBY
Yeah.
SAM
I got it from a book.
TOBY
What book?
SAM
The Little Red Book.
TOBY
You think we should quote Mao Tse-tung?
SAM
We do need a permanent revolution.
TOBY
Still, I think we'll stay away from quoting Communists.
SAM
You think a Communist never wrote an elegant phrase?
TOBY
Sam...
SAM
How do you think they got everybody to be Communist?

In the space of a single episode, we can swing from passionate stirring speeches to humorous banter to intimate character exchanges and back again.

The staffers on The West Wing seem to have made it to their positions by dint of intelligence and hard work, which cynics might say is another unrealistic aspect of the show. The President, in particular, does seem to know an awful lot about pretty much everything. In fact, as one of his staffers points out, with all due respect, he is quite the nerd.

C.J.
Planetary Geologist from Cal State Northridge. On these monitors you'll be seeing the images beamed back from the surface and on this computer screen you'll be able to read the questions being sent in by the kids. I strongly urge you...
BARTLET
Yes.
C.J.
I strongly urge you...
BARTLET
I know.
C.J.
I strongly urge you, Mr. President, to act as moderator and pass the questions of to one of the experts on the panel rather than answer it yourself.
BARTLET
Yes.
C.J.
Would you like to see some of the questions?
BARTLET
We have questions in advance?
C.J.
Some of them. Would you put them on?
CREWMEMBER [OS]
Sure.
BARTLET
Katie, sixth grade, Green Oaks Junior High School, Austin, Texas, asks, "How old is the planet Mars?" That's a great question, Katie. The planet Mars is 4.6 billion years old.
C.J.
What did I just say?
BARTLET
I knew that one.
C.J.
Nobody likes a know-it-all!
BARTLET
Yes, God forbid, that while talking to 60,000 public school students, the President should appear smart!
C.J.
That's fine. Just don't show off.
BARTLET
I don't show off. [reads again] Stevie, fourth grader, PS 31, Manhattan, asks, "What is the temperature on Mars?" Well, Stevie, if one of our expert panelists were here, they would tell you the average temperature ranges from 15 degrees to minus 140.
C.J.
That happens to be wrong. It ranges from 60 to minus 225.
BARTLET
I converted it to Celsius in my head.
C.J.
Thank you.

Of course no one in real life really speaks quite as wonderfully as the characters do, but if we want that kind of realism, we can listen to the real politicians. I for one like my fictional politicians to speak in unfeasibly well-crafted sentences and to make me believe that they really do know what they’re talking about.

Don’t get me wrong though. These characters are not perfect and are not caricatures. They are well-rounded characters with flaws, admittedly most of the flaws are rather heroic and noble ones, but they are flaws nonetheless and add depth and realism to the characters.

BARTLET
Why are you doing this? You're a player. You're bigger in the party than I am. Hoynes would make you national chairman. Leo! Tell me this isn't one of the twelve steps.
LEO
Yeah, that's what it is. Right after admitting we're powerless over alcohol and that a higher power can restore us to sanity, that's where you come in.
BARTLET
Leo.
LEO
Because I'm tired of it year after year after year after year having to chose between the lesser of who cares? Of trying to get myself excited about a candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low, I can hardly look at it. They say a good man can't get elected President. I don't believe that, do you?

One consequence of having such well-drawn characters is that every possible combination of these characters offers us an interesting relationship dynamic, not unlike as in Firefly. There’s the long history between the President and Leo, the father-son dynamic to Leo and Josh, the frat boy antics of Josh and Sam, the idealism clashing with world-weariness of Sam and Toby, the respect between old friends Toby and CJ, and the teetering-on-the-edge-of-admitting-something-more friendship of Josh and Donna.

DONNA
I don’t know why you’re picking the secretary of agriculture.
JOSH
Because the secretaries of defense, state and treasury are famous faces, and we want the camera to find them.
DONNA
So, if the Capitol Building blows up...
JOSH
Yes.
DONNA
The man my country will be looking to is the secretary of agriculture.
JOSH
It’s my country too.
DONNA
Yeah, but you’ll be dead.
JOSH
Which is why I really don’t care that much.
DONNA
Josh?
JOSH
Donna, I really don’t anticipate the Capitol Building exploding.
DONNA
What percentage of things exploding have been anticipated?
JOSH
Now you’re bringing me down.
DONNA
I would think so.

It doesn't matter which side of the Atlantic you live on, or even if you live by an entirely different body of water, The West Wing could still be for you. The show may be set in the world of American politics, but stories covered are not unique to America and Americans. And it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t always understand the workings of the American political system as most of the time not knowing some of the details does not diminish your enjoyment.

JOSH
50! Here we go, baby!
LEO
Sam. Toby. You're about to put a guy on the Supreme Court.
T.V. [VO]
Senator Rindell.
RINDELL [VO]
Yea.

President Bartlet is a Democrat and therefore The West Wing is to some extent the “Left Wing”, but Republicans are not portrayed as uniformly evil and neither are the Democrats portrayed as uniformly good. We don’t have to agree with the views of the main characters to enjoy the show, but I guess sometimes it does help.

ED
Anything wild?
C.J.
Just the dealer. Four, no help. Six, possible straight. Heart, possible flush. Jack, no help. And the Dave of Love for a pair of tens. Tens bet.
LARRY
You know, you're particularly upbeat for someone who's been shot at twice in four years.
C.J.
Am I?
TOBY
Yes.
C.J.
That's 'cause I've got faith there, mi compadre.
TOBY
Faith?
C.J.
The substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.
TOBY
Yeah, but I think what he's asking... Bump ten... I think what he's asking is why most other nights do you think the world's going to hell in a hula hoop, but tonight...?
C.J.
We dipped twice and eat gefilte fish?
TOBY
Suzy Cream Cheese, do not attempt the hagaddah.
C.J.
I know how to bless the soup too. I'll raise your raise.
ED
Out.
C.J.
Just the two of us.
TOBY
Faith in what?
C.J.
In us.
TOBY
The people in this room?
C.J.
And many, many, many others.

One criticism levelled at the show is that President Bartlet and his staff are too naïve and optimistic, and would never make it to the top in the real world. Well, that’s as may be, but naivety and optimism make for some inspiring speeches and some great drama so I’ve got no problem with that.

The show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, left after the fourth season and his absence was certainly felt. The quality of the writing dipped and the popularity of the show waned.

BARTLET
This isn’t working any more.

The show remained a class act though and came to a graceful, natural end after seven seasons. The last season saw President Bartlet preparing to leave office and a young Democratic candidate from an ethnic minority battling it out with an older Republican Senator to be the next president. Sound familiar?

C.J.
Ooh.
JOSH
Wow!
TOBY
Do you call the raise sir?
BARTLET
There are three words, and three words only in the English language that begin with the letters DW.
JOSH
This is a pretty good illustration of why we get nothing done.
BARTLET
Can anyone name them for me please?
SAM
Three words that begin with DW?
BARTLET
Yes.
SAM
Dwindle.
BARTLET
Yes.
TOBY
Dwarf.
BARTLET
Yes.
TOBY
C’mon Princeton. We’ve got dwindle, we’ve got dwarf.
BARTLET
I see you five and raise you five by the way.
TOBY
Dwarf... dwindle.
LEO
Fold.
JOSH
Fold.
C.J.
Last card down.

So what’s in The West Wing for Browncoats? At first glance, The West Wing and Firefly couldn’t be more different. Joss Whedon spoke of his choice not to set his show in a world of bumpy foreheads and ambassadors. Well, there are no bumpy foreheads on The West Wing either, but there are certainly ambassadors, and senators and congressmen, kings and presidents. The occupants of The West Wing are not just trying to keep flying and keep out of the reach of the Alliance. If anything they are the Alliance, trying to make people better, but generally not by sinister means.

There are similarities between The West Wing and Firefly though. As Browncoats I think we know how to appreciate engaging story lines, strong characters and excellent dialogue. The West Wing has all of these in spades. Both shows get even better after repeated viewing, when it is possible to pick up on missed dialogue and spot background details or meaningful glances between characters not caught the first time around.

Perhaps the strongest similarity between the shows – and certainly my favourite one – is the sense of created family. President Josiah Bartlet and Captain Mal Reynolds might be polar opposites in many ways, but they have both drawn to them a collection of disparate people and created a family. As much as I would like to sit down around the dinner table on Serenity with Mal and his crew, I would also like sit down around the card table in The West Wing with the President and his staff:

BARTLET
And you think I'm that man.
LEO
Yes.
BARTLET
Does it matter that I'm not as sure?
LEO
Nah. Act as if ye have faith and faith shall be given to you. Put it another way, fake it till you make it. You did good tonight.
BARTLET
Yeah.
TOBY
Dwarf... dwindle.
BARTLET
“Witches brew a magic spell, in an enchanted forest where fairies...”
TOBY
Dwell! Dwell, dwell! Dwindle, dwarf and dwell!
BARTLET
Well, the answer’s correct but let’s check with our judges and -- oh no, I’m sorry, time’s expired.
TOBY
What? What time?
BARTLET
My time.
JOSH
You have your own time?
TOBY
I call.

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