For the week that's in it, find relief in the epitome of American democracy
Why binge The West Wing?
Does it really need to be said? In a week when the kind of people who were so utterly charmed by The West Wing when it first debuted in 1999 awoke to find the world of 2016 led by a new POTUS that’s a bit more... D’ohTUS, perhaps there could be no greater succour to the electoral woes than to relive the glory days.
When Aaron Sorkin first conceived The West Wing, referring to the executive side of the White House, the US President wasn’t supposed to be the main character. The plan, instead, was to focus on the everything that goes on in and around the leader of the free world, the bodies in orbit around the Oval Office. Instead, with Martin Sheen on board to play the greatest Democratic ever conceived in a writers’ room, early on in pre-production The West Wing was rebooted to give the world a Noble Prize-winning economist who could rattle off a shady burn in Latin and who was fierce handy to have around on a table quiz team.
And who was with him and her and everyone in between, embracing all races, religions, creeds and identities. Who made mistakes, but who made a difference, showing the adoring TV audience that sometimes the best person for the job is the right person for the job. A decade after its seven seasons wrapped up, a lot of the lustre of The West Wing has faded, with parts of its sheening depiction of a Democratic presidency looking a little worse for wear. Yes, there’s a self-important streak running through the show, an undeniable smugness to how perfect the world it imagines is. But days after everyone, bar the basket of deplorables, called it wrong, the optimism and idealism are just what you need to make America great again.
How long will it take to watch?
The seven seasons come in at a total of 156 episodes, it’s going to take you four full days, and another 19 and a half hours to binge the whole thing. A realistic binge should take you from now until inauguration day on Friday, January 20th 2017. By which you’ll want to start over again and play on repeat until 2021.
Or maybe Netflix will do a Gilmore Girls on it? What’s Zoey Barlett up to these days?
Where can you binge it?
Anyone with access to Sky On Demand has access to all episodes, which are also broadcast sporadically on Sky Atlantic during the day at different points of the year – with renewed interest in American democracy, it’s likely to resurface soon.
Buying the boxset should set you back around the €60 mark for a new set, though buying the individual seasons second hand would likely be far cheaper. Otherwise, it was a popular boxset back at a time when people were buying them, so borrowing from family or friends is a distinct possibility. And failing that, borrow from your local library which will be more than happy to order it in for you and impose a time-limit on your binging.
Any hurdles to overcome?
Beyond the crippling anticlimax of this fictional show being peak democracy, there’re the second-hand Sorkinisms to deal with. What once were fresh and bespoke have now become rote, and anyone who persevered with The Newsroom will know that his best intentions often spiral wildly out of hand.
Furthermore, in 2016, there’s no getting around the ever-so-slightly problematic way in which Sorkin populated the show with female ingénues who stand in as audience surrogates who are treated to lots of expository CSPE lessons by the well-meaning and one-liner zinging men.
But cut Sorkin some slack, he was off his face on cocaine for most of the first four seasons, his drug habit seeing him depart the show for its patchier second half. Steer the course, it dips and rallies big time in the final season.
Who steals the show?
Impossible to say. The West Wing is a show populated by character actors playing characters, each bringing something slightly different to proceedings. To single out one player in a show that bends over backwards to stress the importance of teamwork seems a bit foolhardy, especially at a time when the world should be trying to come together. But... then again... only one of them gets to do The Jackal.
A scene to sample:
Arguably the most famous scene that lets Bartlett be Bartlett comes from the third episode of the second season, The Midterms. Faced with right-wing radio talk show host, the President attacks her conservative biblical beliefs in a masterfully delivered smackdown of the role of the media and the individuals in it in promulgating the good book’s less virtuous virtues:
What to follow it up with:
No one in their right mind would recommend either of Sorkin’s TV follow-ups, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or the aforementioned The Newsroom. But fans of the best of his (admittedly drug-fuelled) days in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave might well enjoy Sports Night, his precursor to The West Wing.
But if you come out of The West Wing’s binge having had your fill of its more sanctimonious qualities, perhaps the best palate cleanser is HBO’s Veep, another White House set show that viciously and hilariously sends up Washington with acidic bite.