[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
Since the turn of the millennium, several changes have come over the television landscape – changes which become more and more apparent with each passing year. Many critics have in fact taken to dubbing this era as a new “Golden Age” of television, citing deeper characterizations, more intricate storytelling, and more challenging themes as signs that TV has risen to a new level of artistic greatness.
But as time goes by, these qualities have become more attributed to shows airing on cable networks, while broadcast network shows are generally regarded as little more than backup feed. Cable’s more lenient formatting and shorter seasonal orders have allowed the medium’s writers to branch out into directions which they could not have easily gone before.
As such, broadcast series have become lost in the titanic shadows of their cable counterparts. Even when a network series does attain a level of true excellence (Friday Night Lights and The Good Wife, to cite a pair of good examples), said series is labeled with the rather condescending title of “The Best Show… On Network Television”. Ouch.
The West Wing is not immune to the struggles network television has faced in the last decade and a half – and it even went through more than its share of difficulties during its original run. It premiered in September 1999, eight months after The Sopranos blew the cable floodgates wide open. During its lifetime, the show was disparaged by the far right, struggled to remain idealized through a real-life White House change and one of the darkest periods in American history, was criticized by feminists, was victim to a showrunner change which subsequently led some disapproving former fans to mount a “Don’t Save Our Show” campaign, and aired a final season to dismal Nielsen ratings. Couple all this with the pains network TV has faced in recent years, and it’s clear that The West Wing, for all its bravado and Emmy Awards, is far from universally beloved.
And that’s a pretty darn shame. Sure, The West Wing isn’t perfect. But in the seven seasons it was on the air, it produced a great deal of complex, character-driven, thematically resonant, and emotionally effective television. Very few shows that I know of have been able to balance and blend their various components as well as this one has.
This whole introduction might prove a little hypocritical, since the first season of The West Wing is (along with Season Two) one of the only seasons is regarded by as excellent by the general fandom… and I myself find it a little overrated. Nevertheless, as we advance even further into the core of the series, I believe it important to reflect on the long-term aspects of it, and how the quality of the first season fits into the general fabric of the show.
So let’s take a last look at the inaugural season of The West Wing, and see how, despite its flaws, it still stands as a remarkable season of television – network or otherwise.
- Occasional lack of major dramatic impact.
- A couple of overly drawn-out story threads.
- Constant portrayal of Republican characters as one-note and stupid.
The wide praise surrounding the first season of The West Wing has always struck me as a bit disconcerting. It’s a strong season of television, sure – and the praise relative to its quality is no more overdone than that heaped upon the less-beloved but still overrated Season Four. The problem with the reception to the first season is that I’ve seen a sizable number of people ignore its flaws altogether. The issues present in Season One are minor compared to those in, say, Season Five, but by no means does that dictate that we should ignore them entirely.
The most overarching issue with the first season is, unfortunately, one built right into its very thematic structure. That some episodes fail to carry strong dramatic weight comes with the territory, I suppose – given that the administration spends the better part of the season trying to find its voice, their actions come off as softer than those we’d expect to see from a bolder government. Episodes like “The State Dinner” [1×07] and “The White House Pro-Am” [1×17] are solidly constructed, but lacking in major impact, preferring instead to quietly amble the characters through their respective storylines. Fortunately, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19] serves as an improvement to the West Wing (both the material one and the series itself), setting things up for greater dramatic stakes – and payoffs – in Season Two.
Another problematic aspect in Season One comes in the form of occasional meandering storylines, which are milked by the writers long after they’ve outstayed their onscreen welcome. The most obvious of these is the Sam/Laurie relationship, which begins as an interesting and humorous example of how perilous a job at the White House can be… and then quickly loses steam as the writers turn Laurie into a recurring and redundant joke. By the time we reach “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics” [1×21], Laurie has long since ceased to be a worthwhile supporting character and has merely become a plot device used to generate conflict. Thankfully, she’s gone after this season, and will only be brought up once more (to admittedly humorous effect) in the future.
But Laurie is not the most underdeveloped supporting character of the season. Most, if not all, of the Republican characters in early West Wing are portrayed as one-dimensional, conniving, and unintelligent. The religious activists in the “Pilot” [1×01]. The accusatory Congressman in “The Short List” [1×09]. The Senator and his staff who oppose the Bartlet administration in “Mandatory Minimums” [1×20]. I understand that Sorkin is acutely liberal, but the flatness with which his show initially portrays conservative characters actually undercuts the drama of several storylines, presenting paper-thin “villains” who can be easily blown over.
And speaking of paper-thin characters, the last issue which afflicts much of the first season is Mandy. Introduced with the intent of being a major member of Bartlet’s staff, Mandy quickly falls behind the other characters, becoming something of an anomaly. Whereas the rest of the major characters jell with each other almost instantly, and grow and develop beyond their initial perceptions, Mandy never fits in with the group, and never grows beyond her one-note introduction, ultimately ending up as pointless and, more often than not, annoying. After this season, her character goes the way of Chuck Cunningham, Judy Winslow, and Spearchucker Jones, but her abrupt disappearance only emphasizes how poorly she worked in the frame of the show – rather than give her a proper exit, Sorkin preferred to deny her existence altogether.
Despite his reservations about the character, though, it would be a critical fallacy not to acknowledge that she did exist in the first season – just as it would be equally wrong to disavow knowledge of these other flaws, despite the fact that they’re all righted in Season Two.
Fortunately, despite the flaws in Season One, I’m proud to state that its pros far outweigh the cons. To illustrate…
- Likable, well-developed major characters.
- Several emotional highs.
- Consistent overarching theme.
- Solidly written plots.
- Quick, energetic pacing.
- Sharp and funny dialogue.
Season One of The West Wing won a total of nine Emmy Awards – the all-time record for a single season of television. While I often disagree with many of the Emmy’s choices, I’ll concede that this fact means the season must have done something right.
And indeed, the season does many things right. Take the characters, for one. From the “Pilot” [1×01], we get the sense that these characters are complex, flawed, and lovable, all at the same time. As the season progresses, they are gradually fleshed out and developed, retaining their surface idealism while gathering many layers along the way. Their differing character traits and approaches make them especially interesting to watch. Whether it’s Toby’s uncompromising demeanor, Josh’s unabashed arrogance, or Leo’s grounded pragmatism, these characters feel real, despite the fact that they and their government are idealized versions of the real thing. We laugh with them, and – when the script calls for it – we cry with them. (I’m looking at you, “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10].) The characters – not the plots or themes – are ultimately the focus of the series, and they’re simply a joy to watch.
That’s not to say the plots and themes are lacking. On the contrary, the show skillfully blends single-episode plots with more overarching storylines, all of which give the series an entertaining jolt while never usurping the characters in importance. Although Season One is not the most arc-heavy of this show’s years, the plots are quick and rarely boring, and it’s easy to get caught up in several episodes in one sitting.
The themes of the season are also strongly and consistently developed. As I mentioned in my “Pilot” [1×01], Season One of The West Wing features the first of the show’s seven major themes about power – how to come to grips with it. Throughout the season, we see the characters attempt to settle comfortably in their new roles, striving to project their own views onto the country while still maintaining an air of competence and likability. It isn’t easy, but by the time the season is over, the characters have progressed radically, and face the nation with a greater air of confidence then when they first entered the White House halls.
These are the aspects which form the backbone of the series. Other aspects serve to enhance the viewer’s experience – namely, to make the show fun. The pacing is swift, and suitably so – things are always busy around the White House, and the show wastes no time in making sure we know it. The dialogue breathes additional life into the series. Aaron Sorkin is right up there with Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino as one of the most talented wordsmiths on television, and the dialogue he bestows his characters with is clever and often very funny. (Scroll back through the last 22 “Quotes” sections if you doubt me.) The dialogue is almost too good, in fact – it retains such an overreaching rhythm that it may take some time for viewers to get used to Sorkin’s cadences. Early episodes even retain a level of cheekiness in their words, featuring dialogue that actually distracts from the situations they’re describing. Fortunately, the stories and dialogue quickly find a perfect mesh, giving us the golden wordplay the series has become famous for.
These aspects make the first season, and by extension, the series, a wholly enjoyable experience. The West Wing’s freshman year has plenty to recommend it, including depth, emotion, and hilarity. Best of all, it has plenty of great characters, whom we’ll now examine one by one.
One of the most notable changes that recent cable dramas have brought us is the more prominent usage of antiheroes. Characters like Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White would have at one point been cast as villains, but their respective series humanize them in the way of compelling drama, and even makes us root for them to succeed.
Gazing at the television landscape with modern-day eyes, it may seem odd to think that a purely good, admirable person could make a deep and fascinating protagonist. Yet that is exactly the case with President Josiah Bartlet.
Jed Bartlet was conceived as the ultimate Presidential fantasy, a man who is soft-spoken, intelligent, funny, strong-willed, and a capable leader. A good part of his character is derived from the even more idealized President Andrew Sheppard (of Sorkin’s The American President). But although, in his introduction in the “Pilot” [1×01], he may initially come off as more of a romanticized image that a real person, we soon discover that Bartlet is all-too-human.
The first sign the series shows that Bartlet is not, in fact, a perfect representation of authority comes at the end of “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc” [1×02]. Following the death of his physician in a terrorist attack, Bartlet is hit hard with pain and anger, and wants to retaliate full force. The line between the political and the personal becomes blurred as Bartlet sees fit to use his power as an extensive means of personal revenge. Leo talks him out of it, but the experience paints Bartlet as a man clouded in his judgment by the personal connections he makes with those close to him. What would normally seem to be an admirable trait in a US President becomes a troubling weakness under intense circumstances.
This aspect demonstrates that, for all the benefits that can come from an outgoing and charismatic President, there are also several built-in weaknesses. Bartlet celebrates his victories – and indeed, he and his staff experience many victories – but he is not superhuman. Not every life can be saved, and not every battle can be won. When you’re the leader of a country that’s home to 300 million souls, it takes a stern and labored conscience to maintain a clear head when tragedy strikes. And at the start of the series, Bartlet is simply too good-willed to be that strong. When a Navy ship is caught in a tropical storm in “The State Dinner” [1×07], he takes the time to communicate with the vessel’s radio operator, attempting to reassure one of those he was unable to protect.
It will take several seasons for Jed Bartlet to distinguish Bartlet the man from Bartlet the President. One sign that he acknowledges the difference comes in “Take This Sabbath Day” [1×14], when he explains to Father Cavanaugh why he insists on always being addressed as “Mr. President”: “There are certain decisions I have to make while I’m in this room… It’s helpful in these situations not to think of yourself as the man, but as the office.” The conflicting desires of man and office will supply Bartlet’s arc with some of its most compelling material throughout the series.
One thing that becomes more and more apparent about Bartlet over the course of the series is that – with the possible exception of the last two seasons – his arc in each season is reflective of that season’s overall theme. In Season One, we find Bartlet coming to terms with his newfound power, as he slowly but surely learns how to harness his political strengths while dispelling their adjoining weaknesses. The early episodes of the season downplay Bartlet’s issue with governance, and his fear of taking any potentially controversial steps. “The Short List” [1×09] makes the first mention of it, in the form of Justice Crouch, a man who’s just smart enough to recognize Bartlet’s leadership flaw, and just cynical enough to point it out.
But the first real sign that Bartlet’s administration is headed for bigger and better things occurs in “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12], the first episode to directly address said administration’s flaws. The revelation that Bartlet secretly suffers from multiple sclerosis is not inherently relevant to the episode (It will become far more important in Season Two), but by crippling the President physically, it provides a strong and solid metaphor for the point that he and his staff are crippled on a far grander scale.
With that episode, Bartlet has assessed the problem, but he is not yet certain how to go about solving it. “20 Hours in LA” [1×16] finds him struggling to go with the Presidential flow, even coming off as a bit spiteful during a Los Angeles convention he sees no real purpose in. Bartlet needs to latch onto a new direction – and fast.
Fortunately, that direction takes hold in “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19], the episode that firmly roots the Bartlet administration in the stance that will drive them throughout Season Two. With encouragement – and a new slogan – from Leo, Bartlet sets his staff off to begin their task of changing the country, regardless of how that country responds. By adopting this bold new policy, Bartlet has the opportunity to leave his mark on history, fulfilling the idealistic message that underlines the series.
“What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22] shows that Bartlet’s new policy is already paying off. The crowd he speaks to at the Newseum loves him, as he is more open and honest with the public than ever. He’s had an eventful year, and as the season draws to a close, we get the sense that he and his administration are prepared for anything. Anything, apparently, except… gunfire! But I’ll pick up on that next season.
On the whole, Season One marks a strong debut for the character of Jed Bartlet, who proves that, while a protagonist may be portrayed as good-hearted and charismatic, he can still supply a series with plenty of depth. Season Two will only increase this depth, giving us even more to appreciate and enjoy about this anti-antihero.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in my episode reviews, Leo McGarry is the show’s most realistic character. He strives for the same idealistic goals as many of his peers, but is also cognizant to how difficult said goals are to achieve. The different outlooks between Leo and the other characters – and Bartlet in particular – makes him one of the show’s most important characters. Without Leo’s grounded perspective, Bartlet could dangerously be carried away by his own optimistic views. Leo is thus the necessary link between The West Wing’s idealized universe and our own pragmatic world.
(This is part of the reason why Leo is the most problematic character in the post-Sorkin years – John Wells’ more realistic White House offers less opportunity for the character to shine, often leaving him with little of importance to do.)
Leo’s relationship with Bartlet is perhaps the most fascinating relationship in the series. It first becomes apparent at the end of “A Proportional Response” [1×03], when Leo uses his stern mode of logic to cool the President’s angered temperament. And in “He Shall, From Time to Time…” [1×12], we gain an understanding of just how deep the friendship between the two of them is. The final scene of that episode, in which Leo overhears Bartlet outline the necessary traits of a good Chief of Staff, is one of the most moving moments in the season. The relationship between Bartlet and Leo will not receive full exploration until Season Three’s brilliant “Bartlet for America” [3×09], but the seeds for the revelations in that episode are planted very early on.
Standing on his own, Leo is still a wonderful character. “Five Votes Down” [1×04] sees him at one of his emotional highs, as we watch his formerly healthy marriage slowly crumble. Lacking the outward optimism of his colleagues, Leo hasn’t the limitless motivation to balance his personal life with his political one. In a particularly hard-hitting moment, we watch as he tells his wife that he must put the needs of the country before his own. Watching this scene, we regretfully note that there is more than one way that Leo can provide the show with a dose of realism.
Further into the season, Leo plays one of his most prominent roles in the series when his alcoholic past is brought to the surface. Though facing potentially grave consequences, Leo refuses to let any of his fellow staffers share the blame. Leo is a pure demonstration of the fact that, while a character may not be idealized in his beliefs, he can still be an admirable human being.
Leo’s most defining moment of the season comes at the end of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19], when, in an intriguing role-reversal, he becomes the one who tells Bartlet to cut himself loose. Though he would have once been the person most likely to rein Bartlet in, Leo has come to respect Bartlet’s authority more and more over the course of the season, and now sees that, even from his most realistic perspective, the most logical thing to do would be to put that leadership to good use. It’s a liberating moment, cementing the Bartlet/Leo relationship as the series’ very best.
Leo is not quite as complex as many of the other characters, perhaps a byproduct of his more rigid and realistic stature. But he is an integral part of the series nonetheless, providing an important counterpoint to the show’s idealistic messages, and balancing them out in order to effectively make them more potent.
Josh Lyman is among the show’s broadest characters, yet he’s also one of the most interesting. He’s brash, rude, and incredibly self-centered – yet even at his most detestable, you can’t help but love the guy. He’s the kind of character who, in lesser hands, would come off as a total jerk, but Aaron Sorkin and Bradley Whitford are skilled enough to ensure we fall in love with him right from the start.
And at the start, Josh does do some pretty jerky stuff. He causes a minor tumult in the “Pilot” [1×01], telling off a religious activist on live television. He causes a major tumult in “Celestial Navigation” [1×15], when some of his trademark sarcasm misleads the press into believing the President has a secret plan to fight inflation. And so much of his time elsewhere seems to be spent arguing with Mandy and sharing snarky banter with Donna.
And yet through it all, Josh is clearly dedicated to his job. He works hard – immensely hard – to get the job done, spending many sleepless nights hunched over his desk. Despite his fallacies, we come to admire Josh, to root for him despite his very notable flaws.
Josh’s staunch refusal to alter his political perspectives is also prevalent in his personal life, where he is just as self-righteous as he is on the job. He constantly patronizes Donna, and seems only to keep her around because he needs someone he believes he can feel superior to. In fact, none of Josh’s relationships with women seem to work out, as he’d prefer to hear the sound of his own voice than listen to theirs.
Well, except in the case of Joey Lucas. Joey is the one woman who can not only hold her own against Josh, but is able to combat his rapier wit with an equally sharp mind of her own. Perhaps due to the fact that the two can only communicate through a translator, Josh has great difficulty speaking directly to Joey. Put off by her street-smarts, Josh is at a loss when it comes to topping her – and thus, he ends up falling in love with her. The Josh/Joey romance never blossoms into anything serious, but it allows us a glimpse into a more humanly sympathetic side of Josh, opening the door for his more personal development next season.
Season Two will ultimately cement Josh’s position in the series, making him more relatable while still retaining his signature jackassery. But Season One does the job of introducing him to us, and it does that job extremely well.
Toby is perhaps the most complex character in the series, and may also be the most intriguing. This is due in part to the fact that – up until the final season – he’s very much kept at an emotional distance from the audience. The subtle writing, and Richard Schiff’s equally subtle performance, depict a character who is often difficult to grab hold of – yet constantly encourages us to do so.
Of all the characters Sorkin created for this show, Toby is perhaps the Sorkiniest. He is a dry intellectual, emotionally distant from his peers, uncompromising in his political beliefs, and as handy with a sarcastic quip as John Wayne was with a six-shooter. He knows the ins and outs of the political schema, and Bartlet will often turn to him for advice when things look bleak. In the first season, we get a pretty good sense of who Toby is, and how his relationship with Bartlet is amicable, without being too personal.
In “The Crackpots and These Women” [1×05], however, we get a quick glimpse of how this relationship may not always work out. Toby prides himself on supplying information to the President, but this pride can at times get him carried away. Bartlet himself has made a name as an intellectual, and at times, Toby’s prudent insights can go a little too far. Not much is made out of this incident, but it helps round out the Bartlet/Toby relationship for the remainder of the series.
Doubtlessly Toby’s best moment in the season comes in “In Excelsis Deo” [1×10], when he tirelessly pushes to honor a dead war hero with a proper funeral. It’s a moving story, and not merely because of its content. By showing the typically morose Toby in an empathetic light, the episode gives us a clear picture of who Toby is at his most human – a man who will do just about anything to see justice done.
Near the end of the season, we are given signs of Toby’s family life, and what we see only further deepens his character. We learn that he and his wife, Congresswoman Andrea Wyatt, divorced shortly after Bartlet was elected, driven apart by diverging opinions. Yet despite this, Toby still harbors feelings for her, though he does his best to hide them. His relationship with his younger brother, however, is strained at best. Bartlet’s advice to Toby to reconcile with his brother seemingly heralds a change to their distant connection – but following the shocking events at the end of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22] and their aftermath, it’s likely the prospect slipped from Toby’s mind.
Toby is a tragic yet compelling figure, one who elicits emotion despite rarely showing very much himself. In fact, taking into account his personality, his arc, and Richard Schiff’s performance, he may even be my favorite character in the series. If you put a gun to my head (please don’t), I might still say it was the endlessly lovable Josh. But it would be a pretty close call.
Claudia Jean Cregg is the only major female character at the start of the series. (Donna is a recurring character for the first season, and I’m doing my best to forget she-who-must-not-be-named.) She is, quite literally, living in a man’s world. And while her femininity is a key factor in her development over this season and the series at large, she succeeds at being a great character, gender notwithstanding.
CJ’s debut scene in the “Pilot” [1×01] pretty much sums up her character at the start of the series, and prepares us for how she’ll be branching off from it. She wants to have a normal life, explaining how her early morning exercise routine is all part of an ordinary daily routine. “I can think about personal matters. I can meet an interesting man,” she explains to a male exerciser. Unfortunately, she suffers a sudden and dehumanizing (though not unfunny) pratfall a few moments later. Even CJ’s personal plans can’t gain a proper footing.
As the Press Secretary, CJ is the link between the private White House and the public surrounding it. She thus finds it difficult to think of herself as being “in the loop” with the rest of the Bartlet administration. Early episodes see her more attached with the members of the Press Corps, effortlessly bantering with them as she delivers her daily briefings. Inside the Press Room, CJ is in complete control, doing her job with a verve and polish that no one else can bring. (“Celestial Navigation” [1×15] has shown us that Josh would make a lousy Press Secretary, and Toby and Will never looked very comfortable up there, either.) But when in the Oval Office, CJ recedes into the background, overshadowed by the likes of Josh, Toby, and Sam.
However, CJ exhibits some of the most visible character growth in the first season as, by and by, she grows more capable in and around the White House. When the other staffers knowingly withhold classified information from her in “Lord John Marbury” [1×11], fearful that she’ll let it slip to her friends in the press, CJ is visibly hurt. She slowly begins to lose the extra-close bond she has with the reporters, retaining her trademark Press Room banter while delivering the news in a more impartial tone.
One notably influential factor on CJ’s changing attitude toward the press is Danny Concannon, who spends a good part of the season flirting with CJ before she finally agrees to start dating him. By and large, though, Danny’s continued nosiness begins to grate on CJ, who feels that her closeness to the press – and him in particular – threatens to put many White House secrets in danger. Their relationship fluctuates after that, though by season’s end, she’s still going out of her way to give him advance tips.
One trait of CJ’s that is played rather subtly at this early stage is her unbridled optimism. More so than her fellow staffers, CJ is always prone to look on the brighter side and hope for the best. In “Mandatory Minimums” [1×20], she is the one character to believe that Bartlet’s approval ratings will experience a major uptick. She turns out to be right, theoretically rubbing some of that optimism off on her fellow staffers. CJ’s optimism will become a major component of her character arc during Seasons Four and Five, and will indirectly influence her promotion in Season Six.
I once heard someone say that if Aaron Sorkin wrote more female characters like CJ Cregg, people would stop branding him a sexist. I will take this a step further by saying that if Sorkin wrote more characters like CJ Cregg overall, television would be an even more awesome place than it already is.
It’s very difficult to place a finger on Sam Seaborn. He was originally envisioned as the lead character of the series (during early development, when the show was meant to focus exclusively on the members of the staff, and the President was only intended to make occasional guest appearances). But once Martin Sheen was cast, the spotlight shifted to the President, and Sam was left a little high and dry.
Now, Sam is by no means a bad character. He has fine-tuned sense of idealism, the kind purveyed by Bartlet, who has clearly influenced his stoic demeanor. The problem is that when placed up against Josh’s unabashed arrogance, Toby’s uncompromising wryness, or CJ’s struggle for identity, Sam comes across as a little… vanilla. This issue is probably a byproduct of the series’ focus shift, but it’s an issue nonetheless.
At times, Sam is to The West Wing what Jeremy was to Sports Night – a mouthpiece for Sorkin to express his worldviews and talk down on groups and attitudes he dislikes. I suppose a case could be made that many of the characters on this series have functioned in this manner at some point, but when Sam does it, the effect is more blatant, since his character lacks the extra depth awarded to his peers.
The relative lack of development to Sam’s character is perhaps best exemplified this season through his relationship with Laurie. As I mentioned in the Cons section, the Sam/Laurie storyline begins as an interesting example of how difficult it is to maintain a life in as public a forum in the White House, but soon devolves into a backup series of plots designed with little more intent than to give Sam something to do. (To be fair, Ainsley Hayes serves this purpose for much of Seasons Two and Three as well, although her character is at least more grounded and interesting than Laurie’s.)
Sam is a likable character, but comparatively speaking, he’s far from the most interesting. Still, I shall take a page from the administration’s optimistic outlook and use the relative banality of his character as a testament to how great the characters surrounding him are. Yes, that makes me feel better.
As a rule, I don’t like when characters are created for a series simply for “politically correct” reasons. A cast of characters should form naturally and organically. I believe that they should be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character development. (Or something like that.)
Charlie Young was created for The West Wing after viewers at an advance screening complained about the all-white cast. And though it’s usually difficult to add a minority character to an established cast and successfully incorporate him or her into the series (Undeclared notably did a weak job of this when it introduced Tina), Sorkin does a fairly good job with Charlie. Perhaps it’s because he’s only introduced in the third episode, when we’re still getting to know the original characters. But more importantly, it’s because Charlie brings a very important viewpoint to the West Wing’s table.
Charlie doesn’t have much of a personality when we first meet him, but that’s the idea. He’s a plain, ordinary guy – essentially, just like us. And through his eyes, we get to experience the raw, initial thrill of shaking hands with the President, of standing by his side, of watching him and his staff run the country.
As time progresses, Charlie slowly becomes an integral part of the core ensemble. He begins dating the outgoing and impetuous Zoey, and their relationship is a charming undercurrent for much of the first season. This relationship is not completely comprised of hearts and flowers, however, as Charlie soon begins receiving some rather ugly letters. But he’s been influenced by some of his fellow staffers’ forthcoming approach to the issues they face, and sheds his mild-mannered persona, choosing to go out with Zoey, no matter what anyone says.
Charlie’s confident actions do not go unnoticed, as Leo points to him as an example of fearless strength when speaking to Bartlet at the end of “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” [1×19]. This little identifying moment is the first part of a two-step process that fully establishes Charlie as an integral part of the West Wing universe. The second part comes at the end of “What Kind of Day Has It Been” [1×22] and spills over into the Season Two premiere, when Charlie becomes indirectly responsible for one of the show’s most shocking incidents.
Watching Charlie grow from a quiet young man into the self-assured Presidential aide we come to know him as is one of the little highlights of this inaugural season. He’s a great character, and a worthy addition to the ensemble. Hooray for politically correct viewers!
Oh, Mandy. Well, you came and you took without giving. So they sent you away, oh, Mandy. Well, you pained, so they stopped your existing. We don’t need you today, oh, Mandy!
I’m deeply sorry for that.
Donna Moss goes through one of the most significant dramatic arcs in the whole series, but you wouldn’t know it from the first season. For the most part, her role is simply to act as a foil to Josh, undercutting his brazen attitude with an endless supply of wry and sarcastic quips. She seems to be one of the few people capable of working successfully with Josh, simply because she has the means of tolerating him. Although she appears in every episode this season, she never steps beyond this two-dimensional role.
That’s not to say her character isn’t entertaining, mind you. On the contrary, her conversations with Josh are often hilarious, and make for some of the most quotable exchanges of the season. (My favorite: Her protests about government taxation in “Mr. Willis of Ohio” [1×06].) She also serves as a good mechanism for exposition, subbing for the audience whenever we need to know something about politics that the characters already do. Donna, like Charlie, is very much an ordinary person who only becomes more incorporated into the series with time. Her character arc makes for a fascinating emotional journey, but it doesn’t officially kick off until the start of Season Two. What we get from her in Season One, though, is entertaining enough.
The most complex of all the show’s non-regular characters, John Hoynes never falls completely into the “good guy” or “bad guy” category, yet can switch from one perception to the other at the drop of a hat. He clearly resents Bartlet, yet he also harbors a great deal of respect for the President – whether or not he likes admitting it to himself. Hoynes was once a confident lock for the Democratic Presidential nomination before Bartlet stepped onto the scene, and although the offer to become his Vice President gives Hoynes a greater chance to run again himself, it’s a dehumanizing sting that damages Hoynes’ pride.
So Hoynes does not actively seek out ways to help the administration, content to let them sink or swim the waters themselves. On the occasions that he does assist them, as in “Five Votes Down” [1×04], it is only upon request, and even then, only to promote his own image. Hoynes may be on Bartlet’s side in the general sense, but at first, it appears that he is ultimately another obstacle for him and his administration to overcome.
However, as time goes on, we gain a greater sense of perspective about Hoynes, and we begin to understand why Bartlet chose him for the Vice Presidential position. Hoynes may be antagonistic, but with his reclusive methods comes a genuine political savvy that even Bartlet himself can learn from. In “20 Hours in LA” [1×16], Hoynes balks at the idea of acting as the “whip” on a bill Bartlet wants passed, not simply to tick the President off, but in order to preserve his own political image. Bartlet sees some of his own political ideals in Hoynes, and works to shed them when he takes a bolder, riskier stand at the ends of the season.
John Hoynes goes through his own minor arc over the course of the series, itself tinged with insight and tragedy. He’s every bit as integral to the series as the characters in the opening credits – even if it takes a while for us to realize it.
While not perfect, Season One of The West Wing is a remarkable season of television. In some ways, you can even consider its few flaws as a benefit when taken in context with the series as a whole. When a series has a truly excellent first season (say, Lost, Homicide, or Veronica Mars), it raises expectations for later seasons, which are rarely able to top the show’s initial offerings. The West Wing’s first season is just flawed enough to keep expectations from rising too high, yet still great enough to keep us enthralled.
And with its great characters, engaging storylines, and hilarious dialogue, Season One of The West Wing definitely keeps us enthralled. The series debuts confidently, with every indication that it will only continue to grow in quality. And indeed, it will grow, as Seasons Two and Three will show just what Sorkin and his writing staff are truly capable of. But it all starts with Season One, and it starts very, very well.