[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
I always find myself hard-pressed when someone asks me what my favorite television show is. Certainly there are plenty of contenders for the title, and my pick may alternate depending on my mood. But ultimately, it almost always comes down to a competition between three shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks, and The West Wing.
Freaks is the most easily in contention among the trio, as its short running time only magnifies the near-perfection of its single season. But in a way, it’s too good of a series, one so worthy of critical appreciation that it almost seems ludicrous to shower it with mere favoritism. Buffy was my first true TV love, and for a long time, it was the measuring stick I used to judge other shows. But the older I get, the more I find myself returning to The West Wing, a series that – while admittedly flawed, and more so than those other two – remains perhaps the most meticulous representation of great drama ever fitted for the small screen.
And no season in The West Wing‘s seven-year run so perfectly captures the show’s excellence quite like Season Two. It’s perhaps my favorite season of television of all time, so filled with insight, intelligence, and fun that repeat viewings only more deeply enhance my love for it, as well as for the series at large. It’s an excellent season of TV, and you won’t find too many fans arguing against that point – The West Wing‘s second season is easily its most popular.
That’s not meant as a knock against the other six seasons, mind you. (Not most of them, anyhow.) But none of them are quite as flawless as this one. Season One suffers from a relative lack of tension, as well as the misguided inclusion of one character who didn’t fit the mold of the series at all. Season Three is excellent in its own right, but was unfortunately marred in its attempt to incorporate real-world sensibilities into its storylines. Season Four is highly uneven and misses too many opportunities to be considered the show’s best. Season Five… well, the less said, the better. Season Six suffers from a very weak first half, even if it rebounds strongly in the second. And even Season Seven, though it often hits the heights of the show’s early years, doesn’t quite maintain the internal consistency that the series did on its best days.
So it’s Season Two that remains the series powerhouse. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s dive in and see just what makes these 22 episodes into such an outstanding year of television.
- A few dramatic events undermined by preachiness and/or abruptness.
- Certain characters disappearing without explanation.
It’s honestly remarkable how not-flawed this season is – even the issues I could find could also be easily attributed to most (if not all) of the show’s other seasons. When Season Two does feature a weak moment or even a weak episode, it’s usually by way of an overly ham-handed characterization Sorkin is establishing to get across a Republican message – the hiring of Ainsley Hayes in “In This White House” [2×04], the sliminess of Ann Stark in “The Leadership Breakfast” [2×11] – or else it’s a miscalculated dramatic leap, like with the titular character in “Ellie” [2×15]. And thankfully, moments like these are few and far between, especially in comparison to some other seasons.
The one problem that becomes readily apparent in this season (and will continue to an extent in Seasons Three and Four) is the show’s habit of suddenly dropping characters without cause or explanation. The first example is the between-seasons disappearance of What’s-her-name. Sorkin has stated that he felt the character didn’t work well (he was right), but the in-universe lack of mention of her character’s fate is fairly bizarre. Later, characters like Zoey, Mallory, and Danny – all so prominent in the first season – inexplicably fade away by Season Two’s halfway point (though they’ll all eventually return in Season Four). And at some point between “And It’s Surely to Their Credit” [2×05] and “Bad Moon Rising” [2×19], the White House swapped legal counselors (Tribbey for Babish) without any point made of it in the interim.
Naturally, the White House is a busy and bustling place, and the show can’t be expected to keep up with every minor character. But eventual revelations like Zoey and Charlie’s breakup don’t jell properly with the series’ strong character introspection, because we hear about rather than see them – years after the fact. (Keeping track of minor characters would be one thing that Team Wells would handle better than Sorkin, albeit still with a few wrinkles.)
That about sums up the season’s scant few glaring issues. Before you start mistaking this review for a season beatdown, let’s move on to the positives…
- Strong character work.
- Remarkable consistency.
- Well-built momentum.
- Several fantastic episodes.
While the first season established the cast of characters as likable, diverse, and interesting, Season Two explored them with even more depth and insight. The two-part premiere revealed how they all first came together, emphasizing the close-knit nature of the people who helped Jed Bartlet into the White House. The rest of the season gives them plenty of ground to develop, as I’ll explain in the character sections below.
The structure of the season is nothing short of excellent, from the slow groundwork laid by the immediate post-premiere episodes to the consistently measured drama of the midseason stretch to the ever-mounting brilliance of the final six episodes. And individual episodic gems are glittered throughout the middle of the season, none more notable than the psychological thriller “Noel” [2×10].
Season Two builds on the quality of Season One, and also builds on the themes. The season explores the use of power in an idealized form, and the conflicts that arise even when all hopes are nailed to the wall. Any season that ends by having a diseased President choosing to run for reelection has well and truly proven that it is indeed possible to boldly go where no political series has gone before.
Season Two also isn’t a step down from Season One in any department – it’s packed with great drama, hilarious dialogue, and continually great performances that continue to breathe life into the characters. And if that’s not a cue to transition to the characters themselves, I don’t know what is…
It starts and ends with Bartlet. For all the optimism he projected at the end of last season, he’s had nothing short of a tumultuous year, from getting shot to losing one of his closest friends. But those conflicts – along with the other, smaller conflicts littered throughout the season – only strengthen his resolve, his determination, and his dedication to getting things done. As I alluded to in my “Two Cathedrals” [2×22] review, the tragedy Bartlet goes through is something of a rite of passage, giving him greater motivation to do his job. The words “What’s next?” have become far more than a simple catchphrase.
Leo doesn’t go through quite the same measures of development that Bartlet does this season, but that actually works in his favor. Although Season One gave him plenty of his own development in the form of the alcoholism arc, Season Two wisely turns the focus away from individual Leo stories and concentrates more on the relationship between him and Bartlet. As Chief of Staff, Leo is already instrumental to the administration, so putting more focus on his measures to assist Bartlet’s progression – particularly his forming of “the committee to reelect the President” – is more investing for both his character and the overall story.
Toby also has less in the way of personal stories this season, and more time is spent on his increased involvement in progressing Bartlet’s plans. Of all the staffers, he takes the President’s policy the most seriously, and fights determinedly against any opposition to the White House’s plans. His character reaches an emotional climax in “17 People” [2×18], where his discovery of Bartlet’s MS leaves Toby feeling angry and betrayed, not to mention stupid. His ego will be dealt with, in a few different ways, in future seasons – for now, his primary means of management come in the form of that pink rubber ball.
Sam remains at Toby’s side for much of the season, loyal almost to a fault. With the Laurie plotline of Season One now thankfully dispensed with, the show has more room to focus on Sam’s role within the administration, and it discovers that he’s essentially a Bartlet-in-training. He remains the most idealistic of the core staff, a fact that will become even more apparent in Seasons Three and Four.
CJ is another character who will grow in future seasons – by leaps and bounds, in fact. She really steps up in Season Two, having now earned a more rightful place in the heart of the Bartlet administration. Her relationship with Danny is inexplicably dropped (for the time being) early in the season, but that doesn’t prove to necessarily be a bad thing. It allows her to grow more as a White House staffer, even if she still gets stuck with some of the less-desired jobs, like choosing between a pair of Thanksgiving turkeys. She’ll only continue to gain importance – as both a staffer and a character – as the show progresses, further cementing herself as the series’ most fully realized character.
Josh, on the other hand, remains and will continue to remain fairly stagnant. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As the season proves with the beautiful “Noel” [2×10], The West Wing can craft great drama even without upsetting the overall status quo of its characters. Josh may have been shot, but he recovered with no lingering aftereffects, apart from a few scars.
Donna, in fact, advances more in this season than Josh will over the whole series. No longer just a simple foil for Josh’s massive ego, she interacts more frequently with the other staffers, earns tougher assignments, and even gains a few of her own story threads. Although it’s not made explicitly clear why Donna is receiving this increased level of focus while Bonnie, Carol, and Ginger remain background players, her development is slow and smooth, and will only increase as time goes on.
Abbey is another character who has grown significantly in importance from last season, where she made only three appearances and was established as an adversary to her husband’s politics. Although the two of them still have their issues this season, Abbey is portrayed in a more sympathetic light, and shows potential to develop on her own terms. She will develop further next season, when her character is upped to regular status.
As with last season, a hearty deal of gratitude must go out to the show’s cast, who continue to make these characters livelier than we could ever hope. (Special mention to Whitford and Janney, who snagged Emmys for their work this season.) The West Wing features one of the best casts ever assembled before a camera, and this season does nothing but prove that, time and time again.
Looking back on the whole season, it’s little wonder that so many fans regard The West Wing‘s second season as its best. No, it’s not perfect – so little in this world is – but it’s as exemplary a season of television as any I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen more than a few.) Excellent drama, well-developed characters, a terrific sense of humor – this season, more than any other, is testimony to why The West Wing is one of the finest dramas ever crafted.
As you may expect, Season Three has a lofty reputation to live up to, and it remains hotly debated if it is indeed able to stand at or near the same level as its predecessor. Personally, I happen to like it quite a bit. Why? Well, that would be telling… and I’ll be doing a lot of telling when we get to the Season Three reviews. See you then.