THE WEST WING Sunday 26 February, 2012

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Politics is boring, right? Wrong!

I’ve avoided The West Wing for many years. I’m generally suspicious of things that are widely popular and The West Wing seemed like it sat firmly in that camp. I was also hugely unsure of what could be interesting about watching a lot of smug Americans doing the filing in a smug way.

At the beginning of this year I found myself with a DVD shelf devoid of anything I wanted to watch. I wondered what I would do. Then I saw a tweet about The West Wing from a friend. It seems that he had started watching it for the first time. I asked him if it was worth it and he assured me it was right up my street. I was sceptical. Then I saw that could buy the first series from CEX for a fiver. It seemed like an acceptable risk so I bought it.

What followed was three weeks of intense, breathless viewing in which I watched all seven series of The West Wing. It’s really that good.

The West Wing centres around characters on the political and communications staff of The Whitehouse. According to Wikipedia The President was originally not intended to feature too heavily but that was quickly dismissed by the producers of the show. That’s probably in no small part down to that hugely engaging performance of Martin Sheen who is fantastic as President Jed Bartlet. It’s testament to the rest of the cast that Sheen doesn’t steal the show completely. The whole cast are excellent and they are given fantastic material to chew on.

The seven series chart Jed Bartlet’s two terms as president. The format of the show seems to change over the entire run. To begin with each episode dealt with a smaller narrative whilst over-arching narrative arcs threaded through but by the end of the run it felt much more like the smaller arcs make way for the larger narrative. I prefer that kind of show so I was pleasantly surprised by the evolution of the format. There are also some experimental episodes, some successful, some not so. The experimental episode in series seven is fantastic though.

If you’re not American (which I am not) you may find the sentimental nationalism a bit too much but you should persevere (as did I) and put that down to a cultural difference. It’s also very slick. A bit too slick at times. These two gripes are small price to pay for such interesting fare though.  Aaron Sorkin wrote most of the first 80-odd episodes and his authorial voice is so strong that occasionally the characters become a bit blurred when they all deliver quips that sounds like the same voice.  This problem disappears as the series moves on and the characters really start to mature.

It’s also nice to think that The Thick of It and Yes Minister/Priminister are our closest equivalents to The West Wing. It is probably this comparison that best illustrates the cultural differences between our two countries. Where The West Wing elevates it’s characters and praises their ethics, morality, intelligence and integrity our two offerings do everything possible to puncture those same balloons. Let’s see how America reacts to it’s very own The Thick of It when Armando Ianucci’s VEEP (which means Vice President) starts airing on HBO.

I wonder how interesting the show is for people who have little interest in politics. I found it a fascinating insight into the workings of the US political system. However there is a definite liberal bent to the show which I suspect is not reflective of the actual political landscape. As a procedural show it’s an excellent insider’s view though. You will often find yourself wondering if the characters and events are based on reality.

For those not interested in the political side of things there is plenty of humour, real emotion, genuine surprises, tension and many boy-girl stories, including a brilliant ‘will they-won’t they?’.

As far as TV series go this is at the top and I felt a pang of sadness as I watched the final episode. If, like me, you think that most TV is shit then do yourself a favour and go and buy The West Wing series 1 and turn your phone off.

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