50+ Reasons Why We Still Love West Wing

How can you not love West Wing?  The writing was sophisticated, intelligent, and edgy.  The acting was superb. The main characters weren't stereotypes plucked from a sitcom shelf, but deeply realized and deeply human.   The episodes combined high drama, slapstick comedy, wit and sentiment.  Most of all, the show depicted a U.S. government staffed by intelligent, honorable, decent people trying to make the country a better place. 

Yes, the show had an unapologetically liberal bias.  Yes, it was preachy and idealistic.  And, yes, it was often wildly unrealistic in portraying the extent to which the White House leads and controls U.S. policy.  But you loved it anyway because it depicted not the country we are, but the country we like to think we are - strong, principled, democratic, righteous.  

The following attempts to list some of the reasons why people still wax passionate about a show that aired over a decade ago:
  1. Because Martin Sheen's President Bartlett is, without question, the smartest man in any room he walks into - by orders of magnitude.  (And just so no one would question that, Sorkin made him a Notre Dame graduate AND endowed him with a Noble Prize in Economics - any questions?)  If only for the span of an hour a week, wasn't it nice to believe that the citizens of the U.S. would be wise enough to elect the smartest guy in the country to represent us?  Here's Leo Magary on how parties should pick their nominees: "You pick the smartest, most capable, most honorable individual you can think of, and you have a conversation." Wouldn't it be nice to believe it really happened that way?
  2. That name, Jedidiah.  Seriously, could you pick a better name for a New England founding father with a passion for theology?  Naming his wife "Abagail" was just icing on the cake.
  3. Speaking of Bartlett, how grateful are we that lead writer Aaron Sorkin had the courage. to endow a President of the United States with deep religious faith?  Because why run away from church/state conflicts when you can slam right into them and make raw drama out of the collision!  Casting Bartlett as an intellectual liberal dodged some of the most explosive issues (homosexuality/gay marriage in particular).  But then the show gave us episodes like Two Cathedrals (season 2, episode 22) - Jed Bartlett standing in the middle of the National Cathedral challenging God's purpose and design - and you remember again why TV Digest ranked the show as one of the top 10 dramas of all times. 
  4. The almost unnerving intensity of Richard Schiff's Toby Zeigler as he bounced that damned rubber ball against the wall, over and over again.  That look he got (I always thought of it as his 'chess look') as he relentlessly, fearlessly navigated intellectual and ethical labyrinths.  After one of these scenes I inevitably had to roll my shoulders to shake off the tension and stress.
  5. Stockard Channing as Dr. Abagail Bartlett, the ultimate first lady.  As fierce, as intellectual, and as implacable as her husband.  I love that the writers resisted the urge to make her a complement to her husband, but instead cast her as his foil.  You just knew their sexual intensity was a match for their intellectual intensity.
  6. As if Abby Bartlett weren't enough, the show also gave us C.J. Craig, Ainsley Hayes, Nancy McNally, Amy Gardner, and Joey Lucas, all of whom showed that women can be powerful without compromising their femininity.  Seriously, did Nancy McNally look an ounce less formidable in the War Room just because she happened to be wearing a ball gown? (In the Shadow of Two Gunmen pt1, Season 2, episode 1) 
  7. The brilliance of the writers who created a character as convolutedly human as Josh Lyman: part political Mephistopheles, part slapstick comedian, part prodigal son, part Star Trek geek, part worldly naïf, part mental/emotional/romantic train wreck.  He was the show's "everyman," the guy who kept the show grounded, whose successes and failures were, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, our successes and failures.
  8. C.J.'s Craig's stolid, implacable, uncompromising idealism.  It's she who had the courage to be appalled when the White House decided to renew a mutual defense treaty with Qumar, a country in which women are treated like slaves (The Women of Qumar, season 3, episode 9; Enemies Foreign and Domestic, season 3, episode 18).  She who rails against the environmental damage that would be caused by a Keystone-type oil pipeline (Dead Irish Writers, season 3, episode 15).  She who deadpans to the press room minutes after an attempted presidential assassination: "If anyone thinks that [gun crimes] could be prevented if the victims themselves had been carrying guns, I only remind you that the President of the United States was shot last night while surrounded by the best trained armed guards in the history of the world" (In the Shadow of Two Gunmen pt2, season 2, episode 2).   Because sometimes courage is standing up for what you believe in, even when it's politically/socially/economically inconvenient.
  9. Leo's wisdom and gravitas.  Of all the characters on the show, you sensed that he's the one who learned more from his failures rather than his triumphs - as a soldier, as a politician, as a husband, as a recovering alcoholic.  Josh's flaws may be more fun, but Leo's flaws were deeper and infinitely more profound.
  10. Those rare occasions when ordinarily mild-mannered Charlie Young, as depicted by Dule Hill, busted out in noble rage, as when he takes his Little Brother Anthony to task for disrespecting C.J. in the White House (20 Hours in America pt2, season 4, episode 2), or when he punched out a drunk guy in a bar for criticizing Toby's ex-wife's out-of-wedlock pregnancy (The California 47th, season 4, episode 16). 
  11. Leo Magary's failed marriage. CJ's constantly postponed love life.  Bartlett's sacrificed medical license.  The show never shied away from acknowledging the huge price paid by the wives and families of those who sacrifice their privacy and their personal lives to serve their country.
  12. Five words. Big Block of Cheese Day (The Crackpots and These Women, season 1, episode 5; and Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail, season 2, episode 16).  
  13. Because the show didn't merely present geekiness as inevitable in an organization populated by people who earned economics and poly sci degrees in college; it actually make geekiness endearing!  As if Jed Bartlett's unapologetic rants on the history of the National Park Service weren't enough to warm my geeky heart (Enemies, season 1, episode 8), the show also found time to celebrate Gilbert & Sullivan (And It's Surely to Their Credit, season 2, episode 5), Nelly Bly (same episode), Star Trek (Arctic Radar, season 4, episode 10), philately (Galileo, season 2, episode 9), poetry (The U.S. Poet Laureate, season 3, episode 16) and the Butterball Turkey Hotline (The Indians in the Lobby, season 3, episode 7) . 
  14. The wonderful evolving storyline in which Sam Seaborn is groomed for a potential political career.  What a pleasure it was to watch him transform gradually from idealistic lobbyist (In the Shadow of Two Gunmen pt2, season 2, episode 2) to speechwriter extraordinaire (Galileo, season 2, episode 9) to canny politician (Hartsfield's Landing, season 3, episode 14), in which Sam, over a game of tense chess with Bartlett, puzzles his way through a critical détente standoff between Taiwan and China).
  15. Lines like these:
    1. "If I'd wanted to exercise, I wouldn't have become an economist."
    2. "So no one here is troubled that the Paper Reduction Act is 500pgs long?"
    3. "Of course I wrote a concession. You want to tempt the wrath of the ... whatever from high atop the thing?"
    4. "By the way, my Princeton Tigers could whip your Cal Bears any day of the week." ~ "At what?!" ~ "Logarithms, possibly."
    5. "I'm Matt Santos, and you better believe I approved this ad."
    6. "See, sometimes if I slam on the brakes, you just run right past."
    7. "You can't bring your hobbies into work, okay? Except on Star Trek holidays."
    8. "There are bicycles and goats in my office!"
    9. "This lanuage proposes a new doctrine for the use of force. That we use force whenever we see an injustice we want to correct. Like Mother Teresa with first strike capability."
    10. "You think the United States is under attack from 12,000 Cubans in rowboats?" ~ "I'm not saying I don't like our chances."
    11. "I think we should get a panda bear." ~  "You say that now but I'm the one who's gonna end up feeding him and walking him."
    12. "Once again you display an immaturity about vegetable that I think is not at all presidential."
    13. "I already pardoned a turkey... aren't I gonna get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?"
    14. "Red meat has been found to cause cancer in white rats. Maraschino cherries have been found to cause cancer in white rats. Cellular phones have been found to cause cancer in white rats. Has anyone examined the possibility that cancer might be hereditary in white rats?"
    15. "We need someone perceived by the American people to be irresponsible, untrustworthy, partisan, ambitious, and thirsty for the limelight. Am I crazy, or is this not a job for the U.S. House of Representatives?"
    16. "The artist destroys all his belongings in front of a Starbucks in Haight-Ashbury." ~ "I've done that a couple of times... didn't know there was funding for it."
    17. "We'll burn that bridge when we get to it."
    18. "Bring us the finest muffins and bagels in all the land!"
    19. "After 15 years of marriage I'd be shocked if you were awed."
    20. "I'm hiding snakes in your car. you're never gonna know where they are or if you got 'em all out . . ."
  16. The way the show didn't skirt controversial issues but slung them right in our faces, everything from ongoing political crises - Taiwan/China (Hartsfield's Landing, season 3, episode 14),  India/Pakistan (Lord John Marbury, season 1, episode 11), Israel/Middle East (Isaac and Ishmael; plus a large chunk of seasons 5-6) gun control (Bartlett's Third State of the Union, season 2, episode 13) - to providing low-cost drugs to help nations assailed by AIDS (In This White House, season 2, episode 4); from turning our backs on genocide in other countries (Inauguration:Over There, season 4, episode 15) to the morality of assassinating foreign leaders (We Killed Yamamoto, season 3, episode 20).
  17. Because the show demonstrated (at least hypothetically) that people of wildly opposite ideas could exchange ideas intelligently (The Supremes, season 5, episode 17, in which liberal justice Evelyn Baker Lang and conservative justice Christopher Mulready debate DOMA), could treat each other with dignity and respect (when the Republicans, led by Donna's republican boyfriend Cliff Callie, refused to out Leo's alcoholism in Bartlett for America, season 3, episode 9), and could even learn from each other (The Lame Duck Congress, season 2, episode 5), in which Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn alters his opinion on a Commerce Dept. issue after reading a briefing summary prepared by Republican-in-residence Ainsley Hayes).
  18. Because Mrs. Landingham, Mrs. Fiderer, and Donna Moss elevated the office of secretary to a whole new level of professional competence.
  19. Because, thanks to West Wing, we all know a little bit more Latin than we used to: "post hoc, ergo propter hoc," ("if that, then because of that"), "eppur si muove" (and yet it moves), and (of course) "posse comitatus."
  20. Because just when you thought presidents couldn't get better than Jed Bartlett, the writers gave us Jimmy Smits as Matt Santos, a presidential candidate who's major campaign issue wasn't tax cuts,  gay marriage, job creation, or hope, but education, the single issue that actually could fix what's wrong with this country and make it great.
  21. Because of episodes like Mr. Willis of Ohio (season 6, episode 6), in which a newly appointed Congressman (actually the social-studies-teacher husband of a woman who has died in office) actually changes his opinion on a bill after listening to reasonable, logical discourse.  I'm beginning to think the only time this is ever going to happen is on a fictional television series.
  22. Because the Oval Office never looked better.  Seriously, have you seen the real Oval Office?  It's bland and a bit shabby compared to the West Wing version.  Someone from the State Dept. needs to hire West Wing's set designer.
  23. Because, thanks to West Wing, we're all a little smarter than we used to be, aren't we?  Can't count the number of times I ran to the computer after an episode to look up references in the show, everything from Red Mass to The Federated States of Micronesia, from Blue Dogs to Murder Inc. to the haunting meaning of the word "han" in Korean. 
  24. Those walk-and-talk scenes!  Each one as witty and as rapid-fire as a 1950s Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn classic, with Josh standing in for Grant and CJ for Hepburn.
  25. Because Joshua Melina's Will Bailey got a dead guy elected to Congress (Election Night, season 4, episode 7). 
  26. Because CJ Craig made goldfish cool - and I don't mean the Pepperidge Farm kind.
  27. Because no one puts on a suit coat like Jed Bartlett!  Seriously, he swishes that thing through the air like a superhero cape. 
  28. Because if a man doesn't like green beans, he ought to be able to say so (Galileo, season 2, episode 9).
  29. Because on other shows, guest stars distract; on West Wing, guest stars like Hal Holbrook (on diplomacy), Penn & Teller (on freedom of speech), Gerald McRaney (on the nature of modern war) and Glenn Close (on liberalism) made for wonderful theater.
  30. Because characters like National Security Advisor Cmdr Kate Harper, Associate Legal Counsel Ainsley Hayes, Deputy Press Secretary for Media Relations, and Senior Assistant Donna Moss showed that blondes are perfectly capable of being heavyweights.
  31. Because the show's soundtrack was never a distraction and sometimes hauntingly evocative.  Just try imagining Josh's PTSD meltdown without Yoyo Ma's rendition of Bach's Cello Suite 1 crescendoing in the background (Noel, season 2, episode 10); the episode in which we learned how Josh's sister died without Ave Maria (The Crackpots and These Women, season 1, episode 5); the moment we find out Jed Bartlett's MS has returned as James Taylor sings Change is Gonna Come (Change is Gonna Come, season 6, episode 7); Jed Bartlett, dripping wet, waiting to announce his intent to run for reelection (and to hell with his MS) as Brothers in Arms soars hauntingly in the background (Two Cathedrals, season 2, episode 22).
  32. Because the show reminded us of the power of eloquent words to comfort (20 Hours in America pt2, season 4, episode 2, in which Jed Bartlett pays tribute to 44 college students injured by a pipe bomb), to skewer (Game On, season 4, episode 6), in which Bartlett champions "Eskimo poetry" while simultaneously crushing his opponent Bob Richie in a nationally televised debate), and to inspire (Jimmy Smits convention speech in 2162 Votes, season 6, episode 22). 
  33. Remember Arnie Vinnick refusing to attack the president because Penn and Teller may have burned a flag in the White House (In This Room, season 6, episode 8)?  Josh Lyman refusing to sue the White Supremecists who attempted to kill him (The Midterms, season 2, episode 3)?   When candidate Matt Santos refuses to exploit for political gain the information that another candidate's wife was once treated for a mental illness (2162 Votes, season 6, episode 22).  ?  Though the show may have presented moral ambiguity as to some measure inevitable, the writers never wavered from portraying petty political disputes as below the dignity of the office and the citizens of the U.S. 
  34. Because you can't watch the episode in which Zoe Bartlett is kidnapped (Twenty Five, season 4, episode 23) without being forcibly reminded of the bravery and sacrifice of the members of the Secret Service.
  35. Because ever since the presentation by the Cartographers for Social Justice, Mercator Projection maps have made me uneasy (Somebody's Going to Emergency/Somebody's Going to Jail, season 2, episode 16).
  36. Because the episodes had awesome names like Evidence of Things Not Seen, Welcome to Wherever You Are, Bad Moon Rising, The Fall's Gonna Kill You, Somebody's Going to Emergency/Somebody's Going to Jail, and my personal favorite Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics.
  37. Because if you aren't moved by the spectacle of a grandfather launching a brave, futile filibuster for the sake of his grandson with autism (The Stackhouse Filibuster, season 2, episode 17), then you need to go to the nearest hospital and get an infusion of empathy, because you're clearly running low. 
  38. Because the show depicted Jed Bartlett's descent into MS with raw, often painful honest, without ever compromising the character's dignity.  Isn't it thrilling to imagine a future in which people are judged solely by the content of their character rather than real (or perceived) disabilities?
  39. Because of all the stuff the show taught us about our political process: what POTUS stands for (Pilot, season 1, episode 1), how to endlessly stall Congress while you're waiting to close a bill (On the Day Before, season 3, episode 4), why Friday afternoon is when the White House "puts out the trash" (Take out the Trash Day, season 1, episode 13).
  40. Because of all the times the show made us laugh.  Josh's disastrous attempt briefing the press, which results in the White House having to explain that there really is no "secret plan to fight inflation" (Celestial Navigation, season 1, episode 15). Lord John Marbury, who you know the writers lifted straight from the pages of an Oscar Wilde comedy.  The "Francis Scott Key Key" (Privateers, season 4, episode 18). Josh, Toby, and Donna getting left behind by the presidential motorcade (20 Hours in America, season 4, episodes 1-2).  And last but by no means least, the episode in which C.J. Craig has to figure out which turkey gets pardoned at Thanksgiving, an episode so gloriously, unapologetically hilarious that replaying the episode has become a favorite part of my family's annual Thanksgiving celebration (Shibboleth, season 2, episode 8).
  41. Because of all the times the show made our hearts beat faster.  Gone Silent (season 3, episode 7), in which the members of the White House national security staff cluster around a table in the War Room, waiting to discover whether a U.S. nuclear submarine has been destroyed by enemies or merely "gone silent" to evade detection.  Associate counsel Joe Quincy staring at a stack of White House phone logs as the identify of the White House leaker comes appallingly to light (Evidence of Things Not Seen, season 4, episode 20). Bartlett announcing that rather than allow the Republicans to hold him political hostage, he's shutting down the government (Shutdown, season 5, episode 8).  And the granddaddy of them all, possibly the most riveting 2 hours of fictional drama ever broadcast, In the Shadow of Two Gunman pts1-2 (Season 2, episodes 1-2), in which both Bartlett and Josh Lyman are wounded in an assassination attempt and we find out that Bartlett has multiple sclerosis.
  42. Because of all the times the show made us cry.  Mrs. Landingham killed in a car accident by a drunk driver (18th and Potomac, season 2, episode 21). The episode in which an honorable, decent African leader refuses the U.S.'s offer of asylum and returns to his country, where he was promptly assassinated by rebels (In This White House, season 2, episode 4).  The time a South Korean piano prodigy sacrifices his chance at freedom rather than compromise potential peace negotiations that might benefit all his countrymen - and that ends up being cancelled for the stupidest of reasons (Han, season 5, episode 4).  My eyes seem to be getting a little blurry ... must be lack of sleep ....
  43. Because witnessing Josh's love life (Mandy, Donna, Amy, Joey) was as much fun as watching a soap opera but without the shame.
  44. Because West Wing forced us to face the fact that even "easy things" can be so much more difficult and complex than they appear: curing cancer (100,000 Airplanes, season 3, episode 11), banning land mines (The U.S. Poet Laureate, season 3, episode 16), raising taxes on the rich (The California 47th, season 16), defending human rights (Game On, season 4, episode 6), making college more affordable (Separation of Powers, season 5, episode 7). 
  45. Because no one does a Christmas episode like West Wing.  In Excelsis Dio (season 1, episode 10), in which Toby Zeigler becomes fixated on ensuring a homeless vet gets the burial service he has earned at Arlington Cemetery.  Noel (season 2, episode 10), in which Josh Lyman struggles with PTSD and is saved by the intervention of friends.  Holy Night (season 4, episode 11), in which Toby tries to find a way to forgive his father for past sins.  Each episode a separate, brilliant little diamond of drama.
  46. Because no matter how sarcastic or critical the tone of the show towards "politics as usual," the show never denigrated the honor or sacrifice of the people - the politicians, the Secret Service agents, the military officers - who voluntarily dedicate their lives to serving their country.
  47. Because there's something deliciously satisfying in watching a canny, well-crafted political strategy set in motion.  C.J.'s initiative to hire a rabid anti-Bartlett special prosecutor to investigate Bartlett's MS "coverup" (Ways and Means, season 3, episode 4). Toby & Sam, rebuffed by the members of their own party, offering exactly the same set of political concessions to the Republicans (On the Day Before, season 3, episode 5). Bartlett's "inadvertent" remark on a live mike that his opponent Bob Richie possesses "a 22 caliber mind in a 357 magnum world"  (The U.S. Poet Laureate, season 3, episode 16).  You have to love a brilliant plan, brilliantly carried out.
  48. Because Alan Alda's Arnie Vinnick never cow-towed to the wacky outliers of his party.  Don't you wish our politicians had that kind of courage and integrity?
  49. The Midterms (season 2, episode 3), in which Bartlett gloriously humiliates an ultra-right-wing radio show host for her stance on homosexuality.
  50. What happens if mad cow disease is discovered in the U.S. (The Women of Qumar, season 3, episode 9)? What do we do if we discover an ostensible U.S. ally in the middle east is actually harboring terrorist aspirations towards the U.S. (The Black Vera Wang, season 3, episode 19)?  What happens if the daughter of the President of the U.S. is kidnapped and held for ransom (Twenty Five, Season 4, episode 23)?  The show tackled a range of horrific national catastrophes that haven't actually happened but that could foreseeably happen, providing an opportunity to explore potential outcomes.  I hope our lawmakers were paying attention. 
  51. Because the writers of West Wing boldly assumed there were people in the U.S. who would actually watch a show that depicted smart people behaving intelligently, challenged political ideals, and dared to define patriotism as possessing the courage to do the right thing for the citizens of our country, not just the popular or easy thing.  Almost a decade later, I'm still grateful.


Book Look - Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Rarely has a book aroused so much controversy within my book group! Some were wowed by the story’s creative excesses and the author’s prowess at harnessing them to her cause; others found the characters improbable, the plot depressing, and the author's take on “magical realism” either a little too magical or, alternatively, not magical enough. Or perhaps we should have anticipated this, since even the Pulitzer Prize folks couldn’t seem to figure out where they came down on this one? Though I did empathize with some of the points made by the skeptics, I definitely continue to number myself among the book’s enthusiasts.

At its most superficial level, Swamplandia! relates the history of the dysfunctional Bigtree “tribe” (not a drop of actual native blood among them) who run an alligator-based tourist attraction in the Florida Everglades: Chief Bigtree, the clan’s father and the one responsible for creating and sustaining the family mythology, apparently in an attempt to elevate the chaos in which they live to something more noble; mother Hilolah, who headlines the “swimming with gators” show but whose careless courage may have more to do with bipolar disorder* than some sort of tribal manifest destiny (*high-low-la – get it? Alas, I’m a sucker for puns and wordplay); their eldest son Kiwi, the only one of the children not to buy into the family mythology but whose grasp of reality is far more tenuous than he imagines; Osceola, their ethereal albino daughter; and the narrator of the tale, 13-yr old Ava, who is the family’s “true believer” and the lens through which we experience and interpret the events of the book – much in the same way we experience the events of To Kill a Mockingbird through Scout’s eyes. This is either a brilliant (me) or frustrating (them) literary conceit that casts the elements of the story in a perpetual shroud of doubt, for while Ava is, for her part, an honest and endearing narrator, the events of the novel are filtered through (and almost surely tainted by) her self-delusions and naïveté.

The family’s precarious existence is dealt a double blow when Hilolah dies suddenly of cancer and a tourist attraction called World of Darkness (an amusement park version of Hell) opens up on the Florida mainland, robbing Swamplandia! of its remaining clientele. Each member of the family struggles to cope with this double loss in variously tragi-comic ways: Chief Bigtree, by temporarily abandoning his family to establish a secret double life; Kiwi, by fleeing to the mainland to pursue his fantasy of a “normal life”; Ava, by concocting wild schemes to save Swamplandia! from certain doom; and Osceola by seeking out the consolation of “ghosts” lingering among the reeds and melaleucas of the enclosing swamp. Then Osceola disappears permanently into the swamp one night, leaving a note that she is off to join her “ghost boyfriend” for eternity, and their precarious existence collapses entirely. Poor Ava, armed only with her mother’s courage and her child’s faith, is left to pursue her sister and try to preserve her family from disintegration - a quest that results, predictably, in disillusionment and tragedy, but also in hope and redemption.

Some of the many aspects of this book I enjoyed:

• Russell’s creative genius and lovely, lyrical prose. Make no mistake, this woman’s got serious literary chops. Can’t count the number of times a description/sentence/turn of phrase left me reeling. My copy of Swamplandia! has so many underlined passages, it looks like a college student’s philosophy textbook.

• Ava, the story’s narrator. She’s a wonderfully eccentric and wholly endearing creation. Which, of course, is why parts of the story are hard to read (a point I willingly concede to the book’s skeptics). For Ava’s sake you keep hoping for the Disney ending, even though your literary intuition senses that Russell’s bracing us for the Joseph Campbell ending instead.

• The way Russell weaves magical elements into the tale, further blurring the line perception and reality. Is Osceola’s boyfriend a true ghost, or merely a figment of her fertile imagination? Does the Birdman actually possess a magical gift to summon birds? Could vultures actually whisk a dying man into the air? Could there be an entrance to Hell in the midst of the Everglades?

• The way Russell slyly laces Darwinism throughout the tale: “survival of the fittest” as a justification for why we humans deserve what we get by pursuing an Ayn Randian brand of unfettered, soulless capitalism – expelling native Americans from Florida and destroying the Everglades by planting melaleucas so that we can literally build our own Hell (The World of Darkness).

As my book group discovered, this novel definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea! But if you enjoy gothic ambiance, find ambiguity intriguing rather than frustrating, appreciate literature that challenges you to think, and possess a passion for brilliantly crafted prose, you may find Swamplandia! to be as haunting, as disturbing, and as worthy as I did.