By Kaden Pradhan
London, United Kingdom
There is no doubt that an air of mystery surrounds the White House, and the President of the U.S.—imbued with the power of life and death, economy and law, policy and diplomacy—possesses an almost divine status in the uppermost strata of the global community. Sometimes, what we need is a strong reminder that the President and his team are, in fact, no more than human.
The West Wing is a long-running political drama that begins at the turn of the millennium and follows fictional President Jed Bartlet and his staff as they navigate the complex world of domestic and international politics, tackling international crises as they arise, and battling Congress for change and progress. With a host of talented actors, including Martin Sheen, John Spencer, and Rob Lowe, it received a huge amount of critical acclaim at launch. It was renewed for a subsequent seven seasons, and finally came to a close in May 2006.
Its recent addition to Freevee, the new free-with-ads section of Prime Video, has brought this noughties classic to a whole new generation of watchers. After coming across the first few episodes by recommendation, I found myself gripped by the tantalizing irresistibility of the premise, and have not quite been able to stop watching it since.
The groundbreaking cinematography and writing comes across almost immediately. Showrunner Aaron Sorkin received praise for sleek, long takes where we follow characters as they converse and navigate corridors and then shift to another pair as they intersect. This provides almost continuous intrigue, seizing the watcher’s attention and never truly relinquishing it. Aaron Sorkin’s writing is incredibly sharp—not a single word in a single sentence seems out of place, and the dialogue seems to mirror a fundamentally human way of speaking. It is almost as if we are there ourselves, caught in the hubbub and calmly frantic working hours of the White House staffers. They deal with small problems quickly and sharply as they arise, the solution delivered straight away with delay or hindrance and carried out just as hastily—whilst larger issues often span multiple episodes as the team grapples with, for instance, one country invading another, Congress refusing to back a key bill, or an Army General about to trash the President on the morning shows. The speed and decisiveness the characters exhibit is infectious.
Within the moments of crisis, there is still an acute, cerebral kind of wit, and a personal focus on the humanity of the individual characters. We come to understand the staffers, not merely as extensions of some hegemonic political organ, but as people; they have desires, needs, ambition and personal history. These intricacies are incredibly important for The West Wing’s presentation of the White House. It is not a perfect machine made up of efficient, heterogeneous robots. The White House is the interplay of the imperfect, developing individuals within—and this lends it both credibility and realism.
The overall atmosphere of The West Wing is, paradoxically, one of comfort. Despite the hugely impactful and difficult issues the characters deal with, the overarching tonality of the series appears almost reassuring and relaxing, with the wit of their conversations and the joy at the episode’s resolution all contributing to an impression of underlying calm. This is unusual and counterintuitive, given the content of the episodes, but is resoundingly successful in its application. Instead of the focus being on the action, the lens always remains on the people.
All this contributes to the most striking and triumphant element of the series: its overwhelming humanity. After finishing an episode, the watcher feels a sense of security, hope, and faith in the ability of those in power not just to do good, but to be good—something we all need in these trying and tumultuous times.