Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Original Air Date: 22nd September 1999
Some television shows take time to find their voices, and to develop characters in a way that they truly become the fictional creations that we love and feel comforted by whenever we watch. Some shows, however, seem to arrive somewhat crafted to near perfection already and everything that we know and love about the series and the people who populate that world are exactly as we would expect them to be.
From its very first episode, everything that we would come to expect from The West Wing is right there in the space of its opening forty-five minutes; walk and talks, intelligent dialogue delivered with pace and style, scene stealing moments with Martin Sheen and W.G Snuffy Walden’s elegant upbeat score that makes you want to run to Washington to work your way into politics. Or at least it did in 1999.
Premiering in the fall of that year, The West Wing arrived at the tail end of the Clinton administration and would subsequently coincide with a large chunk of George W. Bush’s tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and it’s that period of time that would make The West Wing play like gangbusters to an audience willing to play into its fantasy of a well-run, plausible White House of staffers and a President who are willing to do whatever they could to run the country and the free world right.
It’s a fantasy that still hold considerable weight today, although for completely different reasons.
The Bill Clinton administration might have had its share of major successes (it played a major part in the Northern Ireland Peace Process), but it is still, to this day, an administration that one equates with sexual scandal and explicit testimonies given under oath regarding the use of cigars, while in recent years it’s Clinton himself who has come under the fire for the handling of that situation, not to mention how disgraceful it is when one looks back and remembers how Monica Lewinsky was treated during the time.
Initially The West Wing appeared to be a response to that; from the very first episode is presents to the audience an administration dealing with the fall out over its Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford, entering our hearts and never leaving it) going on a verbal rant against a prominent member of the Religious Right on a Sunday morning political show, and always striving to do the right thing over matters of political policy and the national interest.
Each of the cast are introduced magnificently (although shame on you Sorkin for resorting to have the most prominent female member of the cast fall down on a treadmill when we first meet her), and the pace is fast but never overbearing, and builds up to what is arguably the greatest character entrance in television history.
Right from the off, the series swirls with the possibilities and wonderment of democracy. As America eventually turned to the more right leaning politics of a second Bush presidency in the Oval Office, The West Wing increasingly felt like a comforting fantasy of an intelligent well read President who would take time to consider the tougher decisions that had to be made when one becomes the leader of one of the world’s most powerful countries.
Like so much about it, it’s a fairy tale that still has considerable power in the present day.
As the world increasingly falls apart due to issues with COVID-19, Britain turns towards Brexit and America elects a President and an administration that has no idea on how to do anything, least of all how to handle a pandemic that is showing no sign of leaving its borders and gets progressively worse as the days and weeks go on, The West Wing still works as a comforting fantasy.
Thomas Schlamme’s slick direction of the ‘Pilot’ feels gorgeously cinematic, even if the episode very seldom leaves the confines of its central setting. Having been more famous for being a playwright before making the move towards movies and television, Aaron Sorkin brings a theatrical slickness to his teleplay that you could also imagine the script working on stage, but which benefits from the direction and photography here.
The words flow brilliantly, and everyone feels like they are on the cusp of delivering some brilliant speech, which eventually comes but doesn’t do so until the last five minutes when Jed Bartlet shows up and Martin Sheen runs away with the episode and the show after everyone else has done such great work. That might sound like a complaint of sort, but it really isn’t. It’s a mark of how great Sheen is and how wonderful a character Bartlet has been written that he feels like a missing piece that you hadn’t realised was missing when you were being so busy sucked into the brilliance of the other pieces of the whole.
Initially only planned to make small appearances while the series put its focus more on the staffers who work for him, Sheen made such an impact with this one scene that the rest of the show would end up being centred around him more.
If there’s anything that can be seen to be different to where the show would end up, it’s that the script seems to want to have Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe, making a comeback after a few years in the wilderness and starring in many a Mike Myers comedy) as a point of focus around everything. He’s the first character we meet and one of the biggest plot lines of the episode is the revelation that the woman he has spent the night with (a pre-House Lisa Edelstein) is a prostitute, a plot line that will run into the next batch of episodes.
It kind of makes sense that it would want to initially centre itself around a big name like Lowe, and this was the first of many television series that would bring a formerly big name movie star back to our attention by casting them in a hit TV show; Kiefer Sutherland would be next with 24, while Charlie Sheen would snag himself a commercially successful sitcom with Two and A Half Men, the only time that show will be mentioned in tandem with either The West Wing or 24.
However, you can gently sense The West Wing figure out that it has more than Lowe to offer and in combining a cast like this one with this writing, it doesn’t take long for John Spencer, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and even Janel Maloney (a recurring guest star for the first season) to make their mark and gift television one of its finest ensembles. We’ll have to wait a few weeks to see our first glimpse of Dule Hill as Charlie.
Executive Produced by ER showrunner John Wells, The West Wing has a vibe similar to NBC’s biggest scripted drama at the time; ensemble cast, intelligent writing, sweeping Steadicam shots and many walk and talks, but where ER was an action movie in a medical drama clothing, The West Wing takes it cue more from wittily scripted comedic dramas the likes of which Hollywood doesn’t make for the big screen anymore and which have increasingly become the domain of television and streaming services.
That Sorkin contributed that type of film with The American President is something that cannot be underestimated. In fact, it was that film’s director Rob Reiner who suggested to Sorkin that it might make for a great television series, and while it also played in a left wing fantasy coupled with a fairy tale romantic comedy (widowed President falls in love again), you could also sense Sorkin’s eagerness in that film to explore the political side of it and The West Wing gives the writer a twenty-two episode season of television to do so.
Sorkin, similarly to David E Kelley, was undeniably talented, but was prone to using his television show to craft a fictional America driven by romanticised liberals who were intelligent, well read and also good looking in the way only a television series could deliver, but which were very much driven by their author’s own view of the world and political beliefs.
Kelley hadn’t quite reached that point yet, but you could sense that left leaning bias in The Practice and Ally McBeal, but it would eventually get a more thorough working out in The Practice spin-off Boston Legal, while Sorkin’s series would increasingly fall into being left wing fantasies some of which worked (The Newsroom, the first half of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and some of which didn’t (the second half of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip).
Over twenty years since its debut, it remains one of the most finely crafted opening episodes to any television series, with an assured sense of knowing what it wants to do and how to set about accomplishing it. Best of all, it feels lived in before we even meet these characters. Later episodes will flashback magnificently to events prior to this first episode, and it says a lot about how well crafted all of this is that it feels like we’ve joined the show in the middle of its lifespan, where everything is built and running and off to the races, but never to the extent that it feels like you’ve missed something.
It’s not every time a television show begins as assuredly as this, but that it does makes it quite possibly one of television’s very best pilot episodes.