Friday, August 21, 2009

The West Wing Exits Stage Left

About a year ago when my wife and I were gearing up for the birth of our twins, my cousin (who has twin girls) gave us a piece of advice for weathering the first year:

"Watch DVDs."

Twins keep you busy. You aren't housebound, but you spend a lot of time at home holding an infant. You spend an inordinate amount of time up in the middle of the night. You can get very grumpy on such occasions. You need something to do while feeding or comforting a child. Enter the DVDs.

Around Christmas time my mother in law found a deal on all seven seasons of the West Wing, and knowing I was a fan, snatched them up. That was like 9 months ago. We watched the last episode tonight. 22 episodes a season. You can do the math.

I don't want to be melodramatic about this, but this show was just what we needed on so many levels. It kept us sane during some of those late nights. When we had energy for nothing else but the tube it gave us a chance to "veg" without actually killing our brains. It was fellowship for us. Like reading a good book together. It gave us outside perspective and adult conversation at a time in life when such things tend to take a back seat. The list could go on.

Not only that, it was and still is just an incredibly poignant, personable, and powerful television series. We really got caught up in it. We shed tears at times. Maybe that's lame, but hey, when someone tells a story that strikes a nerve or you see a scene play out that subtly captures a moment or you watch an actor portray something that resonates, enlightens, or inspires---well, I think something of life is being kindled in you and that's okay. Its more than okay, it is what the arts are about.

Now, some episodes were duds. Some of the politics was a bit too much. Sometimes the seasons were less thoroughly amazing than others. When you put together 154 episodes in 7 years you are about to have a few miscues. But another thing you get, when you do it this well, is an modern epic which I daresay a century from now might be worth mentioning in the same breath as War and Peace and Les Miserables.

Sure I've become a bit of a West Wing nerd. Yeah I'd probably put Richard Schiff (pictured above) on my top three list of people I'd like to meet, and that probably brings me close to Trekkie status. But hey, his portrayal of Toby Ziegler (and his interactions with the rest of the cast performing similarily brilliantly), well, it did things for me; in me. At times a dose of reality and at times a spark of inspiration, the West Wing spoke into my life; it brought stuff out of me.

Its the kind of thing you expect to hear about a great piece of music or a play or a painting. Its what the best art does. I guess it is just hard to believe this show was actually on TV.


Stewart said...

Oh yes...and even more! Thanks to you, we've also watched a big chunk of this series. Politics aside (if you can do that), it is a fantastic portrayal of leadership, the decision making process, extreme challenges in life and career, loyalty, friendship, conflict resolution (or just letting it go), humor in the midst of chaos, etc., etc. This is well worth watching. What's next?!

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"...might be worth mentioning in the same breath as War and Peace and Les Miserables"

Ha. Really? I love that you think so.

When Toby confronts Bartlett on his father issues and being "folksy," and then they play chess -I was entranced.

For me putting politics aside was easy to do with the West Wing (though as a semi-hawkish liberal my politics and those of the writers were generally aligned, so it's easy for me to say this), because what the show celebrates is not so much the positions the Bartlett administration holds as WHY and HOW they hold them.

What I love is that the show was rarely cynical. It was very patriotic and optimistic, but never at the expense of intelligence.

That last episode was a sad moment for me.

Jon Coutts said...

LEt me clarify my War and Peace comparison. I just mean that lots of TV shows are doing this thing where it is an ongoing series, so that when you release it on DVD it is really like a length epic. Depending on how well the story flows as a whole, and how well it is done, it can be more or less quality.

So if you line up all the TV series, only some would truly be good enough as a whole to deserve that "epic" qualification, and only some would be close to masterpieces. West Wing would be one of those. I think when we look back on it though we have to insist that had it been written entirely by Aaron Sorkin (maybe with one or two other partner writers) it might have been a pure masterpiece along side the great novels. But I'd still like to say that we look back on it as one of the great epics, which are always time-pieces as well as being timeless in their accessibility and impact. In that sense I'd put West Wing on that scale.

I agree with everythying you both have said.

Tony Tanti said...

I have to watch this show!

Stewart said...

Tony, get with the times man!

Jon Coutts said...

That scene with Toby and Jed is just great. In fact, of all the sub plots it is them and their relationship that is most compelling and interesting to me. The last season might have been better if that had been more the focus.

Jon Coutts said...

Other great "epic" TV series:


nathan davies said...

epic tv series -


Stewart said...

Yes, how could we forget Mash... we've probably watched every episode several times. Back to West Wing...we just watched season 5 Episode 12 "slow news day" which features Toby. What a great example of servant leadership...he (and the President) negotiate a significant reform in social security and in the end don't get a speck of credit for it! Oh for more of that today on some many levels and in so many places!

Colin Toffelmire said...

The reason I haven't done my standard "The West Wing is the best TV show of all time" bit is that we were camping all weekend. That said, the West Wing is the best TV show of all time. MASH is also exceptional, but I am aghast that nobody here has yet made mention of The Wire among the best TV shows ever. The Wire is the Yang to The West Wing's Ying. Matt said he liked the fact that WW was rarely cynical, and I completely agree. I also like the fact that The Wire is rarely not cynical. Anybody who watches the one should be required by law to watch the other.

Jon Coutts said...

I have never seen or heard of The Wire. What is going on?

Colin Toffelmire said...

ACK! Never even heard of The Wire?! Actually that's not surprising. It gets tons of critical acclaim, but had very little popular support during it's 5 season run. The whole series is on DVD now. It was an HBO series, so obviously strong(!!!) content warnings are a must. It's set around the various players in the drug war of West Baltimore (police, low level dealers, drug lords, politicians, etc, etc). People call it a "crime drama" but that's kind of like calling the Mona Lisa "a drawing of some chick a guy once did." To give you a sense of The Wire's quality, Dennis Lehane (who wrote the novels Mystic River and Shutter Island) was one of their writers.

Jon Coutts said...

consider my interest piqued.