The West Wing S01E01: Pilot

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Sometimes it’s difficult to remember just how different the world was a few years ago. The first episode of The West Wing aired in 1999. Just to remind muyself of that time I did a little reflection, and some internet searches. To set the scene so to speak.

Time and tide

It’s difficult to remember now how different the world was in 1999.  I was living as a married man in suburbia: two car garage, swimming pool, dog, two cats, mortgage, all mod cons.  Dinkies.  I was a spin doctor in that time, and pretty good at it if I do say so myself.  An advocate of free marketeering, but not far away from pulling the plug on that whole game for a job with an IT/management consultancy.

Elsewhere in the world:

12 February: President Bill Clinton is acquitted in impeachment proceedings in the United States Senate.

23 February: White supremacist John William King is found guilty of kidnapping and killing African American James Byrd Jr by dragging him behind a truck for 2 miles (3 km).

24 March: NATO launches air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the first time NATO has attacked a sovereign country.

25 March: Enron energy traders route 2,900 megawatts of electricity destined for California to the town of Silver Peak, Nevada, population 200.  The idea was to create an artificial shortage to activate higher tariffs.

26 March: The Melissa worm loosened on the Internet.  Dr Jack Kevorkian found guilty of second-degree murder in Michigan for administering a lethal injection to a terminally ill man.

27 March: Kosovo War breaks out.

29 March: Dow Jones Industrial Average closes above the 10,000 mark, at 10,006.78, for the first time in history.

8 April: Bill Gates’s personal fortune exceeds USD100 Billion.

20 April: Columbine High School massacre, Littleton, Colorado. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold kill 12 students, 1 teacher, and themselves.

5 May: Microsoft releases Windows 98 Second Edition.

19 May: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is released.

1 June: Napster comes online.

9 June: Kosovo peace treaty signed.

22 July: First version of MSN Messenger released.

31 August: Apple Power Macintosh G4 released.

20 November: China launches first Shenzou spacecraft.

31 December: Boris Yeltsin resigns RF presidency and leaves Prime Minister Vlaidmir Putin in charge.

The premiss

As far as I know, The West Wing was the first serious attempt at dramatizing the workings of spin in presidential politics.  A bold move.  A surprise any studio went for it.  Almost as courageous as the American House of Cards, which probably couldn’t have been made if The West Wing hadn’t legitimised the territory.

The intro of CJ talking shit in the gym, and Sam picking up Lisa seemed uncharacteristically stilted, but Leo’s dressing down of Josh introduced the famous and ever-present walk and talk that squeezed a lot of dialogue into dynamic sequences.

I always hated the Mandy Hampton character.  She represents everything I see as repulsive about American feminist visions of independent women.  Loud, stupid, aggressive, ineffective, narcissistic.  Did I mention stupid. The awful pseudo-punk track ‘Moment of Weakness’ by heavily tattooed Canadian angry femme Bif Naked says it all, really: pretentious without a shred of credibility as either cool or a smart political operator. All show and no substance as character and plot device.

The Sam and Laurie sub-plot struck mes a little silly and tight-arsed, but I confess it developed into an almost creditable morality tale.  It also made me more tolerant of Edelstein when she reappeared as Dr Cuddy in House.

The Josh Lyman conflict with Mary Marsh and then the star chamber of evangelists was just playing to my prejudices.  I was initially surprised that the tax cheat remark could have been blown so out of proportion, given the blatant, open fraudulent behaviour of so many American religionists.

The anti-Semitism of the portrayed religious bigots surprised me; I didn’t think the Australian establishment would have gone for it, but I guess studio bosses include many Jewish people who have been at the wrong end of that pervasive racism.

I just loved to watch those religious types get mauled by the Prez!  What great lines to finish up on.

From the very beginning I was on board with the character of Leo McGarry, and I loved the developing Josh and Sam characters too.  CJ Cregg was a little shallow in those early episodes, but she grew on me.  Wait for the lip synching episode!  What a performance.

Back in the day there were people who thought I was Toby Ziegler; I had no idea what they were talking about because I didn’t start to watch the show until the mid-2000s, but years later I can see that he did have certain personality traits that come pretty close to my own, particularly professionally in the later 1990s.  Over time I came to identify most closely with Josh Lyman, but Toby was definitely indispensable to the storyline.

Overall I thought there was too much twaddle in this episode, with Madeline and the Laurie sub-plot trivialising the show down to a demographic level of dopey office workers, so it took a few more to hook me.  But it was definitely a departure from crap like Ally McBeal, Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier, Friends, and Sex and the City, all of which were nominated for Emmys in 1999 (Ally McBeal won).  The only glimmer on the horizon was The Sopranos.  Curiously I watched neither The West Wing nor The Sopranos until years later.

It was the first show in a series unlikely to last, and raw around the edges, and one of the really annoying flaws was the theme, payed for the closing credits, which sounded like I was just watching the Simpsons.

Aaron Sorkin

Spending most of the 1980s as a struggling actor/playwright, Sorkin’s entrée to better jobs was the play _A Few Good Men,_ which was good for Tom Cruise too.

He had scripted the 1998-2000 run of Sports Night (which I found neither funny nor particularly entertaining), but he seemed to be a classic case of hail fellow well met; the right man at the right time in the right place to revitalise a fading but traditional American liberalism in popular fiction.

His professionalism in consulting people like political consultants Dee Dee Myers and George Stephanopoulos eventually paid off, making the cast of The West Wing come across like a group of smart people quite unlike the ‘clutz’ characters of other shows.

It was a smart move altogether, creating for a new generation of professionals an ersatz ‘family’ they could enjoy vicariously for an hour on weeknights without having to cringe about cardboard characters and non-issues.

Above all, the incarnation in Martin Sheen of a more durable Irish Catholic president than JFK was sheer genius.  It brought to the table undertones of a new Camelot that millions of viewers could identify with and emulate.  Sheen became so popular as President Jeb [yep, Jeb!] Bartlet he might have been a serious contender for the Democrat nomination and the presidency in the early 2000s.

The first few shows of any series are always touch and go.  It was no different for The West Wing, and I suspect Sorkin had to make many compromises in early scripts that the emerging success of the show absolved him of as he progressed.

Trivia

Jared Cox, who says he was an extra playing a security guard on the set in the 2000s described the set as follows:

The main West Wing sets took up two sound stage buildings at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, CA.  The primary sets – the “first floor” of the White House, containing The Oval Office, Roosevelt Room, lobby, bullpens and offices of the main cast – were built on stage 29.  Other areas of the White House were on Stage 28 and 28A.  This map from the White House Museum (The TV West Wing) is accurate to the layout of the main set on stage 29.

Plan of principal set for The West Wing.
Plan of principal set for The West Wing.

So, to orient yourself: Obviously the president’s office is the oval shaped room on the bottom right.  Toby and Sam’s offices are the two on top, with their bullpen (a popular on-set holding area for the regular extras) right below it.  The Roosevelt Room, clearly labeled in the center, is the main meeting room with lots of camera friendly windows all around it.  The actual Roosevelt Room, I’m told, looks nothing like it.  Josh’s office is the top left and CJ’s office is the bottom left, with Donna’s bullpen in between.  The grey shaded area on the right was the “outdoor” portico set (actually still inside the stage).  There was a large cyclorama (a curtain with an image on it) of the White House lawn that they would bring in when the camera could see out the windows of the Oval.  Though they filmed many scenes outside on the portico, the camera never pointed off in that direction when the scene was “outside” because the cyc would not be convincing at that close distance.

– Sourced from Quora

While the Cox description and map seem convincing, I can find almost no mention of Jared Cox elsewhere, except on Memory Alpha Wiki, which has an entry that appears to confirm his claim to have been an extra on The West Wing.

Credits

Writer: Aaron Sorkin; Director: Thomas Schlamme; First aired: 22 September 1999.

Regular cast – Martin Sheen: President Jeb Bartlet; John Spencer: Chief of Staff Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford: Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman; Rob Lowe: Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn; Allison Janney: Press Secretary Caludia Jean (CJ) Cregg; Richard Schiff: Communications Director Toby Ziegler; Moira Kelly: Madeline ‘Mandy’ Hampton; Janel Moloney: Donnatella ‘Donna’ Moss; Kathryn Joosten: Dolores Landingham. (Janel Moloney was listed as a guest star for initial episodes.)

Episode guest stars – Annie Corley: Mary Marsh; Lisa Edelstein: Laurie; Suzy Nakamura: Cathy; Allison Smith: Mallory O’Brien; Marc Grapey: Billy; F William Parker: Rev Al Caldwell.
 

For discussion, see Randy Resnick’s Google Plus West Wing collection.

For a complete list of West Wing commentary see my West Wing index page.