Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TV on DVD Review: The West Wing - Season 1

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Characters who grow on you
Cons: Cliched stories; weak storytelling; a bit of smugness to the whole thing
The Bottom Line:
It thinks it's clever
But it isn't.  Takes a while
But can entertain

Slick Writing Attempts to Cover Up Weak Storytelling

Long ago, I wrote The West Wing off as left wing propaganda.  I've been surprised over the years at the conservative friends who have raved about the show.  But I've stuck to my guns.  That is, until my best friend gave me the first season for Christmas this year.  Since it was a gift, I figured I should sit down and watch it.  I still don't see quite why it is so highly praised, but I just might be becoming addicted.

Season one of The West Wing opens part way through the first year of the Bartlet Administration.  President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is a first term Democrat from New England, and he has a strong staff helping him.  That is, when they aren't caught up in personal issues.  For instance, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn's (Rob Lowe) new friend happens to be a prostitute.  Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is having problems in his marriage.  And Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is upset that they have hired former girlfriend Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly) as a political consultant.  Never mind the fact that she is the best in the business.

But along with the personal drama, there are also plenty of politics as The White House seeks to get various bills through Congress, or even a Supreme Court Nominee.  Fortunately, CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) is on hand to properly deal with the press during all the ups and downs of the first year.

To be honest, I almost didn't make it past the pilot.  After conservative Christians are made out to be horridly evil hypocrites, I could have stopped.  But I was determined to make it through several episodes before I gave up.  Things didn't improve right away.

The first few episodes throw us into stories already in motion.  Heck, it was several episodes before I even figured out what all the main characters do.  But the references to things that happened off screen felt more arrogant or smug than clever writing, especially when they are never really explained.  Additionally, the plots were by the numbers cliches we've seen elsewhere.  Other things were thrust on us very awkwardly.

Several episodes in, things began to get better.  I'm not sure if it is because I was finally getting the rhythm of the show or because I was growing to like the characters.  Either way, I was finding myself looking forward to the next episode to find out exactly what would happen to the characters.  We began to find some conservative characters who were sympathetic, and not just because they agreed with the President.

But not all was well still.  Several of the episodes, like the death penalty episode or "Celestial Navigation" seemed like little more than an excuse to preach to us.  The storyline I was most interested in seeing, the Supreme Court Nominee, was over almost before it began.

Then there's the series trademark "walk and talks."  Key pieces of dialog are often given by characters as they walk rapidly down the halls from one office to another.  Some of that is okay, and fortunately it calms down in the second half.  But it honestly felt too gimmicky to me.  Same with the fast paced dialogue.  Honestly, slow down a little and let us absorb what you are saying!

I keep coming back to the characters.  While I never did warm up to sanctimonious Mandy, the rest really grew on me.  This is especially true of President Bartlet, who is a warm, caring, and funny man.  I also really like Josh, especially when he starts bantering with his assistant, Donna Moss (Janel Moloney).  They have some of the best comic relief of the season.  I was predisposed to like the President's aide Charlie as played by Dule Hill (now a star of Psych), and it certainly helped.  Even the reserved Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) got to me.

Even among the cast members I didn't like at one time or another, I can't fault the actors.  This is a very demanding show, and they are always at the top of their game.  I can't imagine how much energy it took to film the episodes.  Watching them deliver some of the fast paced banter is jaw dropping.

For those considering the set, there are 22 episodes here.  They are preserved on three double sided discs with commentaries on key episodes by series creator Aaron Sorkin and various members of the crew.  Disc 4 contains the majority of the bonus features, which include three beyond the scenes documentaries, a few minutes about scoring the show, and the standard deleted scenes and gag real.

Despite my complaints, the part of me that must know what happens next won't let the series go.  I'm considering some cheap ways to finish the series.  If you are interested in the show, I recommend you try to catch some reruns to help you decide if the first season of The West Wing is for you.

Season 1 Episodes:
1. Pilot
2. Post Hoc, Propter Hoc
3. A Proportional Response
4. Five Votes Down
5. The Crackpots and These Women
6. Mr. Willis of Ohio
7. The State Dinner
8. Enemies
9. The Short List
10. In Excelsis Deo
11. Lord John Marbury
12. He Shall, From Time to Time
13. Take out the Trash Day
14. Take This Sabbath Day
15. Celestial Navigation
16. 20 Hours in LA
17. The White House Pro-Am
18. Six Meetings Before Lunch
19. Let Bartlet be Bartlet
20. Mandatory Minimums
21. Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
22. What Kind of Day Has it Been

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