I remember watching the first episode when it first aired in the UK ten years ago. I was hooked from scene one. This was an intelligent show that (almost) never compromised, and as such it's not for everyone. The West Wing never reached for the lowest common denominator of banal simplicity. With as many as four or five different threads within a single episode, often multiple 'A' stories, the sheer speed of the show is still mind-boggling. Speed in a TV show can be simulated by walking fast down corridors (a West Wing staple), but often this device is not accompanied by actual speed - speed of dialogue or idea (House, anyone?). The average West Wing script was literally twice the size of a regular 60 minute show.
But so far, we have a recipe for disaster. Big regular cast, large bank of recurring characters, intelligent, complex political plots, and dialogue speed roughly thrice that of normal conversation. Add to that Aaron Sorkin's favourite plot device, the 'quantum-leaping' stories where past, present and future events are played out with no explicit cues, and you add a level of complexity that is beyond many average viewers. How did it not bomb? Well, the actors were consistently of the highest calibre, with the most accomplished regular cast of perhaps any TV show ever; the plotting was tight and masterful; the direction was simply a joy to behold; and the writing was like music.
Yes, it's true. Actors and writer came together in a beautiful symphony of fiction that still amazes on DVD. The blazing speed of the show was belied by its fluidity. Everything flowed, and rolled, and unfolded so gracefully that a sharp viewer (the kind the creators were aiming at) could ride the story with ease - after some practice! And that's the incredible thing - effective watching of The West Wing required practice! Now that's a brave direction to go in, to rely on the patience and attention of the viewer.
Millions gave it willingly, to watch masters of their craft at work. Aaron Sorkin (writer) and Tommy Schlamme (director) created a magnificent thing. It was so improbable (Martin Sheen the president of the US?) but so completely and utterly engrossing. Razor sharp wit took its place alongside genuinely laugh-out-loud slapstick (what? slapstick? who knew Richard Schiff could do slapstick?!), high drama next to character study, through pain, joy, fear, tears and exhilaration.
For almost four years, every episode was solid gold. The show had a social conscience that was never trite or saccharine, and addressed countless issues with more honesty and good intent than anybody would ever ascribe to a real government. Episodes like 'What Kind Of Day Has It Been?', 'Noel', 'Two Cathedrals' and 'Bartlet For America' are the kinds of episodes that come along once every blue moon in most shows, with such raw power that they just blow you away every time. And Sorkin wrote episodes like that, consistently, for nearly four years. It's simply astonishing.
However, the wheels almost came off after Rob Lowe left, and for a year or so the show foundered. The writing visibly suffered after creator Aaron Sorkin left at the end of season four, and the show started to rely on melodrama to survive, where previously it had astounded by making the most trivial political routinery exciting and engaging. 'Terrorists kidnap First Daughter!' 'President shuts down federal government!' 'Car bomb in Gaza, head of the Joint Chiefs killed!' I feared the worst, but The West Wing at its lowest ebb was still head and shoulders above everything else, sitting pretty with The sopranos as the finest show of substance on telly.
Season six knocked it out of the park again, and the alternately cathartic and tense final season was a fitting end. Never afraid of pushing the envelope, or of making major changes in the character dynamic, West Wing deserves to be watched over and over for years to come.