It’s no secret to those of you who listen to our podcast that I think that The West Wing is the best show ever done for television. Its first four seasons, when Aaron Sorkin led the writing and development team, were extraordinary. The fact that it all took place inside the White House (mostly); that it was based on dialogue and little action; that it presented both sides of issues; that it dealt with subject matter that matters; that it combined pain and humor in a way that wasn’t sentimental - all of it added up to the best hour-long show a week of television could offer.
Then Sorkin left the show to move on to other things and the last three seasons were well done, but not Sorkinesque.
Fast-forward ten years and they all got together on a stage in Texas to answer questions and talk about the behind-the-scenes of The West Wing. Heaven for West Wingers like myself.
Interestingly, the show almost didn’t make it. The first episode didn’t have a great rating and so they went and made new demographics for the powers that be in tv management to judge it. Those households where one income is over $75,000. Those households where there is Internet service (not in every household back then). Those households who subscribed to The New York Times. And in those groups it did really well - so it was pointed out to the powers on high that they could sell very expensive advertising to a group with that kind of spending power. And so the first season was filled with dot coms and upscale ads. Interesting, right?
Then Monica Lewinsky happened (she didn’t just happen for the record), and it was delayed a year. Interesting, right?
The executives wanted the players to leave the White House. In the first episode where there is an issue with Cuban refugees in boats heading to Florida in a possible hurricane, they wanted Josh Lyman to go on a boat and go out to save them. Sorkin, trying to avoid an awkward pause in the meeting, said, “You mean, like, swim?” And, they said, “Of course not, he could rent a boat but it wouldn’t be large enough and then he would be in a Schindler’s List moment.” Thankfully, that management team was replaced at NBC and the new Scott Sassa got it and it became what it now is; considered in the top three shows of all times. Interesting, right?
Sidney Poitier was offered the Presidential role (foreshadowing?), and then Jason Robards (he would have been cool, right?), and Hal Holbrook read for the part and John Cullum, but it was Martin Sheen who Sorkin chose, who played the role of the President’s right-hand in The American President years earlier. And originally CJ’s role was written for a man. I think CJ is one of the two best characters written for women in series television. The other is Cristina Yang, whom I mourn to this day. I wrote an ode to Cristina for Freesia Lane.
Bradley Cooper. The best. Typecast - which has hurt him in developing the career he deserves after The West Wing ended - but I’m sure he’d tell you it was worth it. Listening to him speak about the show is like listening to Josh Lyman. "I always joke with Aaron - and it goes for Tommy, too - that The West Wing was a great show about democracy run by a couple of Kim Jong-ils.” I remarked in our podcast about The Newsroom that I think Sorkin sometimes writes the actors into the role, rather than a role that actors play. Josh is a good example.
Sorkin left after Season Four, where Zoe, the President’s daughter, is kidnapped. Bartlet relinquishes his power for the greater good, knowing he would give the terrorists whatever they wanted to get his daughter back, and then the season ends. There were those that said he did that to make it hard for the writers coming in, but during the reunion Q&A he said he did it to tee them up to carry on the story rather than give them a blank slate which he thought would be harder to write. Continuity between him and the new team. I believe him. Because he is perfect in every way and I want to believe him.
Look, there are people like myself who watch The West Wing over and over again. I love the family they are. I love what they fight for. I love that they don’t always win. I love the dialogue and how years later it still resonates. I love that Sorkin speaks in a language I aspire to but have never obtained.
-Christine Merser (AKA Hollister)