10
Aug
2011
Marathoning
the West Wing
Rachel
Marathoning explores what happens when you remove the serial quality from a television show or film series and instead become a habitual binge-watcher. Is something lost when you watch every episode of a show in a single weekend? Is something gained when you explore a set of movies that originally spanned a decade in one night? How do you wrap your brain around an entire body of work without diluting it, or drowning in it?

1999-2006, created by Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen, John Spencer, Rob Lowe, Dule Hill, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Stockard Channing, Janel Moloney, Alan Alda, Joshua Malina, and Jimmy Smits

Episodes: 156
Marathon time elapsed: 21 days



I'm not always the first to the party when it comes to some iconic TV shows and movies. Thankfully, I have some incredibly pop-culturally aware friends and a keen sense of missing out on something big. And seeing as I'm a lazy Sunday kind of girl, I find myself prone to prolonged periods of binge-watching.

"But Rachel," you say, "you're depriving yourself of that feeling of anticipation that comes with waiting for a show over hiatus! You're ruining the sensation! You must have some better way to spend your time!"

I promise: I'm not, I don't care, and I really don't.

The West Wing provided an interesting case study of my marathoning habits. I'd seen large portions of the show (namely, the first two seasons) before. My high school civics teacher used to show us episodes on days he didn't feel like teaching. As a relatively politically active person and liberal idealist, I often found myself surrounded by people who swore by this show, and therefore couldn't avoid constant allusions and spoilers. But I'd never seen all of the episodes, and while I knew roughly the entire plot arc of the series, I was missing some of the details.

So this Fourth of July, because it was really too hot in Washington to go to the Mall, and because I had absolutely no desire to squeeze myself onto a metro car with 200 tourists, I decided to do the next-best patriotic thing and watch The West Wing . At first I planned on just watching a few of the gems in the first season, skipping the filler episodes for the real good ones. But I quickly realized that (in the first three seasons, at least), there really was no such thing as "just a filler episode." By the time darkness descended and I was ready to leave my apartment for some fireworks and all-American drinking, I was knee deep in the first season and completely hooked.

The fact that I marathoned a seven season show in less than a month (the numbers work out to an average of 7 episodes a day. I need help.) says a lot about my watching tendencies. I like to have a constant soundtrack to everything I do, and this can include TV episodes. I carry my computer around so there's always an episode on. I'm not sitting in front of a screen for seven solid hours, and I usually have an episode going while doing other work, relegating a lot of screen time to an experience more reminiscent of listening to the radio. A mediocre show doesn't survive this kind of viewing, because if the material isn't compelling or engrossing, I find myself lost when I do actively return to it.

The high average should also denote how absolutely amazing The West Wing actually is. As an Aaron Sorkin creation, the greatest strength of the show is the writing. The characters, starting with President Josiah Bartlet and trickling all the way down to the various assistants for senior staffers in the Bartlet White House, are impeccably shaped. Even the characters I found myself hating, including season 1's Mandy, a political consultant played by Moira Kelly, and Amy Gardner (Mary Louise-Parker), a women's rights activist who is alternately an ally to the Barlet administration and a thorn in its side, are generally well developed, quippy, and so compelling I wished there really could be people like them.



It would be impossible for me to adequately express my love for the senior staffers, or to choose a definitive favorite among them. I can't help but think that if Leo McGarry (John Spencer), CJ Cregg (Allison Janney), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and Charlie Young (Dule Hill) actually ran the White House, this country would be much better off. I'm disappointed that Washington isn't full of people like these (particularly Josh Lyman-types, I'd marry that man in a heart beat). Much like the experience I have when reading a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, an attempt to keep track of favorite quotes is impossible with this show, because almost everything that comes out of people's mouths is golden. And they form such a cohesive team in the White House, one that transcends petty jealousies and based firmly in a shared idealism and sense of service, I often found myself edging closer and closer to seeking out a job on the Hill, one that would be demeaning and demanding and which would jade me thoroughly, the moment I realized that Jed Bartlet really isn't your typical politician and the average chief of staff isn't half the man that Leo McGarry is.



The supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at, either. What President Bartlet says in season 1 episode 5, "The Crackpots and These Women" (another incredibly amazing episode), is true: the assistants are just as compelling on screen as the major movers and shakers. Donna (Janel Moloney), with her bambi-esque naivety springing into serious political savvy, Margaret (NiCole Robinson), the strange and birdlike screen stealer, Carol (Melissa Fitzgerald), the steady and reliable leveler, and Debbie Fiderer (Lily Tomlin) are all indispensable, and I never found myself wishing the show wasn't so preoccupied with them. If the West Wing aired now, in fact, I imagine I would avidly watch the hiatus "minisodes" that would undoubtedly center on these women.


And don't even get me started on the magnificent Kathryn Joosten as Mrs. Delores Landingham, who easily positions herself as the matriarch of this group of giants, and never once seems to have trouble standing up to the leaders of the free world. I want her to run my life.

White House counsel is populated by incredible legal minds, including the conservative outlier Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter) and the staunch liberals Lionel Tribbey (John Larroquette) and Oliver Babish (Oliver Platt); the Situation Room enjoys the leadership of the insurmountable Admiral Percy "Fitz" Fitzwallace (John Amos); the Briefing Room houses many shrewd journalistic minds, including Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield); the First Family is close to impeccable, and the few personal relations the overworked but incredible senior staffers manage to have are compelling and well played.



The benefits of marathoning a series that is so character-driven and well written are many, but the most notable is the connection that forms so strongly between the cast and the viewer. By completely immersing myself in this series, these people became friends I spent endless days with, not acquaintances I saw occasionally. I legitimately dreamed about Josh Lyman, I didn't just absentmindedly wonder when I'd see him again.

One of the drawbacks of watching a series this long and intricate over such a short period of time is the tendency of everything to blend together. It hurts the ability to be conversant in the series, because the passage of time is less pronounced and events aren't as separated as originally intended. One episode bleeds into another and you can't remember if Sam left in season three or four (Jordan reminds me that it is in fact season four) or which big block of cheese day corresponds with which season, or what CJ is celebrating precisely when she performs "The Jackal" in episode eighteen of season one. Many of the second tier moments, meritorious in their own right, hang in a cloud, and you find yourself remembering the banter instead of the bills being agonizingly crafted. But I'm not entirely sure that last part is a bad thing at all.



All of this applies, at least, for the first four seasons. Sorkin and executive producer Tommy Schlamme left the show after a row with NBC, and the lights definitely dimmed in the West Wing after that. The divide is even more noticeable in a marathoning setting rather than incremental watching, because you can't help but notice a drastic decline in wit or realistic emotion in the later seasons, when the show was driven by plot gimmicks surrounding major political and global catastrophes. Kidnappings, nuclear meltdowns, impending war, and unfortunate politics become too central, and we lose sight of the people and things that really matter, and which made the show so notable in its first seasons. Sure, big things happened in the first four seasons, but I always went back to the characters, their hopes and desperations and struggles, rather than the headlines. In seasons five through seven, the characters have a tendency to get lost in the world they're running, which is a damn shame. Whereas, while watching the first four seasons, I'd pause the episode when I needed to step away, I found myself leaving the later seasons running, because I wasn't afraid of missing a brilliant line or careful nuance. Events became so heavy handed, and tensions rose so significantly that I could miss whole sections without feeling robbed.

It doesn't help that the team starts to seriously deteriorate following the fourth season, with some, like Toby, becoming nearly unrecognizable. Tempers flare, people move on, ideals falter, hopes waver, and the staffers become wrapped up in petty politics. For most of the post-Sorkin seasons there are major conflicts between the senior staffers, those people who seemed to form such a cohesive family early on. The atmosphere is much darker and significantly less compelling, and the sterling one-liners are much less frequent. The only thing that kept me going through to the end of the series was the fact that I felt so connected to the characters as established earlier on, I couldn't leave them, but instead had to know how things turned out, where they ended up. I cried with and for these people, so much so that I probably wouldn't have survived regular watching (I would have had a heart attack after the first season finale, "What Kind of Day Has it Been," and the hiatus would have killed me). The second season finale, "Two Cathedrals," is potentially the greatest hour of television ever aired (and yes, I'm willing to fight you on that. Physically and figuratively). But the star episodes aren't saved for season openers and closers.

The election that crops up in seasons six breathes new life into the series, but it never again ascends to the peaks of its former glory. The familial feel is further disrupted by the fragmentation of the team between various campaigns, and seasons six and seven split their time between the Bartlet White House and the few remaining original senior staffers, and the campaign trail, and I couldn't help but feel like I wasn't getting enough time with anyone. As much as I love Josh Malina, his Will Bailey never fully replaces Rob Lowe's Sam Seaborn, who leaves to run for office in the middle of season 4 (I'm just now forgiving Rob Lowe for thinking he could do better than the West Wing because of his brilliant turn as Chris Traeger on Parks & Recreation), and his encounters with Commander Kate Harper, the national security advisor played by Mary McCormack in seasons 5-7, doesn't fill the immense void of office chemistry left by the dissolution of the original cast.

The real draw of these seasons is the prodigiously prolific similarities between the Santos-Vinick election, showcasing Jimmy Smits and the fantastic Alan Alda (who I can forgive for abandoning the radical liberalism of his M*A*S*H character Hawkeye for his stunning portrayal of a Republican that doesn't make me want to vomit) and the real world Obama-McCain campaigns of 2008. References of Vinick being a "maverick" and Santos' calls for change and hope drove me immediately to the internet, and I was shocked to see that there was no legitimate overlap between the seasons and the 2008 election cycle.

But even at the series' lowest points, it is all too apparent that television like this just doesn't get made anymore, and when I get sick of a run of the mill sitcom or overwrought drama, I can always return to my old friends in the West Wing.



Notable episodes:

Season 1

All of them, really but particularly "Pilot," "The Crackpots and These Women," "The State Dinner," "The Short List," "In Excelsis Deo," "Lord John Marbury," "He Shall, From Time to Time," "Take this Sabbath Day," Celestial Navigation," "What Kind of Day Has it Been"

Links:

Pluie
These Women
Secret Plan to Fight Inflation
Panda Bears
The Jackal


Season 2

"In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Parts 1 & 2," "In This White House," "And It's Surely to Their Credit," "Shibboleth," "Noel," "Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail," "The Stackhouse Filibuster," "17 People," "18th and Potomac," "Two Cathedrals"

Season 3

"Manchester Part 1," "War Crimes," "The Indians in the Lobby," "The Women of Qumar," "Bartlet for America," "The Two Bartlets," "Hartsfield's Landing," "The US Poet Laureate," "Stirred," "Enemies Foreign and Domestic," "The Black Vera Wang, "Posse Comitatus"

Season 4

"20 Hours in America, Parts 1 & 2," "The Red Mass," "Debate Camp," "Game On," "Process Stories," "Holy Night," "The Long Goodbye," "Inauguration: Over There," "The California 47th," "Red Haven's on Fire," "Evidence of Things Not Seen," "Life on Mars, "Twenty Five"

Season 5

"The Dogs of War," "Constituency of One," Disaster Relief," "Separation of Powers," "Shutdown," "The Warfare of Genghis Khan," "Full Disclosure," "The Supremes," "Access," "Gaza," "Memorial Day"
Season 6

"NSF Thurmont," "The Birnam Wood," "Liftoff," "The Hubbert Peak," "In the Room," "Impact Winter," "Faith Based Initiative," "The Wake Up Call," "Drought Conditions," "A Good Day," "2162 Votes"

Season 7

"The Ticket," "The Mommy Problem," "Here Today," "The Wedding," "Running Mates," "Duck & Cover," "The Cold," "Election Day Parts 1 & 2," "Requium," Transition," "Institutional Memory"

Need another binge? Check out more Marathoning here


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