As Inauguration Day looms, it is hard to imagine that this is where we’ve landed. And in all honesty, I cannot bring myself to watch the ascendency of the 45th President of the United States. Instead, at the suggestion of the editorial staff here at The Nerd League, I am diving deep into one of my favorite fictional worlds, The West Wing.
The drama from the mind of Aaron Sorkin ran on NBC for seven seasons, and covered the trials and tribulations of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his administration: Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Senior Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), and Personal Aide to the President Charlie Young (Dule Hill). The West Wing leans heavily on political idealism and civic and civil discourse, something that has disappeared from real life political drama.
I have loved T he West Wing for a long time, and have been an unabashed superfan, including owning the complete series DVD set in which the DVDs came in file folders, becoming friends almost immediately with anyone who loves the show as much as I do, and quoting the show in my everyday life (“Y’know, I’m so sick of Congress I could vomit” has come into a lot of use lately). The message of optimism and plurality throughout the series has always stuck with me, and with the rise of Netflix, more and more people have started watch the show, even leading to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast from Josh Malina (who played Will Bailey in the final three and a half seasons) and Hrishi Hirw ay of Song Exploder where they break down the show episode by episode.
The message of optimism and plurality throughout the series has always stuck with me, and with the rise of Netflix, more and more people have started watch the show, even leading to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast from Josh Malina (who played Will Bailey in the final three and a half seasons) and Hrishi Hirway of Song Exploder where they break down the show episode by episode. (Incidentally, the podcast dropped a rap collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda which I highly recommend you check out because it is what my brain looks like on the inside and LMM might be a bigger West Wing fan than I am.)
So, if you also need to dive into a world where politics are a little more civil, or if you just are interested in the show, check out these thirteen episodes to watch instead of the Inauguration on January 20. And a warning: though it has been 11 years since the show was on the air, there are big spoilers ahead.
First, fourteen episodes that just missed the cut, because this was an incredibly hard list to narrow down for someone who loves this show perhaps a little too much:
– A Proportional Response (Season 1)
– Celestial Navigation (Season 1)
– The Big Block of Cheese Day episodes: The Crackpots and These Women (Season 1)
and Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail (Season 2)
– The Midterms (Season 2)
– Shibboleth (Season 2)
– Noël (Season 2)
– Bartlet for America (Season 3)
– Dead Irish Writers (Season 3)
– Game On (Season 4)
– Election Night (Season 4)
– Shutdown (Season 5)
– King Corn (Season 6)
– The Debate (Season 7)
1. Pilot (Season 1)
Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start. We meet the President’s staff, who are learning the President ran his bicycle into a tree. There are refugees from Cuba, and a political fight over church and state. It’s a good introduction to the world of the show and the issues they will be tackling, and perhaps the best introduction of a President in any media.
2. In Excelsis Deo (Season 1)
It’s Christmas, and the White House is handling hate crimes legislation, Leo is facing Congressional hearings for his past substance abuse issues, and Toby gets a call from the D.C. Police about a homeless veteran who was found dead wearing his coat. A tour-de-force for Richard Schiff, who plays Toby Ziegler, this episode tugs at the heartstrings.
3. Take This Sabbath Day (Season 1)
Perhaps the most nuanced take on the death penalty seen on modern television, President Bartlet grapples with whether to stop the death of Simon Cruz, and each member of his staff examines their own positions on the issue. This episode also features a hungover Bradley Whitford getting yelled at by via an ASL interpreter, which is one of the funniest things you will see.
4 and 5. In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Parts 1 & 2 (Season 2)
After the explosive events of the season 1 finale, we skip between past and present to see how the team came together and how they handle the present situation of an attack on the President has put two of their own lives in danger.
6. The Stackhouse Filibuster (Season 2)
A lighter, but still substantive episode of the show. A senator is holding the floor, not allowing an appropriations bill to pass, but has given no reason why. The staff scrambles to figure out why, while the cloud of a possible scandal begins to loom over the Bartlet White House.
7. Isaac and Ishmael (Season 3)
I hear you, fellow West Wing lovers. This is a weird one for many reasons, and it doesn’t fit in the timeline. Written as a response to 9/11, Isaac and Ishmael asks the audience to understand why things happen, and to examine where prejudices come from. It doesn’t quite fit anywhere, but it is essential viewing for today’s world.
8. The Indians in the Lobby (Season 3)
It’s Thanksgiving in the White House, and President Bartlet is frustrated that he has to have Thanksgiving at Camp David, he doesn’t know how to cook the stuffing, and there are two representatives from the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe in the lobby, hence the title. This episode has the infamous Butterball hotline scene, as well as one of the few times that the series examines issues with the rights of Native Americans.
9 and 10. 20 Hours in America, Parts 1 & 2 (Season 4)
Left behind from the campaign, Josh, Toby, and Donna must make their way back to Washington on planes, trains, and automobiles, while the rest of the staff deals with the fallout from the events of the season 3 finale. Filled with incredible comedic beats paired with moments of poignancy, 20 Hours as a two parter is The West Wing at its best.
11. The Supremes (Season 5)
The post-Sorkin years are hard, particularly the first season without him. However, this episode is a highlight. When a Supreme Court justice unexpectedly passes away, the White House have issues with candidates until a offhand remark from Donna saves the day. The guest stars of Glenn Close and William Fichtner make the episode, though the few comedic beats are a welcome treat.
12. 2612 Votes (Season 6)
The Democratic National Convention has arrived, and the party still has yet to choose a candidate for the Presidency. Meanwhile at the White House, a leak of classified material might save three stranded astronauts but has dire consequences for a member of the staff.
13. Tomorrow (Season 7)
The series finale ends with the Inauguration of President Bartlet’s successor, as each character reflects on the old administration as the new one comes in, and a new era dawns in the West Wing.
Watch these episodes, and the whole series if you are so inclined. Take heart in the positives of politics and the struggles that the character face as they try to change their world as we witness change in ours. And remember, as President Bartlet said: Decisions are made by those who show up.