Monday, September 22, 2014

Peeking Behind the Scenes at the 'West Wing'

Laurie (Lisa Edelstein): Tell your friend POTUS he's got a funny name, and he should learn how to ride a bicycle.

Sam (Rob Lowe): I would, but he's not my friend; he's my boss. It's not his name; it's his title.

Laurie: POTUS?

Sam: President of the United States. I'll call ya.

Fifteen years ago tonight, one of my favorite TV programs of all time, The West Wing, made its first appearance on America's TV screens. (Of course, I am a political junkie, anyway, so I suppose it isn't really surprising that the show appealed to me.)

That first episode was a mangled, dangling mass of loose strings — or so it must have seemed to many viewers. Some of those loose ends took seven years to tie together. It was a very literate script, written by very savvy writers. Frankly, there were times when I thought that, in spite of the elementary nature of that first episode, parts of it might be over some viewers' heads. I suppose that is a risk you run with just about anything on TV.

That very basic first story dealt with how the president got hurt riding a bicycle. As the episode unfolded, viewers became acquainted with the characters — and learned that there was much more to the story than met the eye. The West Wing was like that; it tended to set up its viewers — and usually delivered a gentle knockout punch in the last five minutes — gentle in the sense that viewers almost never saw it coming.

In some ways, the cast of that first episode did not really resemble the cast of the final episode seven years later. There was a core of characters who remained with the show from start to finish, but others came and went, as they do in the real West Wing. I felt that angle added a touch of realism to the stories, kind of like the ever–changing nature of the ensemble cast of "M*A*S*H."

Some of those characters, like Allison Janney who played C.J. the press secretary, became very well known through their work on the series — even if some weren't originally intended to be regulars. Others, who may have been expected to be long–term characters, were there briefly, then left and were never heard from again.

Martin Sheen, who played the president, wasn't supposed to be a major presence on the show. The series was really supposed to be about the president's staff. But he quickly became a regular, as did the first lady (Stockard Channing), who wasn't even seen 15 years ago tonight. I think the only time she was mentioned was during Sheen's monologue near the end of the episode.

I believe Janel Moloney, who played Donna, the aide to Josh (Bradley Whitford), was only intended to be an occasional character, but she wound up staying with the series to the last episode — and became a much more significant (and popular) character in the process.

Ironically, viewers weren't sure just how attached they should get to Whitford's character that first night. He was, in the words of the first President Bush, in deep doo–doo after insulting a pundit from the Christian right on the air; as a result, the as–yet unseen president was said to be ready to fire Josh — but had not, primarily because of intervention on his behalf by others, especially Leo, the chief of staff (John Spencer).

For that matter, I wasn't sure about Lisa Edelstein's character, a "high–priced call girl" who appeared destined to be the significant other for Sam the speech writer (Rob Lowe). There was something noble about Edelstein. Her character was using the proceeds from her prostitution to pay for her education so she wasn't your run–of–the–mill call girl. She was in a few other episodes in that first season, and her relationship with Sam seemed to be blooming, but she did not remain with the series. I recall no explanation being given.

Sam had kind of a shaky start that night. He didn't know Edelstein was a call girl when he slept with her — and, unfortunately, when he tried to explain to the communications director, Toby (Richard Schiff), what had happened, he neglected to elaborate after he said, "I accidentally slept with a prostitute." Toby was, understandably, bewildered. "Accidentally? I don't understand. Did you trip over something?"

Likewise, Moira Kelly played a political consultant and Josh's former girlfriend. She seemed to be destined for a long–term role on the show but left after the first season (actually, her involvement was less and less each week until it apparently dwindled to nothing before the end of the season) and was never mentioned again.

The reason for Sheen's bicycle accident was mostly a mystery that first night — until Sheen showed up near the end of the episode and clarified things considerably. That, as I understand it, was kind of how the series was originally designed. The focus would be on the staff, the president would pop in from time to time to sort of tie together the loose ends.

On this occasion, though, it seems more appropriate to reflect on the series, which ran for seven years, than to obsess over the meat of that first episode. The show was pigeonholed by some as a liberal's fantasy of how things ought to work — and it was that, to be sure. It was a product of its times, patterned to a great extent after the Clinton administration, a clearly Democrat president contending with a Congress that just as clearly was dominated by Republicans.

Many of the show's advisers came from the Clinton administration, and sometimes episodes were almost wistful reflections on how the writers apparently wished things could have been in the late 1990s.

The great thing about the West Wing, though, was how it appealed to people across the political spectrum. I knew people who were Democrats, Republicans, even independents who watched the show faithfully and wished for a president like Jed Bartlet.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? If they can agree on a TV show about a president and a Congress held by opposing parties ...