What It’s Like to Binge-Watch “The West Wing” as a Millennial

There are two reasons I felt compelled to write about Aaron Sorkin’s seminal series about life in the White House. One, I recently wrote about Sorkin’s film, The American President, which was the really the precursor to The West Wing. Secondly, the ATX Television Festival honored the show a few weekends ago by reuniting the cast as well as the producers for a panel.

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AUSTIN, TX – JUNE 11: The cast of the West Wing, Joshua Malina, Janel Moloney, Bradley Whitford, Dulé Hill, Melissa Fitzgerald, and Richard Schiff with Director Thomas Schlamme and Series Creator Aaron Sorkin attend the “The West Wing Administration” panel during the 2016 ATX Television Festival at the Paramount Theatre on June 11, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Picturegroup)

My introduction to The West Wing was a few years ago, something I spoke about in my post about The American President.  I became obsessed with all things Sorkin after discovering The Newsroom. For some reason though, I associated The West Wing with old people. I know that sounds dumb, but there’s really no classier way to put it. I associated the show with an older audience and didn’t think I would be able to relate.

I’m happy to say I was wrong – not necessarily about the show being associated with an older audience, but about it not being accessible. I, of course, like others my age, discovered the show long after it was on the air, on Netflix. I meant to only watch one episode, but that’s not what happened. I watched them all…not in one sitting of course, but let’s just say, it was over the course of a few weeks. I watched Bartlet and Josh get shot in the season one finale and in the same week, saw CJ get a death threat well into season 3.

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No one really talks about it, but there is a major difference between consuming a show all at once and waiting from week to week to see what’s going to happen. Being 24, I still clearly remember the hysteria I felt, rushing home to watch the Gilmore Girls finale. Now, we take in multi-season television shows in sometimes a week or less. It’s sort of like a drug. We all tell ourselves we’re only going to watch an episode or two but that never quite happens because it’s right there and WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS.

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I found this pattern particularly interesting in the case of The West Wing. I quite literally couldn’t stop. It was a problem. The real world was just less interesting than the lives of Josh, Toby, CJ, Sam, Donna and President Bartlet. Aw, if only people really spoke like that. I recently decided to revisit the show and was struck by the relevance of the show today. True, they don’t have cell phones. Okay, they do, but really OUTDATED CELL PHONES. With the recent Democratic Presidential Primaries, I was struck by how much of Bernie Sanders’ platform is spewed by Bartlett and in later seasons, Matt Santos.

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In the midst of my binge, I called my dad, who of course already knew I loved the show. I told him I was re-watching it and he told me he had no interest. When I asked why, he told me that the show was too depressing. Given that most of the show was made during the Bush years, he found it unrealistic and upsetting now. I never had a problem with the optimism and idealism which the show displayed as I was a Sorkin lifer, but my dad, having a degree in political science and having seen many more presidents than I have, couldn’t handle it.

I, however, completely disagree. Through shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing, I acquired an interest in politics and news, two subjects which I had little to no interest in before. The purpose of entertainment to me is twofold: obviously, we watch for entertainment value, but beyond that, I go to the movies and watch TV to be provoked intellectually. I believe that entertainment has the power to change perspectives, to help us walk in someone else’s shoes. Aaron Sorkin’s work does that for me. During the ATX panel, Bradley Whitford who played Josh spoke to this, saying…

“No human being will ever again write 22 one-hour episodes for four years – beautifully written, complicated verbally, complicated personally, funny, about something, as 11 feature films a year. It is extraordinary. It will never, ever happen again!”

On a superficial level, The West Wing is just a joy to watch. The character dynamics are fun and the dialogue is fast. The Josh-Donna of it all doesn’t hurt either.

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#SWOON

But, with each episode I consumed, I learned something new. I was not a political science major and so, many of the problems the characters had in the White House were foreign to me. The Josh and Donna dynamic was partly a way for the audience to understand these big concepts – Donna would ask Josh a question and he would answer in simple terms.

I also started listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast hosted by Joshua Malina (who plays Will Bailey in later seasons) and Hrishikesh Hirway. I, at first, thought this might be a waste of time, but after 12 hours in a car listening to every episode, I have a different opinion. Joshua and Hrishi discuss the show with humor and don’t always sing the show’s praises. In addition, they’ve had several guests on the show, one of which was Eli Attie, who in addition to being one of the writers for The West Wing, was also one of Al Gore’s speechwriters during the 2000 election.

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Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina

The show is ambitious which is what I love most about it. Looking at today’s television, I’m struck by just how special The West Wing was. It was a network show which succeeded in having opinions, compelling character drama, and also just being plain entertaining. There are, of course, moments that feel outdated. However, quality writing and acting stand the test of time…even if Sorkin may repeat himself sometimes. Millennial problems, amiright?

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All seven seasons of The West Wing are available on Netflix….so, um, you should watch now….What’s next? 😉

Why I Now Appreciate “The American President”

On my birthday, while in line for a ride for at Disney’s California Adventure theme park, I stopped mid-sentence and said to my friend, “I know this song. Why do I know this song?” That song was the main theme from the 1995 Rob Reiner film, The American President.

Back in the summer of 2012, I discovered Aaron Sorkin through his HBO series The Newsroom. I loved it because its fast paced dialogue and romantic antics reminded me of the screwball comedies I grew up watching. Of course, when I mentioned the show to my brother, he was like, “Well, yeah. That’s Sorkin.”

I binged The West Wing, Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip…if it was Sorkin, I watched it! And during this Sorkin binge, I discovered that another one of my mom’s favorite movies was actually written by him too. The American President was played several times during my childhood and since my brother and dad routinely made fun of it (mostly cause my mom watched it SO many times), I never thought it was high art.

A few years ago, I re-watched it and realized just how brilliant it was. It’s very much a prototype for what Sorkin’s signature style became and I fell in love with it. It has everything I love – idealism and fun and great one liners!

If you’ve never seen The American President, the Rob Reiner film follows POTUS, Andrew Shepard (Michael Douglas) who develops a crush on the new head of the environmental lobby, Sydney Ellen-Wade (Annette Bening). The crush becomes a relationship, but of course politics complicate everything. Couple that with the fact that Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), Shepard’s nemesis, decides to run for President….craziness ensues!

Here are just a few reasons you should watch it ASAP.

The Cast

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Okay, so main cast first. Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepard. He’s at his best because he’s got Sorkin’s dialogue coming out of his mouth.

Annette Bening as Sydney Ellen Wade is also fantastic. She delivers some of the best lines – most notably one my mom still can’t quote correctly about her sister having to live with regret. Ha.

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In addition, the film’s supporting cast is filled with wonderful characters actors. Martin Sheen plays the President’s right hand man, which is ironic considering he plays the POTUS in Sorkin’s The West Wing a few years later. It’s almost as if he was auditioning.

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Scandal fans will be excited to see Joshua Malina – David Rosen in Scandal – as David, Sydney’s co-worker. We can’t tell if he has a crush on her or what…not that it matters. Sydney is obviously into the President.

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Also, people seem to forget Michael J. Fox. Little trivia: Fox had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s before the film started shooting and he was afraid that during a routine physical before the movie, they’d find it with the small shaking in his hands. He’s in one of my favorite moments of the film.

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Jon Mahoney is also wonderful as Leo Solomon, Sydney’s boss. I know him as Diane Court’s father in Say Anything. Once again, he proves that he’s a very underrated character actor.

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Last, but certainly not least, Richard Dreyfuss plays Senator Bob Rumson, Douglas’s opponent. He’s revels in his character’s evilness.

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The Dialogue…

Sorkin is a master of dialogue and witty banter. The American President is filled with great lines. Probably my favorite is POTUS telling Sydney, “Let’s take him outside and beat the shit out of him” right after she insulted him not knowing he was in the room.

When Sydney is going through security at the White House, she tells the guard that she’s savoring the Capra-esque qualities which is funny because Frank Capra III was the 1st Asst Director. The dialogue is very Capra-esque which is probably one of the reasons the film struck a cord with me.

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The Music

The score of this film composed by Marc Shaiman is sweeping and romantic. You can’t not feel patriotic and idealistic just listening to it.

 

It’s Idealistic

Yeah, does this film really show what the White House is like? Um, no. Instead, Sorkin shows us the world that could be. This film is proof that old-style idealism and romance are still alive and well…or at least, they were in 1995. What made me fall in love with The Newsroom was that it took screwball romantic comedy antics and married it to well meaning values. The same is true in The American President. The ideals the film perpetuates are real and still resonate, even twenty-one years later. But, hey, I mean, it’s also just plain romantic…

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As it turns out this film falls in the same category as Working Girl – I owe my mother another apology. Maybe her taste isn’t so bad after all. 😉

If you’re a Sorkin fan, this film is obviously a must see. But, I will say, if you’re not a Sorkin fan, this film might just make you one. What can I say? I’m an optimist.

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Vintage trailer below: