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What We Wish Were True
A region 2 DVD review of THE WEST WING – SEVENTH SEASON in 2 Parts by Camus
Mandy, I feel like I lost a hundred and eighty pounds. I'm smiling, I'm laughing, I'm enjoying the people I work with... I gotta snap out of this. What's on your mind?
I want you to help me get the Chinese to give us a new panda bear to replace
Well, that did the trick.
White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler,
a man in a semi-permanent state of denial when it comes to feeling good.


PART TWO: The Seventh Season

The nominee for the Democratic party's successor to Martin Sheen's President Bartlet, Congressman Matthew Santos (a dependably terrific Jimmy Smits), is 101 days away from either the White House or going back to Congress. Running on the same ticket as potential VP, is ex-Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer, RIP). Santos' campaign advisor, Josh Lyman (the oh-so obviously as-smart-as-his-character Bradley Whitford), is running himself and his staff into the ground and then giving them shovels to dig themselves out again. His ex-assistant Donna Moss (the ever hopeful and sexy-with-class, Janel Moloney) is trying to get back in her boss's good graces. Santos' opponent, the statesmanlike Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda – who never struck me as a republican – perhaps he isn't, this is fiction, dumb-ass), is a brilliant right winger way ahead in the polls. The President has wars, intervention and a mole in the White House leaking secrets (an act which saved four lives) to deal with while his Chief Of Staff, CJ Cregg (Allison Janey, swoon), is approached by an old flame. It's all business as usual for The West Wing.

Can I just mention something truly silly (as Holy Grail hits the West End this week, silliness may be back in fashion)? Allison Janney was told by her agent that she may carve out a very sparse career playing lesbians and drug addicts (she is 6 feet tall but appears so much taller on TV) but any other casting choices, forget them. She went on to be unforgettable and quite superb as press secretary/chief of staff C.J. Cregg (actors, like human beings, can be all sizes!). In the sixth season Kristin Chenoweth came on board as Leo's personal support, Annabeth Schott. Kristin must be over four feet tall (she must be) but sure doesn't look it. A TV series with an Amazon and a Hobbit (and they are both jaw droppingly smart). Hurrah for Hollywood!

Ashamed as I am to say it but I assumed seasons five to seven would not have reached the lofty heights the show reached whilst Aaron Sorkin was directly involved. After the kidnapping of Zoey (the President's daughter) I was afraid the Networks were putting pressure on Sorkin to make the show more action oriented. That may have been why he quit. I was wrong about the show's focus – it stayed true to its original ideals. There is a consistency in storytelling and performance that matches any of the Sorkin seasons and the only inconsistencies are directorial ones. It may be one of the best jobs in TV (directing these actors, what fun!) but it's essentially covering conversations. About politics. Once in a while, a non-political nugget will out...

Charlie Young:
Zoey and I are going out. I'll be on my pager.
Leo McGarry:
You're going out?
Charlie Young:
Leo McGarry:
Charlie, you're taking extra protection, right?
Charlie Young:
[taken aback] Hey, Leo...
Leo McGarry:
Secret Service protection, Charlie, but thanks for loading me up with that image.
Charlie Young:
Yeah, we'll have extra protection.

Some of the more creative directors, like Alex Graves, will shoot the principal in a conversation reflected in glass or another surface to create visual subtext. Large parts of the frame are often left bare in an attempt to be cinematic. Like Buffy, The West Wing straddled the 4x3 and 16x9 divide over their seven seasons. In the episode 'Welcome to Wherever You Are', director Matia Karrell has suddenly developed all those visual ticks that I rather hoped had become passé. You know, the faux handheld camera (for urgency? The camera is our, the audience's, POV. What are we, drunk?). Granted, it's contextualised by only being employed in the campaign bus but on The West Wing it feels like ketchup on Salmon en Croute.

I stand by an assertion that Sorkin's original dynamic (as directed by Thomas Schlame) is "have 'em talk fast, have 'em walk fast, have 'em talk smart, and shoot 'em with a steadicam…" Hell, from the moment Leo walks in – in the pilot – he has 12 conversations, 133 people pass him by and he's behind his desk 3 minutes and 26 seconds later. Many thanks to the Philadelphia Enquirer for those calculations. In the Seventh Season, the Steadicam is back – so is the harsh overhead lighting but there's an openness to the drama as we are out on the road as well as in the White House. A special nod of appreciation to the editor of the opener "The Ticket", Janet Ashikaga. The campaign montage to Steve Miller's 'Jet Airliner' was a real treat.

So let's boil down an American Election Campaign. Very smart people trying to figure out what dumber people will want to hear in order that those dumber people will put an 'X' on a piece of paper next to their candidate's name. I use the word 'dumber' cautiously. If the characters of Josh Lyman and Matt Santos are really up there in the brains department, most of those in the US are nowhere near being in touching distance. This is the paradox of politics. It's smart folk empathising with the dumber mindset because (as always) they want something from them. The ultimate paradox of a democracy is of course that the more people that vote for a candidate sends that candidate to the White House. Well, there are more less-than-smart folks than smart folks so who we get in power is who the dumber folks want – and this is why you have to be super smart to second guess this. Oh, it's exhilarating stuff. In the real world, Bush is President. I need say no more but will because I dearly want you to embrace this series.

All I'm saying is, if you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop to get a beer.
If you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for red lights.

And in amongst this you have the personal relationships that inevitably conflict and buffet during a campaign (and those doing the same after eight years in office). Upon hearing that Santos was now tied in the polls with ex-front runner Vinick, Josh kisses Donna for a fraction of three seconds longer than the moment warranted. All the Josh-Donna fans rejoiced. The subtext in this relationship was laid early. Donna comes to Josh for a job but as Donna has already rubbished Josh's candidate months earlier (she was doing her job bigging up another running candidate for the same party you understand), Josh snubbed her. Wrong. Josh is too smart for that. He snubbed her for other reasons – let's just say he was in mental turmoil over Donna but needed to focus on working to death.

The fantasy pairing looked like it might happen this season. I won't ruin it but let's just say that Janel Moloney (Donna Moss) only has to sit down and I'm hers for a foreseeable future. This season, Josh opens his flies, files... Sorry. Eyes. If the idiot can't actually work out that nine months on four hours sleep a night is not good for the man's health then he doesn't deserve her. But Josh is no idiot. Neither is Whitford who wrote one of the Seventh Season episodes. It's no coincidence that Sorkin's latest series took Whitford as a lead. These guys are close. And smart people? We cannot get enough of them on the TV these days. Look forward to Studio 60 – the next Sorkin/Whitford collaboration.

But you have to admire the decision – a very silly decision but a fun one, once in a while – to have Josh perform slapstick pratfalls. This is a political drama but people falling on the floor is funny across genres. In fact the more dignity they enjoy, the funnier it is when they end up on their asses. Witness C.J. (Alison Janney) in the gym in the pilot – pratfall… When Josh's chair was missing in an earlier season, Whitford did the "I sit but there is no chair" deed with aplomb. Now in the seventh, he ties himself to another chair (old university trick) and will not move until the answer to a problem has been arrived at. If ever there is a case of the audience expecting the one thing that will drive him forward and therefore floor-ward, it's this scene. On his back, he still manages to communicate to his staff (all of whom are well versed in Josh's way of doing things).

No question, these people are dedicated. There is an assumption that personal lives outside the office are almost acceptably impossible to enjoy. It's the prestige, you see. The personification of governance of the United States assumes its employees, including the President, will only go home once the work is done. The work – ahem – is never done. So these people seem to be in a near permanent state of perpetual work. Does that make them more laudable? It pins the fantasy on the breasts of the creators. These are super-human characters and what other attribute would you want your elected leaders to have in abundance?

Early in the season the 'mole' who leaked the info about the military space shuttle comes clean to protect friends who are under the most suspicion. From that moment onwards it places a core member of the White House's cast in an unenviable position. He/she saved lives but undermined the administration as he/she did so. President Bartlet is fuming but in his very last act as President, he does the human thing, something you cannot expect from any reality, Bush's or otherwise.

Try this exchange from The West Wing's Season Two...

Ainsley Hayes:
Mr. Tribbey? I'd like to do well on this, my first assignment. Any advice you could give me that might point me the way of success would be, by me, appreciated.
Lionel Tribbey:
Well, not speaking in iambic pentameter might be a step in the right direction.

Stop and think. What American TV show has ever said the words 'iambic pentameter' let alone as a throw-away.

The West Wing is TV with a purpose. You don't know a word the cast use? Look it up. You don't know a political point raised? Research it. This is TV that challenges, that defines 'smartening up'. If the ratio of smart to junk was ever tipped in smart's favour (favor, natch) might we expect a little more from across the pond?

And all this without mention of the stand out, stand alone show of the Seventh Season. The Debate; Santos and Vinick go head to head on the issues relinquishing the constraints of the TV format, mutually agreed. The result? EDUCATIONAL TV! Even if you have the curiosity of Kaspar Hauser (he lived in a cave for a long time), this episode would nail you to the sofa. It is what every American (oh hell, everyone) needs to know about how they are governed. How can two people talking issues be electrifying? Because it sets down the agendas of those who govern us. It allows us a glimpse at the political machinery that holds our lives in thrall – and the more we know, the more we can do to make THEM in thrall to US...

Think about that. No. Seriously. Think about that.

Oh, as a P.S. President Bartlet is an enthusiastic but questioning Catholic. His secretary is killed in a car crash and he storms his local church denouncing God as a 'feckless thug'. He has a point. So does Richard Dawkins...

sound and vision

Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture is sharp and colour definition generally good across the board. There are a few focus issues but these stem from either rushed takes or a slightly inexperienced focus puller but do not detract from the overall effect of the season. The blacks are damn solid and the overall colour is enhanced by having the action take place over a number of different locations. In other words, we're not stuck in the White House.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound – needing to simply make the conversations clear – does an excellent job. There is a moment when the rear speakers and sub-woofer make their presences felt – the end of a White House career and the marching orders of one of the shows stalwarts. As he (for it is a 'he') leaves the building the sub-woofer barks and makes you actually and in all real senses, feel for the character.

extra features

Given what a wealth of material might be on offer, we are presented with nothing. This surprises me for two reasons. It's the final season and even the season one box set featured interviews etc. though no commentaries. But it's hard to feel cheated after 16 and a half hours of glorious entertainment.

< Return to Part 1

The West Wing
Season 7

USA 2005/6
957 mins
Christopher Misiano
Alex Graves
Andrew Berstein
Lesli Linka Glatter
Max Mayer
Paul McCrane
Lawrence O'Donnell
Martia Karrell
Mimi Leder
Steve Shill
Nelson McCormick
Debora Cahn
Martin Sheen
Alan Alda
Joshua Malina
Mary McCormack
John Spencer
Richard Schiff
Stockard Channing
Kristin Chenoweth
Allison Janney
Jimmy Smits
Dule Hill
Oliver Platt
Janeane Garofalo
Ron Silver
Stephen Root
Lily Tomlin

DVD details
region 2
1.78:1 anamorphic
Dolby stereo 2.0
Warner Brothers
release date
11 September 2006
review posted
24 October 2006

See all of Camus's reviews