Greatest TV Pilots: The West Wing Gets A Strong, Confident Start

The West Wing
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Thomas Schlamme
Originally aired September 22nd 1999 on NBC

It’s hard to argue that The West Wing isn’t Aaron Sorkin’s most successful television show. It ran for eight seasons (five more than his second longest series), outlasting even Sorkin himself (who left after the fourth season), on network TV at a time when the bar for ratings success was much higher than it is now. It racked up 26 Emmy wins in that time, including four consecutive Outstanding Drama Series awards from 2000-2003. And it arguably represents the last great drama of the pre-Sopranos era (even though it ran concurrently with The Sopranos for most of its run). Most importantly, in terms of its success, its setting proved the perfect vehicle for Sorkin’s writing. He consistently fills his shows with smart people, extremely dedicated to their jobs, who create families out of their co-workers and often serve as mouthpieces for his own personal politics and beliefs. With the west wing of the White House, and thus, the whole spectrum of American politics, as his stage, Sorkin gave himself the best possible setting for the lofty ideals and intense dedication of his characters.

With the pilot episode, Sorkin and his longtime collaborator, director Thomas Schlamme, display a strong level of confidence as they introduce the show’s main characters, basic setup, and overall themes. Not only is this an ensemble cast, but one with ensemble storylines, as this initial episode is packed with plot, some of which are resolved within the course of the episode, many of which are left for future episodes to resolve (giving the show a serialized element that will dominate many of the post-Soprano dramas). One by one we are introduced to the main cast as each receives news of a bicycling accident involving “POTUS”: Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), a charmingly-befuddled Ladies Man, C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney), the clumsy but effective press secretary, well-meaning but beleaguered Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), gruff-but-lovable Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), and tough, hard-nosed Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff).

In and amongst these character introductions, Sorkin and Schlamme introduce numerous plotlines: the central plot of the episode, introduced by Sam in the opening minutes of the episode, involves the question of whether or not Josh will keep his job after snarking at a Christian pundit on national TV. Then there’s the emerging story of the President riding his bike into a tree, something that is mostly played for laughs but dovetails nicely with the “Josh’s job” plot by the end, and a situation involving Cuban refugees seeking asylum in Miami, which serves more as a thematic grace note for the pilot than a fully developed storyline. Additionally, there’s a subplot involving Mandy (Moira Kelly), a former member of the President’s campaign team and Josh’s former girlfriend, and two Sam storylines that will play out over the course of the season: his burgeoning romance with Laurie (a pre-House Lisa Edelstein), who turns out to be an escort as well as a bartender and law student, and his blundering of a White House school tour led by his boss’ daughter.

As a result, it’s a marvelously dense episode, crammed with more character and plot development than some series see in their entire run, but Sorkin’s script, Schlamme’s direction and the performances keep everything relatively light and fast paced. There is, of course, the requisite walk-and-talk scenes, in which the delivery of expository dialogue is punched up by having characters recite it while moving briskly through the set, but there’s also quick asides from supporting characters and extras, visual shorthand (like Josh first being seen awakening at his desk) and character relationships established just in the way actors play off one another (it’s clear in this episode, for example, that Josh and Same are bros). There’s a lot going on, but strong hands across the board keep us from getting lost.

Then, of course, there’s the climax of the episode, in which we meet our final significant character of the series, Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlett. Somewhat famously, Sorkin and company originally envisioned a smaller role for the President in the series than what we got – the idea was that the show would focus principally on the senior staff, with the President as a looming, usually off-screen presence that would show up in small doses. But after seeing Sheen in action, the course was quickly corrected, and President Bartlett became a mainstay of the series.

In his first appearance, he enters the scene quietly and humbly, assisted by a cane (in the wake of his bicycle accident) but his arrival is nonetheless thunderous as he commands all the attention in the room, boldly quoting the first commandment to a group of right-wing Christian leaders fumbling to identify it. He immediately takes charge of, and defuses, the situation involving Josh’s gaffe and the Christian Right, before leading his staff back into the White House, delivering a brief parable on the American dream, then telling everyone to get back to work as the camera pulls out, zooming around the magnificent Oval Office set as everyone gets down to business. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the show – this is what we do and why we do it, a fitting ending to an assured and well-constructed pilot.

Other Thoughts
Sorkin is a writer somewhat famous for his tics and repeated bits of dialogue/character types/etc throughout his writing. Here, in addition to the aforementioned walk-and-talk, there’s a scene featuring two characters discussing an issue at a bar (Sorkin himself appeared in such a scene in A Few Good Men), two instances of the resume dump, in which a character rattles off their past experiences to another character as a convenient way to fill in the audience (first, when Josh asks Donna questions he already knows the answers to about how long she’s worked for him, and then later, when Sam rattles off his credentials to the fourth grade class). Finally, there’s Sorkin’s somewhat problematic tendency to write women who are extremely skilled at their jobs but buffoons in every other walk of life, as at least initially, the C.J. who coolly and easily handles a press briefing is juxtaposed against the C.J. who falls off a treadmill in her very first scene.

Rob Lowe is clearly the Big Star of the show at this point: he gets top billing in the credits, he appears first, and he gets what will ultimately turn into not one, but two different romantic storylines. In fact, Sorkin has said that he initially constructed the show around Sam as the main character. When President Bartlett became more of a featured player, it’s generally considered that it came at the expense of Sam’s role, slotting him into equal footing amongst the rest of the ensemble.

Moira Kelly’s Mandy, introduced in this episode but not to the same extent as the rest of the cast, eventually becomes part of the show’s regular ensemble, at least initially. She represents one of the show’s biggest post-pilot course corrections after the Bartlett change: by the end of the first season, the character was getting barely any screen time, and simply disappeared without mention between season one and two.

Similarly, Dule Hill, who rounds out the initial main cast as Charlie Young, the President’s personal aide, doesn’t appear until the third episode of the series, though early drafts of the pilots contained a version of his character; unlike Mandy, he sticks around for the duration of the series.

Of the main characters we do meet in this episode, Leo is perhaps the most under served relative to his later importance on the show. There’s a small running gag involving his irritation with an error in the New York Times crossword puzzle, and a nice walk-and-talk between him and Al Caldwell, the leader of the Christian delegation in the episode, but that’s about it.

Though not a dated pilot by any means, there are a few things that stick out as being very much of their time: the enormous suits the men wear, for one. The omnipresence of pagers is another (in fact, the big twist in the Sam/Laurie plotline is entirely facilitated by the pair mixing up their pages after their initial tryst). Cell phones are present but of course much larger than what we’re used to these days, and the entire opening act is built around the fact that no one outside the main characters recognizes “POTUS” as an acronym for “President of the United States”, something that is far more familiar to the general public nowadays, in the wake of constant internet and TV news coverage, as well as shows like Scandal, 24 and, The West Wing.

The Sopranos was the show which broke The West Wing‘s Outstanding Drama Series Emmy win streak in 2004.

Despite his sometime maddening tics, I’m a big Aaron Sorkin fan, but while I greatly enjoy and respect The West Wing, I have to say that Sports Night remains my favorite of his various TV series.

– Austin Gorton

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

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