When I sat down to write this capsule I hadn’t seen this series at all in something like two and a half years, and decided to watch a few S2 episodes again just for a taste. By the end of the two part premiere, I knew I’d be watching the whole second season again. Not for this review, just for the pure pleasure of it. When the title sequence began and I saw the likes of Alison Janney and John Spencer and Bradley Whitford and all of them, I had this crazy, unexpected feeling of coming home. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed these actors until I saw them again. Who’s my favourite character? Is it Jed Bartlet, Leo McGarry, C.J. Cregg, Sam Seaborn, Josh Lyman, or Toby Ziegler? It pretty much depends on who’s onscreen at that particular moment. Most shows would be lucky to have one perfectly cast character, The West Wing has at least a half dozen.
The big accomplishment of The West Wing’s first season was to take what seemed like inherently uninteresting political fodder, and make it something that was smart, funny, and easily digestible. And even though the characters were idealized and legitimately had the best interests of the country at heart, the show always seemed aspirational rather than naive. Like, maybe it IS possible to have people like this in the Oval Office. But Season 1 was only the foundation for the TRUE greatness to come.
Season 2 is even better for a lot of the usual reasons. The preliminaries are done, you’ve already come to know and like the characters by the time Season 2 begins, the writing has found its groove, Mandy has mysteriously disappeared, etc. But there’s some interesting storm clouds over the White House this season. The premiere opens with the aftermath of an assassination attempt on the President. As the approval ratings for Bartlet’s administration soar, the staff ponders whether or not the time is right to push through their own agenda. Most of the season is an attempt to maintain that momentum, but in the last several episodes, the season completely pivots. It turns out the President might be involved in a genuine criminal conspiracy, and suddenly the show turns into something sombre and downbeat as they ponder their options. It works amazingly well, and gives the season even more heft. Especially today, it needs not be said.
The West Wing Season 2 is the complete package. There’s the wish fulfillment of the first season, but even meatier problems to contend with. Bonus, every character on the show talks so fast and is so impossibly witty, watching an episode is like being on cocaine and now I never have to try it for myself. Thanks, West Wing!
If I Had to Nitpick…: Aaron Sorkin Statisti-Speak. 40% of all conversations in the show involve statistics, the characters rattle them off from memory at 125% the usual speed, making them appear 12% smarter, and 97% of these statistics were in articles Sorkin read in Time Magazine five seconds before writing the script. It’s a quirk in Aaron Sorkin’s writing, and in fairness, it sounds the least unnatural coming from the White House staff. But still.
Notable Episodes: “In The Shadow of Two Gunmen” has to be one of the best season premieres I’ve ever seen, serving as a perfect introduction or reintroduction to the show. “Noel” is an amazing showcase for Bradley Whitford, as is “17 People” for Richard Schiff. And “Two Cathedrals” you feckless thugs.