Better Late Than Never: 10 Random Thoughts on the Pilot Episode of The West Wing

Credit: NBC/@twwgifs

Welcome back everyone to a brand new edition of Better Late Than Never! Starting today I am going to be taking you on a fun and hopefully interesting journey through the legendary eighteen acres known as the White House, specifically The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin’s famous and beloved political drama aired for the first time in 1999. Even though the pilot was famously panned by the New York Times (if you’re curious you can read the review here), it went on to be one of the precursors to prestige TV. Or, at least, the precursor to the political drama genre which has since spawned everything from short-lived series (Commander in Chief) to Shondaland soap opera fodder (Scandal) to Kiefer Sutherland running the country instead of saving it (Designated Survivor). 

In true binge fashion, I hope to have one episode review out a day, save for when scheduling breaks up two-parters or puts season finales on Mondays instead of Fridays or whatever else weird might happen. So, let’s dive right in with my ten random thoughts on the Pilot episode. As always, the thoughts happen first, then the review happens on the bottom. 

Enjoy!

  1. Ah, the good old Rob Lowe cold opening. If you had any doubts that this show was supposed to revolve around his character, Sam Seaborn, then this should immediately change that for you. Granted, the rest of the characters get their brief dues following the bar scene. Though Sam and Lowe get the bulk of the screen time. As does the beautiful and talented Lisa Edelstein. 
  2. I’m very sad that this opening piece of music, written by W.G. Snuffy Walden, wasn’t used for the theme song. Nothing can replace the actual theme song. In fact, it’s become almost as iconic as the show itself, but there’s something light and playful and fun about what we get in this episode. This piece of music does end up becoming the end titles theme. It makes for some weird transitions when an episode ends on a tense moment but the end titles are happy and jovial. I can’t complain though. 
  3. Three thoughts in and I’m just going to forewarn you right now that I will probably fangirl over three people: Bradley Whitford (should that surprise you by now? No.), Martin Sheen, and John Spencer. On that note, this walk and talk (which encompasses a total of eight scenes) puts Spencer right in the thick of things already to showcase what a dang powerhouse he is. It also gives the audience a glimpse of how powerful Leo McGarry is in the White House among these people. He’s second in command and boy does it show. God, I love it. 
  4. “He’s a klutz, Mrs. Landingham. Your president’s a geek.” “Mr. McGarry, you know how I feel about that kind of talk in the Oval Office.” The introduction of Mrs. Landingham (played wonderfully by Kathryn Joosten) is by far one of the best introductions of a character ever. In less than two minutes we figure out that she’s a force to be reckoned with, she cares about the president, and she doesn’t take any nonsense from anybody, least of all Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. 
  5. “He rode his bicycle into a tree, CJ. What do you want me– the President, while riding a bicycle on his vacation in Jackson Hole, came to a sudden arboreal stop. What do you want from me?” “A little love, Leo.” One of the best lines in the entire pilot episode. Right there. The president came to a sudden arboreal stop. The writing doesn’t get much better than this. 
  6. Moira Kelly’s introduction in the show is part of the reason nobody ended up liking her character, Mandy. I am biased and enjoy Mandy because of the sole fact it’s Moira Kelly and she plays prickly and unlikeable well. But, yeah, no, this was a bad introduction. She’s controlling. She’s loud. She’s combative. She doesn’t play nice with others. She ignores a police officer when he pulls her over. She is the polar opposite of every other character we’ve been introduced to. Despite Toby’s (Richard Schiff) prickly demeanor, he’s at least a redeemable character. Mandy? Not so much. 
  7. “All the girls think you look really hot in this shirt.” And there’s the very first moment I became a Josh/Donna shipper. Exactly 28 minutes and 48 seconds into the very first episode. 
  8. Say what you want but the meet-cute between Mallory and Sam is hilarious, endearing, awkward, and almost perfect. I love every moment of it. Not to mention Mallory is a chip off the old block when it comes to being Leo’s daughter. She’s feisty and fiery and I love that we learn that so early in the show. 
  9. Mary Marsh is the epitome of a slimy, spiteful, hateful hag. She calls herself a Christian but her anti-Semitic rhetoric and many of her words are distinctly un-Christian like and it shows. Did she deserve to get called out on national television? You’re darn right she did. Let’s just all applaud Josh for having the guts and the moxie to do it.
  10. Lastly, out of all the character introductions in this episode, Sheen as President Bartlet takes the cake. Immediately and quite brilliantly, we learn that a) like the rest of his staff, he is a force to be reckoned with, b) he is an incredibly intelligent man in both spiritual and secular topics, and c) he commands a room with ease and makes people sit up and pay attention. Sheen is magnetic. This entire cast is electric. What a brilliant pilot episode.

There is something so endearing about this episode and how it expertly introduced audiences to the senior staff of the Bartlet Administration. Sorkin drops us in medias res with Josh and the first ten minutes of the episode are consumed with learning staff names, their personalities, and the amount of trouble poor Josh is in, and the impending arrival of Cuban refugees. Ten minutes and we are eagerly picking apart plot threads and slowly unraveling this fantastically crafted yarn that continues to unfold until the very end. This is what television pilots should all look like. Exposition is given in snappy dialogue that bucks traditionally crafted scripts and in ten minutes we have fully fleshed out characters and a chemistry that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Sorkin is a powerhouse and his actors revel in the rich text they’re given to interpret. I’ve read the original script for the pilot episode (in which Leo McGarry is called Leo Jacobi and Mandy is introduced a lot less harshly) and despite a few little tweaks with names and introductions, the pilot was already, basically, perfect before the capable cast swooped in and elevated it into the stratosphere. There are no standouts in this episode. I only say that because the cast comes out swinging to the fences right from the get-go. No one is weak or underutilized. Sorkin has said that in the first season it was Toby Ziegler (Schiff) and C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) who got short shifted for other characters in the ensemble, but I’d beg to differ on that. From the very first moment I saw Janney do a pratfall on the treadmill and Ziegler decry the technical capabilities of “something from Radioshack,” I was invested in these characters. No one else could portray them and Sorkin gives them plenty of time to sparkle.

Most of this episode rests firmly on Whitford’s Josh Lyman. I’m probably an outlier in this line of thinking, but, despite the cold open and Lowe getting the most screen time at the beginning, this is Whitford’s show. This is Josh Lyman’s story. I’ll give Lowe kudos for his adorkably sincere portrayal of an endearingly clueless Sam Seaborn–something that starts to sharpen at the edges as the episodes go on and we’ll get to see that in future episodes–but Whitford and by extension Schiff are the emotional heavy hitters of the pilot with Martin Sheen sweeping in with tremendous effect. In many ways, for this first episode, Bartlet, Lyman, and Ziegler are the bleeding hearts in the cast of characters, but there’s more to them than that. There is a power to them and Sheen, Whitford, and Schiff portray that power in both subtle and outward ways. Their performances take Sorkin’s already perfect script and elevate it out of the stratosphere. This is what happens when you give character actors room to be stars.

And it’s not just the acting that elevates the script either. Thomas Schlamme, the pilot’s director, breathes energy into what could’ve been a static show. When one thinks “the White House,” movement doesn’t immediately spring to mind, at least it doesn’t for me. I always imagine a bunch of people sitting in offices and rooms yelling into phones or sitting at tables and yelling across them. That’s not always the case with The West Wing. Schlamme infuses an urgency and importance to Sorkin’s dialogue with sweeping tracking shots, medium shots, and the famous walk and talks (the first one drops properly about five minutes into the show with Spencer walking through the set gathering folders and staffers). The medium shots bring us up close and personal to the actors and characters which allows us to see their reactions on a more intimate level. This makes the pilot feel even more special and it makes us immediately connect to these people.

Everything is so perfectly staged in The West Wing, it’s hard to believe The New York Times said what it did when the pilot aired. The pilot’s a work of art and I can’t wait to continue this journey to see how things grow and change and evolve.

Shelby Arnold
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