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What I Learned From The West Wing, Its Actors, And The Network

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As The West Wing comes to an end Sunday I thought it was time to share some of the thoughts I collected about one of the best-written series ever.

What I learned from the series:

  1. Topics as seemingly boring as census statistics can become absorbing, fascinating and interesting with the right script writer. The census was a major part of the storyline in Episode 1.6 – “Mr. Willis of Ohio”.
  2. Politicians, as depicted on the series, are much more articulate, thoughtful and, at times, inspiring than the real ones you read about in the newspapers.
  3. Fictional presidents are easier to adore than real presidents.
  4. Money, greed, and campaign donations do not have to be the deciding factors on issues and campaign decisions, unlike in real American politics.
  5. The West Wing has an incredible number of hallways, often filled with people walking and talking. Such conversations, referred to as “walk and talks,” were a staple of the show.
  6. There are many thought-provoking, emotional conversations and circumstances taking place in The West Wing.
  7. It is hard to keep a series fresh, especially after its best writer, Aaron Sorkin, leaves the show.
  8. Shows can be rewritten when key characters die. In fact, not only were episodes changed when John Spencer, who played the White House chief of staff, died but the election results were even changed. Spencer’s character was a Democratic vice presidential nominee. According to Wikipedia and other sources, the Republican candidate played by Alan Alda was originally written to win the election. However, after Spencer died, the producers decided they couldn’t have the vice president die – both on the show and in real life – and also lose the election.
  9. A bad episode – and I’m one of those who stopped watching for a few seasons when the show went downhill – is still better than most television shows and movies.
  10. The West Wing actors – especially during the first four years when Sorkin was the main writer – often repeat comments and talk in an unusual cadence.

An unusual cadence? Yes, an unusual cadence unlike any I have heard before.
A sample exchange between C.J., the press secretary, and Sam, Rob Lowe’s character:

C.J.: Sam, I read my briefing book last night on the commerce bill regarding the census and there are certain parts of it I don’t understand.
Sam: I can help you out. Which parts?
C.J.: Well… all of it.
Sam: All of it?
C.J.: Yes.
Sam: You don’t understand the census?
C.J.: I don’t understand certain nuances.
Sam: Like what?

C.J.: Like, the census.
Sam: C.J., we’ve been working on this commerce bill for three weeks, I hear you talk about the census all the time.
C.J.: Yeah. Yeah.
Sam: Well…I don’t understand. How could you-?
C.J.: I’ve been faking it.
Sam: You’ve been faking it?
C.J.: I’ve been playing it fast and loose there’s no doubt about it, but sitting in on some of the meetings we’ve been having, and reading the briefing book last night, I have to say that the census is starting to sound to me like it’s, well, important.

See how that not only is interesting and engaging as well as going on to give a decent primer on how the census works and why it matters?

What I learned from the actors playing West Wing characters:

  1. It’s possible to talk about issues like the census without looking bored (see #1 above).
  2. It is possible to appear to almost never sleep, use the bathroom or go home without it showing.
  3. It’s the economics, stupid. Sunday’s finale was promoted as recently as last week as being two hours long. There was going to be the one hour final episode, which is still the case. But, as The Washington Post and other publications have reported, a one-hour retrospective that was to follow has been axed. Instead the original pilot will be shown. This is because some of the actors balked at doing this retrospective at a reduced pay, let alone for free.
  4. Sick outs work. Key West Wing actors, like those at CSI and other series, have refused on occasion to continue the series without a pay hike. I thought about doing that at my job but I have a feeling I would be replaced. Whether or not that is good in the end is a topic I’ll leave for another day.
  5. A good television episode, thanks to great acting and excellent writing, can be better than most movies.

What I learned about NBC, the network on which the show aired:

  1. Don’t use ratings to make decisions. The pilot had 17 million viewers but the average episode this season is drawing 8 million viewers. But this season, with the campaigns and election of a new president, the series was picking up momentum and becoming more interesting. The network’s decision to pull the plug on the series was a mistake.
  2. Being cheap hurts you in the end. While I have mixed feelings about the actors asking for more money, the problem could have been solved if the network had just agreed to pay the actors their due. Not only does this upset fans of this series but it will probably lead to fewer retrospectives as series end, removing a nice piece of closure that used to be a staple as hit series end.

So, goodbye to the best political drama I have ever seen. Goodbye to a show that was an inspiration to this idealistic writer who is still crazy enough to think government can do good. Goodbye to characters who were so well-written and developed that they are easier to relate to than most actual politicians and their staff.

Goodbye, West Wing.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://clatch.blogspot.com/ A.L. Harper

    Good Article. But I don’t agree with you. The West Wing was self absorbed, pretentious dross. It was good it I couldn’t sleep, as it would send to sleep in a matter of minutes.

    I say goodbye at last.

  • http://chantalstone.blogspot.com chantal stone

    Oh no, on this I have to disagree with you, Andrea. The West Wing is(was) a great show, with fantastic writing. I’m really going to miss it. It’s not often we get to see intelligent drama on television. I like to watch the re-runs on Bravo, and even though there are episodes I’ve seen more than once, each time I can get something new out of them.

    Former Clinton White House PS, Dee Dee Myers, was one of the political consultants used on the show. I’m not sure of the others who were also hired, but it added to the shows credibility. And even though the show definitely appealed to idealists, like me and Scott, I knew I could watch it and gain at least some working knowledge of what went on in real life—at least some insight into the process of government. There were many episodes that sparked a curiosity in me, that had me researching the real-life counterpart to whatever the story-line was about.

    And at the very least, this groundbreaking show helped to inspire a new and/or re-newed interest in how our less entertaining gov’t really works.

    Great article, Scott, I’m really going to miss the show.

  • http://insidebrain2005.blogspot.com matthew milam

    I got my article in pending. It’s got the link to yours in it, hopefully it will come off just as good.

  • http://chantalstone.blogspot.com chantal stone

    Scott…what did you think of the final episode?

  • Scott Butki

    I taped it but haven’t seen it yet.

    Thanks for the compliments and feedback.

  • Scott Butki

    So what did others think of the final show?

  • http://chantalstone.blogspot.com chantal stone

    I thought it was a good ending, Scott. It ended leaving me wanting more, which is the point of all good writing and story-telling, correct?

  • Steve

    I didn’t start watching the West Wing when it started around 1998, only in the last 3-4 years. I have to say, I’ve actually preferred it since the creator stopped writing for the show, with this last season being my favorite. I found the earlier seasons’ dialogue just way too fast to follow, it’s been nice to have had things slowed down a bit in recent seasons. I guess I’ll have to watch the reruns in the summer, I missed the last episode.

    I must say though, I kinda preferred “Commander in Chief”, disappointed that’s been pulled too. It seems not enough people want to watch shows about politicians these days…not hard to see why I suppose.

  • Scott Butki

    Tonite I’m watching West Wing’s season three and remembering how good the show, especially
    the writing, was back then.

    I liked the faster dialogue.

  • Scott Butki

    Does anyone have a copy of the final episode? If so please contact me [Sorry, Scott, but personal contact info deleted]