By Andrew Williams
May 22, 2014
Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and the rest).
Now, this is a story all about how… An assassination attempt on a member of the President’s staff leaves some severely injured, leaving the rest of the West Wing staffers to go about the business of running the country (until an even bigger crisis eventually reveals itself).
Happy days? If you read my review of the first season and thought, “Look, I liked it, but there weren’t enough superlatives or general drooling”, you’re in luck! I am a saliva fiend when it comes to the second season of The West Wing, which is my favourite season of my favourite show. Aaron Sorkin chooses to jettison the one character from Season One who wasn’t working (and never mentioned why or how she was gone – Moira Kelly’s Mandy was apparently wiped from the memories of every single character, Spotless Mind–style) and the slightly narrowed focus allows The West Wing to go from great to absolutely phenomenal.
Put simply, everything works. The decision to end the first season on a huge cliffhanger results in a thrilling season opener that tells an emotionally satisfying story whilst also sowing the seeds for the blockbuster endgame. The decision to shift focus from Josh Lyman’s (Bradley Whitford) relationship with Mandy to his assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) allows for real romantic and sexual tension that never threatens to overtake the show as it did with other series. Guest stars (Emily Procter, Oliver Platt) prove worthy additions to the ensemble. Brave narrative risks pay jackpot dividends.
The final frontier: It’s one of television’s most remarkable feats and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Top three episodes: 22) Two Cathedrals. A titanic season of television comes to a spectacular conclusion that I can’t possibly do justice to in a sentence, but here goes: it’s tragic, thrilling, compelling and inspiring, features my favourite musical moment in a television series ever, and is my favourite episode of television ever. Even that feels desperately inadequate. 10) Noël. Whitford is simply brilliant here, as Josh battles his demons in this pantheon episode. 18) 17 People. Richard Schiff and Martin Sheen go head-to-head in an acting duet that will blow your socks off.
Worst episode: 16) Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail. The last episode before the finale’s storyline kicks into gear, this ep feels like a placeholder. While it’s still very enjoyable, it suffers marginally from being inessential.
Season MVP: Martin Sheen never won an Emmy for his work as President Josiah Bartlet, and it is only justifiable on the basis that James Gandolfini won four of them when Sheen was a nominee. (Others went to Michael Chiklis for The Shield and uh, Kiefer Sutherland for 24.)But Sheen deserves all the awards for his hand in making this multi-dimensional President so believable and inspiring that many people still wish he were real. Just look at the way he’s able to handle every moment the script throws at him: a deft, hilarious hand with comedy, a powerful orator, so incredibly touching whenever Bartlet commits an act of kindness and so terrifying when someone crosses him. It’s an absolute treasure of a performance.
Check out Andrew Williams’ previous instalments:
The West Wing is available on Quickflix.