Like most television series, we didn’t get into The West Wing right off the bat. I think we picked it up somewhere in the second or third season, and had to go back and catch up on DVD (this was before Netflix). At the time, there were a lot of reasons why we fell in love with it, but one of the central ones was that in the middle of the “W” presidency, it was a reassuring fantasy to believe that well-intentioned, hard-working, smart, articulate people could potentially run the country and do it well. I have wondered since then how important this was to our experience of the show.
Well, recently, we started watching the show again (on Netflix), and I have to say that it still stands up. Sure, the writing of Aaron Sorkin, with its playful, highly-literate treatment of dialogue was sure to appeal to our language-loving hearts. Of course, the cast was spectacular, and the characters were all appealing in their own ways. The cinematography and careful use of music were just as good as we remembered. The intellectual, academic approach to political issues and realities was bound to make sense to us.
The surprising thing, at least to me, was how effectively the show makes use of silence. Even in the early episodes of the first season, when many shows are struggling to find their footing, to establish the rhythms and themes that add up to a larger body of work (I’m looking at you, X-Files), there is a confidence in the direction and performances that shows through in the quiet moments. As much as we love Sorkin’s call-and-response repetitions and the intricate rants he puts into the mouths of his characters, the moments when the characters are still, when things sink in, when the performance is all body and no words, these are truly masterful.
All too often, shows these days are all about action, plot, exposition, relentlessly moving forward as if our information-saturated brains would flip channels if given any pause. That may be the reality. But, The West Wing takes the time to space out its beats. The frenetic pace of many scenes is offset in the tranquility of others. At these moments, it is not the story that is being told, but the way that it is told that steps to the front. And it is still a joy to watch a great team of storytellers at work.