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1 Aug 2018

The West Wing's powerhouse ensemble cast elevated the brilliant writing

Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing was a monumental achievement in 21st century television, showing that the medium could be as ambitious as cinema, and along with The Sopranos, and the often overlooked ER, shepherded in the idea that great drama could exist on television, and lead the way for the Golden Age of Television that sprung up during the mid to late noughties.

The show was (rightly) lauded for Sorkin's writing, his naturalistic dialogue and flair for character development and storytelling was evident from the pilot. Coupled with a great team of directors, who were able to work within the massive budget (reportedly $6m $3.5m per episode [I've just listened to the brilliant West Wing Weekly podcast, where Sorkin described this]), to really bring to life the idea that we were witnessing brilliant people operating at breakneck speed in the busiest building in the western world. The choreography required by the entire cast, crew and background artists during the famed 'walk and talk' sequences probably required days of rehearsal for each one - a work ethic that really hadn't been applied to TV drama up to that point. The only equivalence I can think of is the gurney shots when a new patient came in in the aforementioned ER.

But one of the great strengths of the show was the caliber of the ensemble cast. Apart from  Rob Lowe and the great Martin Sheen, most of the cast was relatively unknown. They were all working professionals, but were better known as theatre actors, so they were much more comfortable working on the highly rehearsed scripts.

This was a great asset, as the dialogue, while snappy, was necessarily very exposition-heavy, and dealt with many dense subjects in political jargon. In order to make this information dump accessible, it required imaginative delivery and likeable cadence. Bradley Whitford, who played Josh Lyman, the third in command, was particularly good at this, as his conversations with his assistant Donna (Janel Moloney) were usually the outlet Sorkin used to explain the political machinations that the episode was dealing with. The breezy rapport that Whitford and Moloney engaged in was always hugely entertaining as well.



In Allison Janney, the show had unearthed a gem of a comedic and dramatic actor, who won a slew of Emmy Awards for her portrayal on the show (2000, 01, 02 and 04) and followed that up with an Oscar this year. As CJ Cregg, she was the White House Press Secretary, but was the linchpin of the office politics, being the only woman on the senior staff. At moments, Janney had to confidently maintain and relay a wheelbarrow full of information, as the following scene brilliantly demonstrates.



("Oh, Holy interruptus, Batman.")

In Richard Schiff, Sorkin had the beautifully maudlin idealist that he could hang his more overt political leanings on, knowing they'd be delivered with gusto and passion. That's not to say that Schiff's character Toby Ziegler was just a mouthpiece, as he was often dryly comic, and tragic throughout the show's run, but hearing him go off on a rant was often wonderful to behold.

And then there was Martin Sheen's President Bartlet - a character that was only intended to be a recurring guest, but was immediately thrust into the fulcrum of the series. At equal measures inspiring, charming, gutsy and statesmanlike, Sheen created the model for the figure we would aspire to have as the leader of the most powerful military in the world - and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Barack Obama was a fan (in fact, The West Wing was preciently tackling a lot of the issues that Obama would later tackle). As well as being President, Bartlett was a husband and father - relationships that the show and Sheen portrayed earnestly - and was secretly battling Multiple Sclerosis while he was holding office. A deft move by Sorkin to have the character have his biggest vulnerability be his own physical health.



On top of the core cast that were ever present throughout the series, there were countless supporting players who were perfectly cast in their respective roles, as junior staff, or military chiefs, or journalists, or diplomats, or secret service, or any one of a number of people POTUS is liklely to interact with. The series
 really was a towering achievement in screen acting and should be a set text for anyone who seriously considers a career on screen.