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'The West Wing' newbie recap: Let's walk and talk like it's the first time

Season 1 | Episode 1 | “Pilot” | Aired Sept. 22, 1999

Welcome to West Wing Wednesdays! Come stroll down memory lane, reliving what I’m told are Aaron Sorkin’s finest hours of television.

“Wait, you’re told?” you ask. It’s true. Other than a handful of early episodes, I have never watched The West Wing. Can a person claim to be a television devotee with this glaring cultural blind spot? And how will a political show play for a first-time (or second-time or eighth-time) viewer in a very different political climate, with actors who’ve gone on to very different roles, helmed by a creator who had a very different reception for his subsequent shows?

Let’s find out, shall we?

We meet our players in what I assume are their natural habitats. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) is in a bar making eyes at Cuddy from House. Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is at home being cranky about a crossword error in the Times. (People read physical newspapers back in 1999. It was a golden age.) Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is in his office. Is it weird to have an immediate crush on Josh even though I’ve seen approximately 15 seconds of this show?

Oh, dear. C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) talks nonstop to a man at the gym and then falls off her treadmill. This doesn’t do much to ease my worries about Sorkinland’s excess of flighty women who help their men be brilliant.

Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) is on an airplane, where a flight attendant is asking him to turn off his electronic devices. Silly flight attendant. Doesn’t she understand that Toby knows more about the airplane then everyone else on said plane, probably including the pilot? I’m guessing this is not the first time something like this will happen on The West Wing.

Everybody’s beepers are going off. Beepers! And newspapers! My baby tee, my low-rise jeans and I desperately want to go back to 1999.

We finally arrive at the White House, and I can’t help but notice that people are doing a lot of talking as they walk. Wonder if that’s going to become a thing?

Walk 2

Director Thomas Schlamme uses a tracking shot as Leo barnstorms through the West Wing, and it’s every bit as invigorating for me as that breathtaking tracking shot in True Detective. Politics! Halls of power! Smart people saying smart things! It’s heady.

In short order, we’re introduced to the day’s crises: Cubans in boats are trying to reach Miami, Josh is in hot water after blowing up at a political opponent on a talk show, and the president accidentally bicycled into a tree.

The most pressing of these issues for our characters is the question of whether Josh is about to be fired. Donna (Janel Moloney) sasses into Josh’s office, worried about his job. Toby swings by and agrees. Meanwhile, the press are hounding C.J. about whether Josh will be fired. I’m new here, reporters, but HOW DARE YOU?

Now we cut to rock music, aggressive driving and a Monica Lewinsky-ish beret. Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly, Little Miss Toe Pick herself) is talking on one of those newfangled mobile telephones while running red lights in her convertible. When a police officer (rightfully) pulls her over, she continues her phone conversation, finally ending it with, “Listen, I’m under arrest. I’m going to have to call you back.”

I hate her already.

Back to Sam’s lady business. In short order, he learns that Cuddy is a prostitute and then bungles a meeting with Leo’s daughter, assuming that she’s a fourth-grade girl when she is in fact the fourth-grade teacher. It’s strangely satisfying to watch someone so physically perfect flail like this. Oh, Sam, you should stay away from hooker Cuddy, but you totally won’t, will you?


Hoping to fix Josh’s blunder, the White House has invited a handful of Christian leaders to talk about faith and family values with the inner circle. Josh offers this fantastic apology: “My remarks were glib and insulting, and I was going for the cheap laugh. And anybody willing to step up and debate ideas deserves better than a political punchline.”

The apology doesn’t work, however, and the meeting gets ugly. Toby is yelling about the 10 Commandments when a voice cuts through the hubbub: “I am the Lord your God. That shalt worship no other god before me.”

It’s Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet, and I defy you to find a better introductory line for a character. He immediately brushes off the hostile visitors and banishes them from the White House.

The inner circle then convenes in the Oval Office, where the President points out that the Cubans from earlier in the episode risked everything to come to America. He exhorts his staff to get back to work. The music swells, and they stride from the office, full of purpose. I WILL GO OUT AND BE A BETTER AMERICAN, MR. PRESIDENT!

I hope you’ll join me every Wednesday as I discover for myself why people are still praising this show 15 years later.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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