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'The West Wing' 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.


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