Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Show Review: The West Wing Or Why Characters Matter

(source: IMDB)

Recently, my other half suggested that we watch The West Wing. Belonging to the part of society that is not particularly interested in politics, nor fully understands the various systems, I was sceptical at best. But then, he had sat down to watch Poldark with me (and ended up thoroughly enjoying it) so I figured I owed him the benefit of the doubt. At the very least I could give it a shot. And, boy, am I glad I did!

The West Wing is a TV drama that aired between 1999 and 2006 and focuses on what is going on in the White House during the presidency of President Josiah Bartlet. It depicts how he and his staff deal with the various issues that come up in the course of that presidency, both on a personal, national, and international level.

I do not profess to have a great amount of knowledge on the American political system, and I cannot really claim that I now know more than I did before, but I was fascinated by the insight into White House politics, however fictional it was. The show discusses issues from funding, to health, racism, and public and personal rights, to terrorism, and acts of war - issues that are timeless and still relevant today. It looks at the internal and external factors involved in handling these issues, shows how characters arrive at the final conclusion, and the impact their decision has. But the strength of the show does not lie in political commentary or even education. Its strength is its characters.

Every issue discussed touches at least one of the cast on a deeply personal level. When his doctor, along with some others, gets killed because a foreign group shot his plane from the sky, the president reacts in a very human way. Retaliate. Bomb the country. Kill them all. It takes his staff and military advisers to help him find the middle ground, the right amount of retaliation, so to speak. Was that the right decision? I don't know. Neither does the president. The show leaves it up to  each and every member of the audience to reach their own conclusion. Yet, the way it is handled does not make you feel the president was either wrong or right to react the way he did.

With some issues, like racism, the series' creators clearly show their viewpoint and stick with it. It gets condemned and the various characters repeatedly speak out against it. Other matters, like gun laws are handled in a more liberal fashion. While the show's government speaks out for stronger gun control, the viewer gets to hear the opposition and can, again, reach their own conclusion. And again, it is the characters that bring both viewpoints together through discussion and comprehensible conviction. Each characters, however minor, has a reason to stand for their side of the argument, which makes them believeable.

What I find most impressive about The West Wing, however, is how it makes me care for the characters. I care for the main characters, but unless they're complete idiots, I tend to do that anyway. What is special about The West Wing is that it makes me care for minor characters, characters that have a line or two, characters that only appear on screen as the voice on the other end of the phone, and characters who never even made it on the screen. This is in part due to an absolutely fantastic cast (many of whom I have not been familiar with before), and because the show aims to make even the most trivial decisions intensely personal. Because that is what they ultimately are. The character's reactions reveal so much. Sometimes it's a look. Sometimes it's a pause in their speech where there shouldn't be any. And sometimes it's the fact they say nothing at all.

So far I have only seen the first three seasons (and I've been told only the first four are worth watching), but so far  I'd give it a 5 out of 5. It's not only an entertaining show that gets you deeply invested in its characters. As a writer, I think, it is great inspiration on how to write believable characters and give them depth by stressing the importance of a reason behind every characters' actions.

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