Pilot Lighter, TV Pilots Worth Remembering: The West Wing

Most people remember The West Wing. Some people remember it as “That Sorkin Show from the 90s” I remember it as the show with the best pilot. At least that’s what I feel like looking back at it. It’s a great show and the pilot tells you everything you want to know about the show. We meet all the players, all characters who mesh together and stand alone. By the end of the episode we are introduced to all of the key players and we like all of them regardless of politics. It’s a call back to another era of politics, one that has long left this world. It’s a big dose of optimism that this reviewer needed badly. It’s unquestionably one of the best pilots on network television. There are some sitcoms that might be funnier, but in terms of drama The West Wing stands alone. No other show boasts such snappy dialogue and intriguing characters. It at once elevates the political to the pop cultural and brings those in power to the human level. Doing these two things not only makes it a good pilot, but also a damn good piece of television. There is one big contender, of course, but we’ll get to that another day.

The show’s credits sequence is slow, slower than what audiences today are used to, and it makes you sit for a moment, but instead of torturing us it gives us a big bear hug. The White House is a place to be celebrated. It’s a place of integrity, honor, honesty, and respect. No, we are not going to talk politics, but rather we will examine the political elements as storytelling devices. That is what the political does for the West Wing. The gaffs of public relations purported by Josh provide for interesting drama. They are a means to transform the ideological into something emotional. We like our heroes in this story not as deities, but as people who, though flawed, are relatable. They have flaws and histories that linger beneath the surface as a promise of more to come. This is what makes this a great pilot: it knows how to dangle the stick in front of us in order to-forgive the demeaning metaphor-make us come back.

We want to come back and find out about these very likeable characters, but especially because of the collosal presence of Martin Sheen as Jedd Bartlett. He has by far the largest presence on the screen and yet we see so little of him. It makes full use of camera angles to give him power on the screen. The dialogue gives him far more intellect, grace, and wit than any of his employees. We are quickly clear on why Jedd Bartlett is president and not any of these brilliant men. So yes, we are certainly having a bromance between these men, but the women are also important.

Donna, played by Janel Moloney, is a great foil to Josh, but we have an ace in the hole: C.J. Craig played by Allison Janney. C.J. Craig is a capable, hardnosed shield for the Bartlett Presidency. We like her immediately. As with most of these characters they are placed in a specific way to enhance or reduce their power on screen. So yes, we are using cinematic tricks to lower and elevate certain characters. The important thing is that they do so with great purpose, which they do. The West Wing Pilot is one of my favorite in television and one of the reasons that this reviewer gets out of bed every day. It’s a really great introduction to a new world, or perhaps an accurate depiction of one you know as many residents of Washington D.C. can attest. So yes, if you can, find a way to watch at least this pilot. I can assure you you’ll likely find no better political show on television. The series may wander later in the series, but that’s not what this is about. We’re hear to talk about first impressions and this one is a doozie.

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