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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The West Wing - The Complete First Season
The West Wing - The Complete First Season
Warner Bros. // Unrated // November 18, 2003
List Price: $59.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted November 20, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The Show:

Every ten years or so, a show comes along that reminds you just how good television can be.  A show that challenges conventional wisdom and wins. A show that leaves you speechless.  The West Wing is such a show.

This DVD set was my introduction to The West Wing.  I have never bothered to catch it on TV, although I had heard it was good.  I was expecting a solid drama, with decent acting.  I was very surprised.  It is so much more than that.  It has very high production values, excellent actors, and admirable scripts.  But the amazing thing about West Wing is that all these factors came together on one show, making it some of the best television ever broadcast.

The show takes place, as the name suggests, in the west wing of the White House, the area where the President works.  West Wing is not about politics, any more than ER is about medicine.  It is about what goes on behind the scenes.  The world of politics that people don't get to see.  It's about the people that advise the President and those he relies on. But mostly it's about getting through the day in a very high pressure job.  A job where a misstatement or something said in anger can end up on the front pages the next day.

Though the show's focus is not on politics, it does play a large part.  One of the bold moves that the show made was to give the fictitious president a party affiliation.  He is a Democrat, and he has liberal beliefs.  The fact that they are talking about real parties and real issues aids the show immeasurably.  It gives it the air of authenticity, that made-up issues and non-named parties wouldn't have.  It lets the characters be passionate about what they are fighting for, and differences in those passions lead to confrontation in the White House and on Capital Hill.   The down side to that, is that they do not give equal time to all sides of an issue.  The show does make a token effort to be fair.  Not all Republicans are bad, but some of the  Democrats are.  They do bring up conservative view points in the show osccasionally, but the show does have a liberal bias.  But in the end, it is a show about the people and the politics are just the dressing.

The writing for this show is excellent.  From the characterization, to the plots, to the dialog, every aspect of it is outstanding. The solid scripts gives the series a sound foundation that the actors and directors build on.

The dialog in the show is wonderful to listen to.  The lines are very fast paced, but they have a good rhythm.  The back and forth between two people is rapid, yet natural sounding and easy to understand.  Often witty and sometimes profound, the show's dialog is one of its strongest aspects.

Something that struck me about this show while watching many episodes over a short period of time was that most of the characters were fully fleshed out from the first episode.  In many series the characters start out with one or two traits, and more are added as the show goes on.  The characters evolve into their own over the course of the first season, as writers become more comfortable with them.  Not so with West Wing.  The characters are fully three dimensional from the first episode.  They have their own personalities and foibles right from the start.  It is very impressive.

There is a very good balance of drama and humor to the show too, something which few series are able to do. The humor works very effectively to lighten the mood and break the tension on the more weighty episodes.  If the humor wasn't present, the show could become depressing.  The comedy works too.  Parts of the show are funnier that many sitcoms.

The most important aspect of this show though, is that it does not insult the viewers intelligence.  The creators assume the people will be able to follow the sometimes complicated plot lines.  The show does not recap the episode halfway through.  No one asks "So what is the President worried about?"  just so the viewers can get a synopsis of what they have just seen.  The humor is not just sexual innuendo.  The show is entertaining, and it occasionally makes you think.  That is a welcome feature.

The acting in this show is second to none.  The ensemble cast are top actors.  Anyone of these people could be the star of the show, but they all work together.  It's amazing to see the main characters as extras in the series.  You will often see the shows supporting actors in the background of a scene where they have no dialog.  When you think that that person had to be on the set take after take just to be window dressing it says a lot about the level of commitment the cast has.

This whole group of actors, there are nine major characters, has wonderful screen chemistry.  They relate well to each other.  The group is able to convey that, although there is friction between different members, they are all on the same team working towards a common goal.   You can believe that these people were in the trenches together for a long time, working to get their man elected President.

The actor who is probably the most dynamic is Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet.  He brings charisma and dignity to the role.  He can project an emotion with just a look, and delivers his speeches with flair.  He is able to make viewers relate to him as a human being and impress them at the same time.  A wonderful job.
 
Many aspects of this production are top notch.  From the set design to the incidental music the level of quality is very high.  But it's the style of directing brings this series to life.  They are able to convey the fast and hectic pace that is standard in the highest echelons of power.  The directors also make the show interesting to watch.  Since most of the scenes are just two people talking, it is a challenge to make that look attractive.  So they shoot people through panes of glass, or with a lot of background action, or walking and talking through the halls, which sounds easier than it is.  (Be sure to check out some of the incredibly long single shot scenes.  Like at the beginning of the pilot episode as Leo McGarry (John Spenser,) the Chief of Staff, walks through the offices.  I can't imagine how long that took.)

If you can't tell from my raving, I really like the show.  There are a couple of aspects that I don't care for, but they are minor.  The lines that the characters say are a little too perfect.  Everyone always has that witty line of  banter ready at every moment.  Just once I'd like someone to be at a loss for words when they were insulted, only to think of the perfect line after its too late.   The show will sometimes, thought rarely, sacrifice accuracy for a big dramatic moment. A good example of this is in the pilot where a conservative Christian evangelist does not know what the first Commandment is. Fairly unrealistic, but it does give Martin Sheen a great entrance line: "I am the Lord thy God..."

Another minor defect is that some plot points that are telegraphed a little too early for my tastes, but maybe that's because I've seen too many movies (is that possible?)

Overall a very fine show.  Excellent is so many aspects it's hard to mention them all.  This show is now tied in a tie for my all time favorite TV show with Hill Street Blues.  That's about the highest praise I can give it.
 

The DVD:


This four DVD set contains all 22 episodes from the first season.  It comes in a cardboard fold out book with a slip case.

Audio:

This DVD is presented in Dolby surround sound, as it was originally broadcast.  There are no alternate language tracks, but there are subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.

The audio on this set should please everyone.  The orchestra music is full and rich and the dialog is clear and sharp, even when there is a lot going on in the background.  Since this is a drama that was made for television, there are not a lot of major sound effects, but the music during the opening credits is powerful and fills the room.   A very good sounding disc.
 

Video:

This show is presented in it's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.  The video quality is excellent.  The blacks are appropriately dark and rich, and details can be seen in the shadows.  The colors are accurate, though not overly bright.  Being a recent show, there are no print flaws.  The put four shows on each disc, and there are some digital artifacts associated with the image.  The lines in the fence in front of the White House will fluctuate as the camera moves across it.  Still pictures, such as those shown during the ending credits seem to fare a little worse, with curving lines having a stair step effect instead of being smooth.  These defects are very slight though, and are only evident if you are looking for them.

The Extras:

The fourth disc in this box set is solely devoted to extras.  This disc includes:

The Primaries:  A 17 minute piece with cast and crew interviews detailing how the show got on the air and the casting process.  Informative, though much of the information is repeated in the commentaries.

Inauguration:  29 minutes.  More cast interviews, this time dealing with the production side of things.  They talk about the sets and how they were created, the high level of detail that goes into the show, the lighting, and the scripts.  It ends with the main characters talking about their favorite scenes.  A good film that wasn't just fluff.

Capital Beat:  8 minutes.  The consultants on the show talk about the show's accuracy, and how close it is to working in the White House.

Sheet Music:  6 ½ minutes.  Interview with the composer for the show, W. G. Snuffy Walden.

Deleted Scenes:  Four deleted scenes.    They are rough cuts with the time code stamp at the bottom of the screen, and low quality video, but they were all good scenes.

Gag Order:   A short 3 minute gag reel.  Nicely edited, though short.

West Wing Suite:  2 minutes of poignant clips set to music.

Off the Record:  3 ½ minutes.  Outtakes from the interviews that were done for this disc.

In addition to these extras, 5 episodes have audio commentaries by writer/creator Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme.  The episodes with commentary are:  The Pilot, In Excelsis Deo (joined by Alex Graves), Take This Sabbath Day, Celestial Navigation (joined by Christopher Misiano), and the concluding episode for the season, What Kind of Day has it Been.  Aaron Sorkin's commentary to the pilot episode was not done while watching the show.  It created from an interview he did for the extras.  (He did do the other commentaries while watching the episode in question.)  All of the commentaries themselves are a fairly sparse.  There are many large (one minute or more) gaps in the dialog.  This was disappointing since I was hoping to get more information.  When they did talk it was generally interesting.  They talked about how certain scenes and shows evolved, and related anecdotes concerning the episode. The commentaries where Sorkin and Schlamme are joined by a director are more verbose, but the still a little bare. I would have liked to have had commentary track by some of the actors on one of the shows too.  Maybe next set.

There is also a booklet listing the cast, episodes and a brief synopsis.

Final Thoughts:

Many big budget movies do not have the level of quality that this show does.  The direction is top notch, and the cast is one of the best ever assembled for a television show.   But aside from being technically proficient, West Wing is able to tell interesting and compelling stories about characters that people can relate to.  All of the shows in this first season of 22 episodes are very good, and several of them great.  Some of the best television ever made.  This one belongs in the DVD Talk Collector Series.

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