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“By day they churn butter and worship according to their own beliefs and by night they solve crimes.” Aug 15

Without pausing for breath, the second series of The West Wing picks up where the first left us hanging. The President, his daughter and his staff haved been fired upon; somebody’s going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail…

The two-parter “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is the perfect opportunity for the series’ first flashback episode, showing us how the various aides came to work for Jed Bartlet. The pace is maintained in “The Midterms”, which provides one of the most memorable scenes in the run when the President confronts a right-wing radio agony aunt, tossing biblical quotes at her in response to her Old Testament views on the gays.

We meet Ainsley Hayes, annoying-voiced token Republican who is a useful devil’s advocate as well as a provider of light relief. The series remains funny while it negotiates the pathos of Chinese Christian refugees and post-traumatic stress disorder, the latter being Bradley Whitford’s “This is for the Emmy” episode (I discover after writing that that he did indeed win one).

The weakest episode is “The Stackhouse Filibuster”. It’s relatively self-contained and a pleasant, memorable little tale, but it crosses the line from sentimental into mawkish. The framing narrative – staffers writing emails to their parents – is an interesting experiment but doesn’t come off at all, merely exaggerating the schmaltz.

Fortunately, the following episode is “17 People”, and from here on it’s five episodes of TV gold. The character of Toby comes centre stage and much of the episode is a dialogue between him and the President. It’s followed by “Bad Moon Rising”, which introduces new and entertaining White House Counsel Oliver Babish played by Oliver Platt (the teaser alone features a textbook example of Chekhov’s gun). Babish’s scenes with Mrs Bartlet – sorry, Dr Bartlet – are a delight. If, like me, you’re watching on DVD, you have to stick with it from here until the end.

The regular cast have grown into their roles and are marvellous in almost every scene. Aaron Sorkin continues to knock out fast-paced, intelligent, witty scripts and the directors – notably Thomas Schlamme – do a great job. nd if that wasn’t enough, the season ends with the tear-jerking marvel that is “Two Cathedrals”, possibly the single best episode of the entire series. As Leo McGarry says in the last line of that episode: “Watch this.”

Look out for: the “Who saved CJ?” plot, which doesn’t tally with what we saw in the season 1 cliffhanger; the marvellous character of Bernard Thatch; Felicity Huffman off of Desperate Housewives running rings around Toby in “The Leadership Breakfast”; the president of Columbia, President Santos; Dr Bartlet, Sr., Jed’s father, played by Laurence O’Donnell, a writer, executive story editor and producer on The West Wing, in his first TV role.

Don’t look out for: Mandy. She disappears from the cast without a word (and amen to that).

Six degrees of Alan Dale: more actors from The West Wing who pop up in Lost or 24. The most notable is Glenn Morshower who makes the first three of nine appearances as Mike Chysler. He served more than one other US president in all five series (so far) of 24 as Secret Service agent Aaron Pierce. Timothy Davis-Reed, who made the first of 51 appearances as reporter Mark O’Donnell in Shibboleth, appeared in an episode of the fourth series of 24. Sam Anderson, best known as Holland Manners in Angel and Bernard in Lost turns up in the same episode. And Devika Parikh, who appears as communications assistant Bonnie from the pilot episode until season 5, appeared in the first series of 24 as Maureen Kingsley. (I may have to give this pointless list its own page.)

Best episodes: In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Ellie, 17 People, Two Cathedrals

“I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other god before me.” Aug 07

At the weekend, I finished watching the first series of The West Wing. It’s a series that hits the ground running, but even so you can see it evolving. The top-billed characters of Sam and Mandy begin to fade early on: although Rob Lowe is the notional star, he quickly becomes an equal part of the ensemble, while the annoying Moira Kelly is sidelined with little to do and disappears entirely after this season. The charismatic President Bartlet, meanwhile, brought marvellously to life by Martin Sheen, takes centre stage from the moment he silences a roomful of arguing people by proclaiming the First Commandment.

It’s my impression – although until I’ve made my way through the next few box sets I won’t be able to confirm it – that the writing is a little rawer to begin with. Issues – and particularly moral ones – are dealt with less subtly than in future scripts and very occasionally a character gives a slightly unrealistic speech (of the sort to which characters in Babylon 5 were regularly prone). The humour is there throughout though, proving not only that you don’t have to be a comedy or a “comedy drama” to be funny; indeed, good drama needs humour. The whole season stands up well seven years on and it’s immediately clear why it was such a hit.

I’ve mentioned before the crossover of actors between 24, Lost and The West Wing, so my Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon Kiefer Sutherland brain was on the look out for more. The most notable in this season is Reiko Aylesworth – Michelle Desslar in 24 – who pops up in the penultimate episode playing a fellow student of “Sam’s friend”. Also making an appearance – in “He Shall, From Time To Time…” – is Harry Groener as the Secretary of Agriculture. He later appears in Inauguration Day Part 2, in which he turns into a giant snake and eats everyone. (“I’m suffering from relapsing-remitting gargantuan snakeitis.”)

One other actorly observation: in “20 Hours in L.A.”, Donna spots Matthew Perry at a party; apparently in season 4 she is too polite to mention to Joe Quincy that he’s the spitting image of the Friends actor.

Best episodes: “Six Meetings Before Lunch” (if only for CJ doing “The Jackal”), the recently much-cited “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”, and the excellent finale, “What Kind of Day Has It Been?” (which, in retrospect rather ominously, features a problem with the Space Shuttle Columbia).

Oh, and to my chagrin, I am Sam Seaborn.

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Upcoming releases Jun 06

Back in the day, long before he was reviving Doctor Who or writing Queer as Folk, Russell “The” Davies wrote a couple of BBC children’s drama series, 1991’s Dark Season and 1993’s Century Falls. Both were excellent pieces of kids’ TV.

Dark Season, which featured a young Kate Winslet among the cast, was, in many ways, Doctor Who in disguise. It featured an eccentric lead character with a couple of sidekicks investigating mysterious goings-on in suburban England. There are two distinict plots: the first involves computers being used to take over schoolchildren’s minds (c.f. new Who episode School Reunion); the latter features a troop of Aryan archaeologists led by Servalan off of Blake’s 7 attempting to obtain a powerful machine buried in the school grounds. These six episodes were, at the time, some of the best CBBC had to offer. It’s a little dated now – some of the clothes are shockingly eighties despite this being the nineties – but still good value. Oh, and it features Brigit Forsyth from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Doctor Who legend Cyril Shaps.

Century Falls was made two years later by largely the same production team. I only saw it on first broadcast so my memory of it is 13 years old, but it was notably darker than its predecessor, using the fantasy medium to deal with issues such as teenage pregnancy. The cast includes Who alumni Eileen Way and Bernard Kay, plus Mary Wimbush from K-9 and Company and The Archers.

I’m looking forward to seeing both series again, because – and this is the reason for this post – they’re coming out on DVD next month, having never been released on VHS. Both Dark Season and Century Falls are released on Monday 17th July and I heartily recommend them.