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
All posts in this series:
- “I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other god before me.”
- “By day they churn butter and worship according to their own beliefs and by night they solve crimes.”
- “In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime. Boy, I dunno’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”
- “You’re relieved, Mr President.”
- “Today’s priority is not world peace.”