The West Wing Pilot Review: Break's Over

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The West Wing went off the air many years ago. But I’ve finally given in and am ready to start the series from the beginning, reviewing each episode as I go. Ready to join me? Let’s do this…  

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Thirty-six minutes and twenty seconds and speaking about the First Commandment: "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt worship no other God before me. Boy, those were the days, huh?"

That's how long it is before Martin Sheen makes his appearance on The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1, "Pilot," and the first words out of his mouth.

It was a lot longer than expected for POTUS to make an appearance, but given what I learned about him by way of his staff by that point, it wasn't surprising.

President Bartlet - The West Wing

Hey, guys! I'm one of the people out there who, until now, has never watched a minute of The West Wing. My personal history with politics has led me to the point I am a registered Independent and the mere thought of too much politics has always scared me off.

However, living in a 24/7 political atmosphere now whether I like it or not, I figured why not give The West Wing a try? At the very least, it's fiction! That HAS to be better than the real world, right?

Well, so far so good. One episode down, 154 to go! 

While watching, I realized that other than every cast member growing older (I like them all better now, except I'd prefer dear John Spencer still be alive), the vintage electronics and the outdated fashions, not much has changed.

The Plane Will Still Fly - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

Much like Toby, we still wonder how in the heck using our portable electronic devices could mess with state-of-the-art flight control decks on massive flying machines. 

More importantly, the hot-button political topics The West Wing dared push in its pilot episode are still alive and kickin' today. In fact, I'd say nothing has been gained by either political party if you run down a list of them.

The Christian right was at the forefront of the episode, as Josh ticked them off on a television program. Abortion was noted in some depth because of the President's beliefs, and his granddaughter's, as well as the official Bartlet administration policy on it. 

There was an aside about gun control, a more noteworthy message about illegal immigration, and quick takes on condoms in schools and the first amendment. Other issues were mentioned but not discussed.

He Did a Bad, Bad Thing - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

I tried to imagine whether the same pilot could be aired today with the same success. I'm skeptical.

The President would be damned for his personal beliefs on abortion even if his policies supported the freedom to choose. These days, you don't get to have a personal choice and a political one that doesn't match up. It's an all or nothing game. 

I've yet to reconcile how politicians get away with going to church at all, but perhaps it's in not speaking about it too voraciously and the understanding the separation of church and state is equally important to a free United States. But a show would get some pushback against competing agendas.

With the size of the cast, it was impossible to get to know everyone well in the premiere, so I felt I had a better handle on a few after this hour. You will know if I do much better than me, though.

Sam Knows Nothing About the White House - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

As Communications Director, Sam appears to have a great appreciation of women, if not for the White House itself. He's not a connoisseur of women, though, as he didn't pick up on his the occupation of his "date," and probably should have asked what law student and part time bartender would have a pager.

Another good question would have been, why does anyone living in Washington, DC, studying law no less, not know what POTUS means? The phrase had been kicking around since 1895, so it's not as if they had invented the wheel for The West Wing.

Meeting Leo's daughter's fourth-grade class was highly enjoyable. My first thought was why does such an old man have such a young daughter, so shame on ME for my inability to consider the obvious. Apparently, I pal around with too many Sams. 

Sam's pathetic attempt to give a White House tour speech, not even noting the correct Roosevelt (I don't even know my presidents and got that one right) was embarrassing.

Get to Work Everyone - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

It's pretty clear the males staffing The West Wing aren't afraid to mess things up and enjoy themselves while they're hard at work.

CJ's introduction wasn't as thorough. If the only hour she gets for herself is between 5-6 AM, she probably doesn't have the same rockin' social life as Sam or Josh, both who were shown with women, past or present.

CJ seems fun, what with her falling off the treadmill at the gym and all that. Plus, she's played by Allison Janney. It would be sacrilegious if CJ wasn't topped with a hefty dose of humor.

The West Wing is Hectic Season 1 Episode 1

In fact, there is a lot of humor infused throughout the pilot. One of the first things we learn about the President is he's injured his ankle by riding his bike into a tree. 

As Leo walks into the office in the morning, he's sarcastically biting at all of the bit players he brushes shoulders with during the day, and Josh's whiz bang assistant Donna doesn't pick up the phone to call her boss, but does what a lot of us would have done, screams his name as loud as she can.

They're busy proving The West Wing is just like any other office, but it happens to support the President of the United States. Meh, so what, right? No biggie. He's just a guy who rides his bike into trees.

Walking In Washington - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

Just in case anyone forgot this wasn't just another political show since there was no president in sight for almost the first 40 minutes of the pilot, Leo took the fella from the Christian right for a walk past the White House. 

It's the pilot where you usually get to see things like Maggie doing a U-Turn on a corner in Washington, DC, or Leo strolling in front of the White House, so I don't expect there will be a whole lot of that in the future. Maybe stock footage?

The entrance of POTUS was well timed for the dramatics. The Christian right was in the house and things were getting fairly nasty. Toby caught wind of a "New York" comment that probably was intended to note "Jews" instead.

While that didn't sit well, he started getting a little heated.

Christians on the Left - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

I don't know if it was intentional, but was especially enjoying the scene because the Christian "right" was seated on the left. I don't know why that tickled me so much, but it did.

It was during that conversation that the topics of school prayer and pornography made their appearances, as well as condoms in the schools (short discussion) leading to HIV/AIDS. 

The rapid fire way issues are brought up and scattered across the canvas is almost alarming, and it's easy to see why we've become, as a society, such a hotbed for political discussion. Trying to imagine TWW airing in the social media world is overwhelming. 

With only six minutes left, POTUS made his appearance, and abortion and illegal immigration were about to be discussed more deeply, but not in an annoying way. It seems unlikely anyone who listened in could have been triggered by the way the issues were presented.

Hail to the Chief - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

President Bartlet doesn't believe in abortion, but his administration supports the right to choose. He's a deeply religious man who loves his family and believes they have the right to believe as they see fit, too, even his 12-year-old granddaughter, Annie.

Despite his own beliefs, when Annie gets targeted by zealots for her views on abortion with a Raggedy Ann carrying a knife through the heart, he's going to take offense.

If the Christians had asked the zealots to tone down their, well, zeal, as POTUS asked, Josh's mistake on a live broadcast might have cost him a lot more than a "never do it again." But they didn't, so the score was even by the end of the hour.

That may be how it ends all the time to ensure no one side is given the leg up. I don't know. Politics on television is a difficult business. You don't want to eliminate half of your audience. Bartlet can't have a differing view than his administration on every issue, so I'm interested in seeing how this plays out.

How Is the Ankle? - The West Wing Season 1 Episode 1

He even gave a speech about the Cuban refugees sinking into the waters off of Florida after their treacherous journey to find a better life in the U.S. while the Governor was putting up barricades to keep them out. 

It was a very busy six minutes for the President, and his staff didn't even bother asking after his ankle.

This is going to be an amazing ride, the contrast between 1999 and 2017 and the continuation thereof both in terms of issues and technology, not to mention how storytelling has changed in the world of television. It's very exciting.

And here I am! One step closer to a place I've never been before – someone who has watched the entirety of The West Wing.

Break's over!

Review

Editor Rating: 4.0 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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