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The West Wing: The Complete First Season DVD Review

The West Wing: The Complete First Season

July 30, 2002

Director: Thomas Schlamme,
Starring: Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly, Dule Hill, Allison Janney, Janel Moloney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen,

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DVD Review

When The West Wing debuted on television it was considered something of a gamble. At the time, the channels were populated with crime shows (Law and Order, NYPD Blue) and medical dramas (E.R., Chicago Hope) and any show with about politics would either offend people or put them to sleep. However, Aaron Sorkin, fresh from writing the screenplay for The American President (1995), thought otherwise. His gamble paid off and The West Wing has since gone on to become a ratings sensation, a favourite with the critics and win numerous Emmys. Warner Brothers has assembled the entire first season on four discs with a solid collection of supplemental material.

What makes the premise of The West Wing so intriguing is that it allows viewers to see what goes on in the White House before and after the press briefings we see on TV. The show focuses on the inner workings of the President’s senior staff and how they deal with both major (illegal Cuban refugees) and minor (the President sprains his ankle falling off his bicycle) crisises. Leo (Spencer) is the gruff second-in-command to the President, Josh (Whitford) is the smug, self-absorbed staffer, C.J. (Janney) is the Press Secretary and emotional centre of the staff, Sam (Lowe) is the attractive ladies man and Toby (Schiff) is a no-nonsense kind of guy. This is only a superficial sketch of these characters that develop over the episodes and showcases their complexities and contradictions—in other words, three-dimensional characters.

There is no question that this cast clicks. There is an ease to which they interact with each other that is evident right from the pilot episode. They are a talented group who talk and act like you would expect the White House senior staff to perform. This is achieved by a solid cast of actors and top-notch scripts that are well-written even if they sometimes suffer from being a little too idealistic and self-important.

Rob Lowe managed to survive the ‘80s and revitalized his career with his role on The West Wing. He is quite good as the flawed Sam Seaborn, showing a range that wasn’t apparent in his feature film work. He’s good at the serious stuff and also has a knack for light comedy. Martin Sheen is perfectly cast as the President. With his impressive career, he brings the right amount of gravity to the role. When he walks into a room he instantly takes control of any given situation and is able to diffuse tense ones.

Special Features:

There are five audio commentaries spread over the three of the four DVDs. Series creator Aaron Sorkin and one of the series’ producers (and frequent director) Thomas Schlamme sit in all the tracks and are joined by other directors on various episodes. Sorkin and Schlamme discuss the origins of the show. They were fascinated by behind-the-scenes stories and wanted to do that kind of story about the White House. Both men speak eloquently about the show and provide a lot of good anecdotal information. They make no excuses for the intentions of their show—to tell stories that are routed in realism but that are also romantic and idealistic.

The fourth DVD contains the bulk of the supplemental material. “The Primaries” is a 17-minute featurette on the origins of The West Wing. The majority of the cast and key crew members are interviewed about how they got involved and were cast on the show. Sorkin chose the White House as the setting for his program because he felt it provided the possibility for all kinds of stories.

“The Inauguration” examines the technical aspects of the show, from how it is written, shot and edited. As with Sorkin’s comments in “The Primaries,” some of what he says is repeated on the commentaries. This featurette clearly demonstrates the challenge of recreating the White House that these people face every week.

“Capital Beat” takes a look at the political consultants who work on the show and make sure that it is accurate in feel and style to the real thing. Amazingly, as one advisor points out, the pilot episode had no consultants and yet still managed to capture many of the real-life details of the people who work in the White House.

The music of the show is examined on the featurette entitled, “Sheet Music.” Composer W.G. Snuffy Walden had worked previously for Sorkin on Sports Night and was keen to work with again. Walden convinced Sorkin to send himi footage of The West Wing. Walden explains how the show’s theme came from gospel music and talks a bit about his process for scoring the show.

Also included are four deleted scenes for four episodes that run five minutes. Sadly, no introductions or optional audio commentaries are provided to put this footage into any kind of context or explain why they were ultimately cut from the show.

“Gag Order” is a pretty funny gag reel of outtakes from the show. It’s refreshing to see that the actors who work on such a serious show seem to have a lot of fun making it.

“The West Wing Suite” is a montage of footage scored to some of Walden’s music. There is no explanation for why this included and reeks of unnecessary padding.

Finally, “Off the Record” is a brief montage of outtakes from the interviews conducted for the featurettes on the DVD that is pretty amusing.

Fans of The West Wing are in for a real treat with this First Season box set. Not only are all the episodes presented in excellent transfers but clearly the creators of the show personally oversaw the extra material. Their involvement provides fascinating insight into what goes into creating this award winning show.

 

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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