It’s a crime that The West Wing is often overlooked in lists of the best TV shows of all time. It’s Aaron Sorkin’s glimpse behind the curtain of American politics, showing the lives and the hard work of the people who make the laws and keep the free world turning. They are loyal to their country, fight with their consciences and principles, and yes, get things wrong occasionally. And they all speak with Sorkin’s glistening dialogue, funny, clever, and full of wordplay and an impressive breadth of cultural reference points.

THE WEST WING -- NBC Series -- Pictured: (l-r) John Spencer as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, Rob Lowe as Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet, Allison Janney as Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, Moira Kelly as political consultant Madeline Hampton, Bradley Whitford as Deputy Chief of Staff John Lyman -- NBC Photo: Kevin Foley ORG XMIT: ; 58 ORG XMIT: M0003011449130643

Perhaps Sorkin’s most enduring creation is President Jed Bartlet, an amalgamation of every beloved Democratic president. At once a folksy, avuncular figure and a fiercely ideological statesman, he may be the most popular president the United States has ever had. He’s played by the legendary Martin Sheen, who is equally convincing as a commanding leader as he is a vulnerable man with onerous decisions to make. He presides over dedicated senior staff, all of whom are brilliantly portrayed by their respective actors. The West Wing is a true ensemble piece, with no weak link.

The show started in the 90s, but continued throughout the Bush administration, and functioned as an alternate reality in which Democrats were in power, and politicians were actually motivated by the interests of the public. It was an important mouthpiece for liberal politics at a time when the news was filled between squabbles between conservatives of every kind. Though the show very much exists in a fictional reality, it occasionally finds ways to comment on current events. The September 11th attacks are never directly alluded to in the show, but The West Wing manages to explore problems in the real world though its own fictional War on Terror surrounding the fictional middle-eastern state of Qumar. The show also deals with the very real problems of potentially rogue nuclear states, India-Pakisan relations, scandals, leaks, climate change and the energy crisis.

Watching The West Wing now is fascinating because of how seemingly prescient it was. Perhaps the most famous example is Bartlet’s succession by a president of colour, Matt Santos, who may or may not have been based on a young senator named Barack Obama. The show never claimed to be anything more than an entertainment, but the seeds it planted perhaps shouldn’t be underestimated.

SH06E143WESTWING May 9, 2006 _ Janel Moloney, Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe star on "The West Wing." (SHNS photo by Mitchell Haddad / NBC)

Our political system seems to be crumbling around us; Democrats and Republicans refuse to work together, and the two presidential nominees are opportunistic narcissists, one of whom is potentially dangerous and unstable. Now more than ever do we need The West Wing as a blueprint of a functional political system, made up of people who love their country and want to make a difference to it, as opposed to gaining power, appeasing their party and avenging grievances. There are plenty of shows on TV about the US political process, such as Veep and House of Cards, but they all have a streak of cynicism and depravity to them. Hell, most of the critically acclaimed shows I can think of are dark and wry  – Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, True Detective and so on. The West Wing finds plenty of  significance in its study of world politics that it doesn’t rely on sex and violence to keep its audience interested. The show is quintessentially American in its chest-thumping patriotism and idealism, but it’s a glimmer of hope in the murkiness of American politics that amongst all this mess is a system that works.


Created by: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Dulé Hill, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Martin Sheen, Janel Maloney, Stockard Channing, 

Prd: Aaron Sorkin, John Wells, Thomas Schlamme, Christopher Misiano, Alex Graves, Laurence O’Donnell Jr., Peter Noah,

Country: USA

Runtime: 42 minutes

Year: 1999-2006

By Matthew Hayhow

Writer and journalist. Watches movies. Shouts at pidgeons. Twitter - @Machooo Email