I look for two things in pilot episodes. One is obviously a compelling reason to continue watching the show, whether that comes from the characters, story, jokes or whatever. Normally this is just the promise of great things to come, as most pilots by necessity just sketch the ideas with the broadest possible strokes. This gambit for instant appeal rarely works, as viewers tune in expecting nuance and instead get exaggeration. However, the intelligence of the best shows will usually still gleam through the added gloss. This is the second thing I look for: something that won’t completely embarrass me when I try to introduce someone else to the show from the start.
The first few scenes of the West Wing are full of the characters being such assholes that they really ought to put off anyone unacquainted with the show’s reputation. The smugness, pomposity and smart-ass dialogue that plague the series are all evident: the ridiculous posturing about the POTUS, Toby pretentiously citing the plane’s specifications to argue that he can use his phone before witlessly joking about in-flight peanuts, and the cringe-inducing score.
In one of the show’s more egregious failures, the pilot brings in Mandy. Aaron Sorkin has clearly and admirably determined that his shows need a strong, distinctive female voice. CJ goes some way towards this, but her voice isn’t truly a confident and oppositional one. Mandy is both those things, and fails because of it. The formula later worked better with Ainsley Hayes and Amy Gardner, but Mandy is just plain awful. No matter how much sympathy we’re meant to feel for her as the outsider or strong female or whatever, she’s basically too immature to be likeable. In the pilot, she gloats about ‘bitch slapping’ people and making them ‘cry like a girl’. Of course there are people – male and female – who overcompensate for their own perceived weaknesses in such crass ways, and we can even sympathise with them when we see them in moments of solitude. Bur their cause isn’t helped when they’re on the outside of a gang we like, wasting everyone’s time by trying to fit in. It’s a shame, certainly, but life’s too short to spend in such uninspiring company.
The plot of the episode was otherwise unconvincing when held against the rest of the series (Would the president really have sacked Josh? Does Sam really do one-night stands, in front of a journalist no less?) but worked fine as a standalone story. More importantly, these slight character inconsistencies are useful references when encouraging people not to be put off by other shows’ pilot plot contrivances.
One of the show's key draws is the intelligent and inspiring approach to politics. As Josh explains, ‘Anybody willing to step up and debate ideas deserves better than a political punch line’. When you’re convinced that an idea is right, it’s easy to be blinkered and imperious. Thus the president enters with the intonation, ‘I am the lord your god’ and proceeds to eviscerate the hypocrisy of the religious right. That’s all very well, and the delivery is genuinely awesome, but it risks devolving into a procedural: a cold open in which an old lady dies in a hospital corridor because she has no insurance or a foreign leader celebrates a terrorist atrocity, the political opposition attacks the president for it, the staff panic about the poll ratings, and the president wraps everything up with a fierce diatribe against the forces of wrong.
All that said, the show makes clear that it is more interested in dialectic than polemic. The voice of opposition is frequently shrill and plainly wrong, as with the religious right here, and as it should be in a programme dealing with contemporary politics: plenty of opinions deserve to be exposed as idiotic. Such voices, though, are complemented by thoughtful and convincing critiques of liberal orthodoxy. There isn’t much in the way of policy debate in this pilot, but at least we get Toby telling Josh that he was smug and taunting. Josh was, but he was also on the right side of the argument, and so we are fleetingly introduced to the show’s meditations on ends and means. Introducing this theme in a more portentous way would probably have been less effective and preachy, but glimpsing how character traits can shape the policy landscape hints at a reflective show more than a didactic one.
One of the show’s other principal attractions is its smart, fast-paced wit: the ‘Is that the same suit you wore yesterday?’ exchange; the always reliable ‘I always thought he was gay’ response; Sam’s small talk as he revisits the prostitute’s home; the ‘All the girls think you look really hot in this shirt’ flattery; ‘too high a price to pay for pornography’; ‘I particularly liked the part where you said nothing at all’, etc.
With this combination of banter and inspiration, it’s better to classify the West Wing as a feel-good office drama than a strictly political drama. The idealised (but not fatuous) office relationships are ones to which anyone would aspire, while the archetypical wise and jolly patriarch (especially the way he chides the staff at the end) is a manager anyone would love. That this workplace is a stimulating and meritocratic marketplace of ideas doesn’t do the show any harm either.