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Sunday, June 11, 2006

Give me numbers.

I've just finished watching the second season of The West Wing on DVD.

This was when the show was at its best. This was when Aaron Sorkin was at the height of his powers, when the characters were still fresh enough to surprise but also well-established enough to be endearing, when the cast was really starting to become comfortable, and when the show's direction was at its best.

If you don't remember the second season, it starts with the brilliant two-parter "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen", which picks up with the aftermath of the assassination attempt on the President that concluded season one. It also established what would become a favorite trick of Sorkin's: interweaving a present-day storyline with flashbacks to past events. In "Shadow of Two Gunman", we flash back to the early days of the Bartlet campaign when the staff is still meeting one another, and in the season's final episode, "Two Cathedrals", we flash back to when Bartlet as a schoolboy met Mrs. Landingham.

I could cite specific wonderful examples from season two, as well as some glaring flaws (Mandy's disappearance was never explained; Felicity Huffman was introduced as a political rival to Toby Ziegler and then never seen again; "The Stackhouse Filibuster" was the show's first outright bad episode), but what stood out to me in watching the entire season over a few weeks was the way Sorkin and company gradually move the MS storyline to the front and center.

Again for those who don't remember the specifics, in an episode in the middle of the first season, it had been revealed that President Bartlet had been diagnosed some years earlier with Multiple Sclerosis and not divulged it during his campaign for the White House. Season two ends with a sequence of four amazing episodes in which Bartlet has to go public with his condition. But what's so impressive is that so many of that storyline's building blocks are maneuvered into place much, much earlier.

Well before the MS plotline takes center stage, it's established that the President is loathe to switch into campaign mode just two years into his first term. Republican rivals begin to take precedence. Bartlet's State of the Union address is established as an attempt by the President to move toward the political center. So well before MS is really mentioned, we're already watching the White House gearing up for a campaign.

But it doesn't end there: a whole other level of conflict is set up when it's revealed that Bartlet had made a promise to his wife before his initial election as President that, because of his disease, he would only serve a single term. Now he is leaning to break that promise, which puts marital strife in the air also well before the MS storyline heats up.

And finally, even in the course of the real meat of the MS story, the show doesn't let up anywhere else, either. In addition to that, we have a diplomatic crisis in Haiti and a domestic political hot potato in the form of the Federal Government's lawsuit against the big tobacco companies. And then things get even worse when Mrs. Landingham, the person who's been in Bartlet's life longer than anyone else (even Mrs. Bartlet), is killed in a car crash.

Watching these episodes again, I found myself getting swept away again. I'm looking forward to watching Season Three now. I haven't seen any of Season Three since those episodes first ran, and I recall the resolution of the MS tale feeling somewhat lackluster in comparison with the setup. But that may be an artifact of the times in which those episodes aired; when Season Three first aired, 9-11 had just happened and the MS storyline felt a lot less real. I also think that Aaron Sorkin started to lose a bit of steam in Season Three; that's when he started doing things like introducing fictitious countries (Qumar, Equatorial Khundu). That wonderful sense, inherent in the first two seasons, that the show depicted events that really could happen in the real world, faded away a bit when they started inventing countries out of whole cloth.

But maybe I'm being unfair to Season Three. I'll know in a few weeks.

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