During its seven years on NBC, "The West Wing" took a lot of flack for being a liberal's fantasy of what government could be like. But of all the scripted television that's explored national politics in the last few decades, the show's Capra-esque faith in the ability for America to be capable of great things makes it easily one of the most patriotic shows of our generation. So, on this, our Independence Day, let us celebrate Aaron Sorkin and the Bartlet administration with a binge view of some "West Wing" classics.
This list was nearly impossible to create, gentle reader. Capping it at 15 episodes (even though two of which are two-parters) was a heartache. We also chose to focus on the first four seasons, not because the last three seasons are especially terrible, but because the earlier seasons, especially the first two, are just so good. And unless you planned on pulling an all-nighter this July 4th, 748 minutes of television seemed like the upper limit of viewing to expect from people. So please enjoy.
"Pilot" (Season 1, Episode 1)
All great TV has to start somewhere, and "The West Wing" began with the President (Martin Sheen) crashing his bicycle into a tree. Creator Aaron Sorkin has said his favorite moments of the show were when he was able to humanize the most powerful man in the world (or as he described him, "a person with a temp job"). This was on full display in the pilot episode, which concludes with one of President Bartlet's signature catchphrases: "What's next?" What, indeed. (Ben Travers)
"A Proportional Response" (Season 1, Episode 3)The episode gets its title from its one key line -- "What is the value of a proportional response?" -- but while ostensibly about the President executing his first big military action, it's the episode which introduces Charlie (Dule Hill), and ends in a classic "West Wing" moment, sweeping and inspirational, capturing the power of public service.
(Liz Shannon Miller)
"The Crackpots, and These Women" (Season 1, Episode 5)
It's easy to say that this episode is perfect because of its ending -- a great Bartlet speech, preceded by a touching reminder that at least during "The West Wing," Aaron Sorkin was capable of writing great female characters. But that would mean not celebrating its beginning, in which a pick-up basketball game becomes a metaphor for Bartlet's presidency. And it would also mean not mentioning the Big Block of Cheese. And Nick Offerman in a pre-"Parks and Recreation" moment! So just understand that this episode is perfect top to bottom. (Liz Shannon Miller)
"Celestial Navigation" (Season 1, Episode 15)
A slight deviation from form -- the episode is told largely in flashback -- that puts Josh (Bradley Whitford) front and center and showcases guest star Edward James Olmos. Also, CJ gets root canal and CCH Pounder shows up and there's a secret plan to fight inflation. It's not plot-heavy, but it is a delight. (Liz Shannon Miller)
NOTE: We could not squeeze "Six Meetings Before Lunch" into this list, but there is no way in Bartlet's America that we can talk about "The West Wing" without talking about C.J. doing "The Jackal." Please find it below.
"Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" (Season 1, Episode 19)
"What Kind of Day Has It Been" (Season 1, Episode 22)
Just when you think that you've gotten into a rhythm with the show, Sorkin pulls a fast one -- like with this cliffhanger-happy finale. All of a sudden your favorite characters aren't just pushing paper and having lofty conversations about policy from afar -- they're literally in the middle of a battlefield. (Shipra Gupta)
"In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" (Season 2, Episodes 1-2)For all the haters out there who called the Season 1 finale a "cliché," the two-part follow-up that launches the series into Season 2 proves to be an incredible pay-off for viewers. Sorkin uses the aftermath of the shooting to take us back in time to the campaign trail, where we learn how Leo recruited each member of Bartlet's staff and how they, together, managed to pull of a nearly impossible win.
"Shibboleth" (Season 2, Episode 8)
As Thanksgiving nears, all Josh wants to do is watch football. All C.J. wants to do is get some turkeys out of her office. And all the President wants is a carving knife for his family dinner. From heated debate over all these topics, plus appointing Leo's sister to an educational post, comes the unexpected sweetness that won our hearts (well after our minds had already been taken away). President Bartlet's gift to Charlie is one of the all-time most touching moments on the show, and it's only one of two in the episode. The other comes from the show's title, and it needs no further explanation beyond that magic word for fans. (Ben Travers)
"The Stackhouse Filibuster" (Season 2, Episode 17)
This is another narrative experiment, with three separate characters explaining to loved ones via letter what a filibuster is. It's also a great example of "West Wing"'s brilliance at making stories about public policy actually interesting. It also includes the above moment. And it also beautifully, brilliantly leads into... (Liz Shannon Miller)
"17 People" (Season 2, Episode 18)The definition of a bottle episode, but an intense one that uses its minimalist settings to emphasize its seismic repercussions. The President has a secret. Toby (Richard Schiff) figures it out. This shouldn't make for 44 minutes of compelling television, but wow, does it ever.
(Liz Shannon Miller)
"Two Cathedrals" (Season 2, Episode 22)
"The Indians in the Lobby" (Season 3, Episode 7)
"Bartlet for America" (Season 3, Episode 9)
"Game On" (Season 4, Episode 6)
"Election Night" (Season 4, Episode 7)
"Do you want to tempt the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing?"
"Then go outside, turn around three times, and spit."
Does this episode needs more reason to be included on this list? No, it doesn't. But in case you're questioning our decision, then there's Bartlet's moment of triumph at the end; bittersweet but beautiful. "Smart people who love you are going to have your back." (Liz Shannon Miller)
"Election Day, Parts 1 and 2" (Season 7, Episodes 16-17)
Yes, we've jumped from one election to another in the blink of an eye. We've also jumped to a whole new season! A whole new campaign! Aaron Sorkin doesn't write the show anymore! And Josh and Donna (Janel Maloney) are in a whole new place! The decision to include these episodes came from a few basic facts: 1) It took a few seasons, but "West Wing" had recaptured some of its Sorkin-era glory by this point. 2) It's a major moment in the show's overall narrative. 3) Leo McGarry, and John Spencer -- the man who brought him to life. Enough said. (Liz Shannon Miller)
We're already planning our 15 MORE Episodes of "The West Wing" to Binge-View list for next year. What should be on it?