“The West Wing” Review : Pilot

[EDIT: 12/12/12 – The original post was such a mess, and I had left out so many things that I wanted to mention. This is the revised version.]

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to watch the pilot. From the summary, it seemed like it was going to be a politic-heavy plot that might end up being too confusing and boring to get through. But I was willing to give it a try. I think I must have given a dozen shows a try that day, but this was the only one that grabbed my attention. Every show has a different way of pulling you in during those first crucial moments. Some shows grab your attention with suspense or action. I was not expecting to get pulled into this show by the comedy. But the first couple minutes made it clear that the writers were saying: this show may be about politics, but we are not without a sense of humor. This can clearly be seen in the opening sequence where Aaron Sorkin introduces us to the characters one at a time in situations that showcase their individual personalities and wit.

It was like this show was written just for me! Characters are very important to me, and I think I have only ever seen an ensemble cast like this in sci-fi shows. They are a tight-knit team of talented and devoted people who are all working together to make the world a better place. Kind of makes you think of popular science fiction shows. They all are very comfortable with each other, and the chemistry is amazing for a pilot episode. The opening sequence of each of them by themselves had me intrigued, but as they began to interact with each other as the episode continued, I knew this was going to be a special show. The one thing that stood out the most to me about these characters is that they have flaws; they make mistakes; they doubt themselves. It makes them relatable.

Sam Seaborn: I read somewhere that Rob took this part to help his image. I only knew him as a handsome face, so other than that I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about him that effected the way I thought about the character. I like Sam Seaborn, and I was impressed with the way he handled the Laurie situation (in this episode as well as in later episodes). I think that the storylines in this first episode help us to see what comes across the desks of these people on a daily basis. I don’t think I ever really thought about what really goes on in the White House. I think Sam sums up nicely all of the storyline that are going on in just this one episode:

“I just found out the Times is publishing a poll that says a considerable portion of Americans feel that the White House has lost energy and focus. A perception that’s not likely to be altered by the video footage of the President riding his bicycle into a tree. As we speak, the Coast Guard are fishing Cubans out of the Atlantic Ocean while the Governor of Florida wants to blockade the Port of Miami. A good friend of mine’s about to get fired for going on television and making sense, and it turns out I accidentally slept with a prostitute last night.”

He does seem to get himself in odd situations that cause some comedic scenes. Though he seems like a ladies’ man, he has very bad luck with women. For some reasons I find that this only adds to his charm. I think my favorite room in the West Wing is the Roosevelt Room. I love the table and all the glass doors. The lighting is also amazing!! The whole show is lit very well and has its own look. There are a lot of windows and doors with glass. It makes sense because it would get kind of boring to just see a couple people talking in a closed off room. Plus, it helps to show all the “action” that is going on in the background; reminds us that there is always something happening.

Leo McGarry: In Den of Geek‘s review of the first episode, Leo was described as an intellectual pedant, and I loved the description so much that I had to use it. I think that all of the characters in this show are very smart. They may rub their intellect in other’s faces once in a while (usually for good reason), but mostly I think they just can’t help but show how smart they are. One new word that I learned from watching this show and reading things about it was “snark”. I know people who are snarky, but I didn’t know the word to describe it before. This show is full of snarky writing, but in this episode I think that Leo brings it and we are shown what to expect from this show. I love how he interacts with the rest of the cast. His snark combined with their individual humor makes for some great scenes. Leo is also the person who first introduces us to the famous “walk and talk” scenes. There isn’t really a lot of “action” that happens in this show, but the walk and talks give the illusion of action happening. These scenes give this show such a distinct look and feel. I love it!

CJ Cregg: I think that the treadmill scene is one of the best CJ scenes. It sums her up. Of course, on first viewing you don’t know that (which is another thing that makes this show so great. The second/third viewing is no less interesting than the first). Throughout the show she continually tries to have relationships but fails because of her job. Her job is demanding and it is having a direct effect on her social life. So the fact that she is at the gym trying to pick up guys is perfect. It is really the only social time she has. In the commentary for this first episode, Aaron Sorkin says that he was very excited to shoot this scene. After seeing Allison Janney’s fall in Primary Colors, Sorkin knew that he had to have her do something like that for the pilot of The West Wing. She and Sam (and apparently POTUS in this episde) both seem to have some klutz issues. Throughout the show she falls into pools, walks into doors, almost drops Gail, and falls on treadmills. This awkwardness is what makes her so endearing. The one thing I remember from when this show originally aired was how people talked about Allison Janney’s amazing portrayal of C.J. Cregg, and I was not disappointed. Since I have seen all seven seasons already, I admit that I am a little biased when it comes to talking about these characters – especially concerning Claudia Jean Cregg. She is for sure my favorite character!! She is strong, smart,  not always as secure as she lets on, and is under a lot of pressure. I can’t imagine having to stand up in front of the Press and answer questions like that. I think that these people have to be funny to create balance. CJ is goofy and I love when she messes with the Press. But can I just point out (as I am sure others have) how bad her hair was this first season! I had totally forgotten.

Josh Lyman: Josh knows how to “bring the funny” and can even be serious when necessary, but even after 7 seasons I still don’t know how I feel about him. It is hard to explain. I don’t dislike him. I think I actually do like him, just not all of the time. There are moments when you just want to hit him upside the head. In this first episode, we have a storyline where there is the possibility of Josh getting fired. At this point we have no connection to him, so we have to take cues from the rest of the cast. I am pretty sure that during my first viewing of this episode the whole “Is Josh getting fired” storyline didn’t make it onto my radar. There are so many things going on in these episodes that it is kind of hard to catch everything the first time around. And people wonder why I watch things multiple times. They don’t understand what they are missing! But I did like how they slowly revealed what was going on with Josh, keeping us in the dark until the moment we see him in his office replaying his interview with Mary Marsh.

Toby Ziegler: Toby. Toby. Toby. Despite this man’s cynicism and lack of facial expressions, I think he is the funniest man in the cast. He doesn’t say much, but when he does this first introduction to him is a great example of what you get. He says what everyone else is thinking – I mean because really who hasn’t had a similar conversation in their head during a flight? Some of his lines in this first episode are so priceless!

“What to do when the Nina, the Pinta, and the Get-Me-The-Hell-Outta-Here hit Miami.”

I love Toby, and he is kind of a mystery for a while as we very slowly get to know him. Sometimes it seems that he is disconnected, but he just doesn’t show emotion well. He sees the world differently than everyone else, which has caused him some problems. I think the writing overall is so good and everyone seems to have great lines, but there is something about his deadpan that just gets me. I don’t think I noticed this the first time I watched the pilot episode, but CJ and Toby can be seen in the background during two of Sam’s scenes. The first one is when he is at his assistant’s desk having her call his pager. The second one is when he is talking with Mallory outside of the Roosevelt room. I think it is really cool that the main characters are playing extras. Though it is too bad that it didn’t happen after this (unless I missed it again), but it kind of gave the episode a cool feeling. To know that the cast was willing to come in on their off day, according to Aaron Sorkin, and be extras.

President Bartlet:

“‘I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other God before me.’ Boy, those were the days, huh?”

What a great entrance! Everyone talks about it and I can’t disagree. But what I think is more telling than his entrance are the looks on his staff’s faces. They look at him with such respect and awe. They truly love this man and everything that he stands for. They serve at the pleasure of the President. Jed Bartlet is smart, maybe a little too smart with all his useless knowledge, but it is funny. He trusts these people and has faith in them. He inspires them to be better at what they do. That is what a great leader does. And like the rest of the cast, he makes mistakes which makes him more human.  I like how the Josh/Marsh storyline is all wrapped up in one line from the President: “Josh. ‘Too busy being indicted for tax fraud’? Don’t ever do it again.” These little moments that the President has with his staff one-on-one usually leave me a little teary-eyed. Even though I don’t agree with everything that he does politically, I love this show and I love this man. I know some people that would get so caught up on the politics that they wouldn’t be able to even watch the show. But for me, I think the show is more about the characters than the politics.

Supporting Cast: The supporting characters on this show are probably the best supporting cast I have ever seen. They are truly able to carry a storyline on their own without you wishing the story would just get back to the main characters. Mrs. Landingham is President Bartlet’s secretary. You can tell from the tone that she uses sometimes when speaking to the President that they have probably known each other for a long time. Margaret, who is Leo’s assistant is amazingly portrayed by NiCole Robinson (who I discovered is a comedian…explains a lot). Her role doesn’t really evolve, but she is the glue that holds the Chief of Staff together. She really does put up with a lot from Leo, and I love how he always yells her name (it does seem to be a thing on this show – people yelling for their assistants). It is always interesting to go back to the beginning and see how much characters have changed over the course of the show, and I think that Donna is probably my favorite sub-character, because I think over the course of the seven seasons she grew the most. She is Josh’s Senior Assistant, though it doesn’t seem like he has any other assistants. I don’t think anyone else besides Donna would be able to put up with him. Other than her character’s evolution over the course of the show, Donna is kind of like the voice of the audience, asking Josh questions that are probably going through the viewers minds as well. She helps us understand all the political stuff that is going on. Bonnie and Ginger are assistants to both Toby and Sam, though in this episode Sam has his own assistant, Kathy. Then there is Carol who is CJ’s assistant, though you don’t know that in the first episode. I think she is under-appreciated as a character. Even though she doesn’t evolve, she is very well written and the combination of her and CJ’s humor is perfection. I think as the show went on she got better scenes. We also meet Mandy who is my least favorite character which is why I left her for last. She is so jarring compared to the others. She always seems upset or on the defensive. I don’t know if it is Moira Kelly’s portrayal of the character or the way she was written. Everything else on this show flows, but even from her entrance (speeding convertible, punk/pop music blaring, disrespect for both the poor soul on the phone as well as for the police officer) she exudes annoyance.

Phrases & References

Sam: “He’s not going anywhere, Billy. It’s a non-story.”
This is the first time we hear the term non-story. For some reason I love hearing people use it, and I don’t think that I had heard it before.

Sam: “‘Cause Alger Hiss just walked in with my secret pumpkin.”
After the first viewing, I didn’t catch this reference; however, when I rewatched it and caught it, I looked it up. Alger Hiss was imprisoned in the 1950s after being convicted of spying on Americans for the Soviet Union. The document he allegedly recorded during his spying were kept in a hollowed out pumpkin. According to TV.com, “The use of this allusion is just a spy joke to reference the fact that he thinks that Laurie is spying on him in the bar.”

Leo: “Please call the editor of the New York Times crossword and tell him that ‘Khaddafi‘ is spelled with an h, and two d’s, and isn’t a seven letter word for anything.” Apparently the spelling of his name is a topic of much discussion. No one is 100% sure how it is spelled.
The Atlantic“The Gaddafi Spelling Challenge”


These character’s use a profuse amount of acronyms. In Chris Evans’ article “7 Reasons Why We Miss The West Wing”, he comments that “characters merrily talked about the economy, world issues and [throw] around government department acronyms as if someone had dropped all the scrabble tiles on the floor.” These are the ones that are mentioned in this episode:

  • INS – Immigration and Naturalization Services
  • CDC – Center for Disease Control
  • HUD – Housing and Urban Development
  • OEOB – Old Executive Office Building (in reality is now called the Eisenhower Executive Building) The building is located directly across the street from the White House and houses the Vice-President and his staff (Source).
  • POTUS – I was surprised to learn that POTUS was not a well-known acronym among the public. It was actually because of its use in this show that it became more publicly known. The first known use of POTUS was in 1895 in an article in the Birmingham Age-Herald. “POTUS [and FLOTUS] can lay claim to being among the earliest known acronyms — with SCOTUS winning by a short head — both of them long beating AWOL, Absent Without Leave, which reports show was being said as a pronounceable word around 1918.” (Source)

Discussion Questions

1. If this episode had a title other than “Pilot” what would it be?
2. What are your thoughts on the fact that Mallory’s last name is O’Brien?

All quotes from the episodes were taken from The West Wing Transcripts.


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