In the UK the series has been shoddily treated, needlessly shunted around the TV schedules so frequently that it became impossible to watch the show and have any kind of sense of continuity. Thankfully DVD arrived to save the day, and if you've missed out on this drama, as so many Brits who slavishly follow the likes of The Sopranos or 24 have done, then you have a treat waiting for you with seven complete seasons now available on DVD. There aren't many TV series that have you staying up most of the night for 'just one more episode', but The West Wing is one of them. If you need further proof, look at the release date of the DVD set (it was officially released four days ago!) and do the sums on how long it takes to watch twenty-two 45 minute episodes!
The series tells the story of a 'fictional' American president, 'Jed' Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen and his support staff. It cleverly mixes fact (that can surely only have been provided by a White House insider) and fiction to provide gritty, funny and at times intensely moving drama. President Bartlett is a president nobody would have any problems voting for, albeit a figure fundamentally flawed at times, and the series has rightly won many acting awards for what is arguably the best ensemble cast ever assembled for a TV series.
But it's the writing that makes The West Wing truly soar and garner reviews like 'Best television drama series - ever!'. The dialogue is pitch perfect, and so fast and witty you need to be paying attention every step of the way, thanks initially to creator/writer Aaron Sorkin who wrote most of the first four series before being 'let go' (allegedly for problems caused by his alcoholism) and it took replacement writers, drafted in around the start of the fifth season, the best part of a year to find their feet and return the show to its former glories. Sadly, although the new writers had fully got the show back on track by the end of Season 5, the viewing figures never returned to their previous highs and it became clear that the series was living on borrowed time, much to the dismay of the critics, many of its fans and the lead Martin Sheen who took a pay cut to ensure the show's survival into a seventh year.
This final season bravely opens with a "Three years from now" tease which effectively tells us what will have happened to the major characters after the last episode has aired, while tantalisingly stopping just short of revealing who the replacement for President Bartlett will turn out to be. We're then suddenly back to the current time period and the rest of the season charts the run up to the new presidential elections, highlighting the intense competition between Bartlett's natural succesor, a young, dynamic, idealistic Latino Matthew Santos (who at the start of the previous season had been regarded as a hopeless underdog), and the opposition candidate Senator Vinick, played by Alan Alda, best known as 'Hawkeye' from the M.A.S.H. TV series. The show eventually concludes, in perhaps the only disappointing episode of this series - a rather lacklustre finale, given the highs of the previous few weeks' episodes - with the winner taking office and the former staffers moving on to the next stages of their lives.
One of the most emotionally engaging episodes of the series occurs mid-season and concerns the death of the president's Chief of Staff, played by the late John Spencer (the only celebrity I've ever spotted on the two Warner Brothers studio tours I've taken) who in a rare life-imitates-art event died of a heart attack before shooting completed.
In summary, this seventh season is a gripping, rollercoaster ride that takes risks but never loses its way: one episode was broadcast live, written as a televised presidential debate! For us Brits there's some wonderful digs at our 'lady prime minister' and her 'special relationship' and some digs about the queen and Europe to add an extra frisson of dark humour (or reality?!) and the only real disappointment of this DVD set is the realisation that the series is now officially over, seemingly never to return, and there won't be another DVD set to follow it around the same time next year.
The DVDs of The West Wing have always been patchy affairs. You're paying for the drama, not for the picture quality (which this time around is very good in places, but dark, murky and almost unwatchable in others - go figure!) or, here on Region 2 land, the extra's. While Region 1 purchasers get a farewell documentary and some other bits and pieces, yet again we Brits get absolutely nothing, unless you count some rather lavish digi-packaging which include a good chapter booklet, as deserving of the word 'extras'.
The West Wing is the series that inspired some of the more popular, intelligent drama's that are having great success today. You owe it to yourself to check it out on DVD if you missed it when first broadcast. You won't find a better written drama series - that's a promise!