The West Wing
The Best Seasons Ranked
June 24, 2019
This Fall marks the 20th Anniversary of Aaron’s Sorkin’s seminal political drama, The West Wing. Telling the story of fictional President, Josiah Bartlet, and the trials and tribulations of his senior staff, The West Wing helped to usher in the Golden age of serialized drama that we’re still living in today. It is not hyperbole to say, The West Wing changed television in a real way, and for the better. In the end, The West Wing is a love letter to civil servants who sacrifice so much their idealism and the greater good.
This “Best Seasons Ranked” List represents the first in a series of articles I will be writing over the coming months, celebrating the show’s 20th Anniversary.
Over the course of 7 Seasons, The West Wing aired 156 episodes, but really, 154 episodes. Two, “Documentary Special” from Season 3 and “Isaac and Ishmael,” a standalone episode produced and aired within 3 weeks of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were non-canonical “special” episodes.
The series had a steady and dependable hand during its first four years, guided by its creator, Aaron Sorkin, who wrote almost all of the episodes and executed a coherent plan for his vision. Once he left, the show went through some turmoil as it struggled with its voice and presentation, behind and in front of the cameras. The show eventually recovered, though it was forever changed from what it had been, and, in the end, aired a very good final Season 7.
Below, I rank my favorite Seasons of The West Wing … and try to defend my position. Let me know in the comments whether you agree or disagree.
The Best Seasons of The West Wing, Ranked:
Season 2. This is season that The West Wing fully matured into the show we’d remember. Beginning with the fallout of the Roslyn shooting and organically leading us into the explosion of the MS storyline, Season 2 is littered with examples of the idealized civil servants sacrificing everything in their lives to try and make the best country they can. Anchored by the best Season Premiere (“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” (Parts 1&2)) AND Season Finale (“Two Cathedrals”) of the show’s 7 seasons, Season 2 of The West Wing is Sorkin at his creative best, to say nothing of the cast, each embracing the full bandwith of their deeply drawn and wonderfully flawed characters. Season 2 makes up 4 of my Top 5 The West Wing Episodes of all time so, you know, I’m a fan. It’s chockful of classic episodes, including “Noel,” “17 People“ and “Two Cathedrals.”
Season 3. Coming off the dramatic end to Season 2 which featured the one two punch of Mrs. Landingham’s death mixed with President Bartlet coming clean about his MS diagnosis, Season 3 could have easily been a let down or could have coasted on its previous success. But, it doesn’t. The West Wing keeps the foot on the pedal in Season 3, telling us the story of the MS fallout entwined with the Bartlet Administration gearing up for re-election. Wrapped into these plotlines is the culmination of the Toby/President Bartlet tension which has been simmering since the first season. And its delicious. On top of all this, we have a shift where all of President Bartlet’s actions are now viewed through the lens of his multiple sclerosis and the season builds to the dramatic assassination of the Qumari Defense Minister (and terrorist), Abdul Shareef. Also, Mark Harmon!!! Classic episodes include “Bartlet for America,””Posse Comitatus,“ and “Hartsfield’s Landing.”
Season 1. From the Pilot, it was clear that nothing like The West Wing had ever been on TV before. Utterly likable civil servants working long hours to bring forth an idealized vision of what the government could be … and not always succeeding. In fact, failing as much as anything else. Season 1 opens with the Bartlet administration a year into office and stuck in a morass. We see the President, and as a result, his staff, having to tack to the middle of the road over and over, afraid of incurring further failures or gaffes. It’s not until the end of the season that they say, “fuck ‘it,” and decide to try and govern the way they want, failures be damned. Only then does the show really take off and grow into the series we still love today. It features many classic episodes, including “In Excelsis Deo,” “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet,” and “Take This Sabbath Day.”
Season 7. Before the untimely death of John Spencer (the core cast member who played Leo McGarry), Season 7 was to act as the transition season into the next phase of The West Wing. With the Bartlet Administration coming to an end, the show goes on the road in Season 7 and follows the Presidential campaign of Republican Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) versus Democrat Congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits). With the return off some original creatives from the Golden age of the show behind the scenes, together with Smits and Alda coming on full time, The West Wing returned to a sense of its old self, solid episodes with well drawn characters telling interesting stories week after week. With Josh moving to the front of the pack from the original cast, Bradley Whitford gets a chance to shine as Santos’ campaign manager (especially after the character of Josh was largely disrespected and dismissed in the Bartlet Administration in the previous 2 seasons). Watching Josh trying his best emulate his mentor, Leo McGarry (who was Santos’ VP) was Bradley Whitford at his very best. The death of Spencer made the show scramble more than a bit on the back end. Storylines were redone as to end the show versus continue on. Originally, Vinick was going to win the election and subsequent seasons would show his new administration. All in all, the show handled the curve ball well and was able to bid an emotional and appropriate goodbye to this legendary man and a satisfying and cathartic end to this legendary show. Classic episodes include “Undecideds,””The Last Hurrah,” and “Election Day: Part 2.”
Season 4. Season 4 is troublesome for me. Without a doubt, it has some of my favorite episodes, but it has some really uneven episodes as well. Bartlet coasts to an easy election win but is plagued by his guilt over the assassination of Shareef. The build to the season finale where his daughter Zoey is kidnapped, dramatic as it was, never felt as nearly organic as the previous three seasons. Rob Lowe’s fan favorite character, Sam Seaborn, is shuffled off the show without much in the way of either a satisfying resolution or even a happy ending. We’d see him again at the end of Season 7 but in Season 4, the show pushed him off a steep cliff. Once the election plot is done by Episode 7 (of 23 Episodes), the show muddles along in disconnected stories as Bartlet begins a transformation into a legacy-obsessed character, willing to insert American military into conflicts around the globe. More grievous, Bartlet begins to listen to outsiders over the counsel of his loyal staff that had brought him this far. I’m looking at you, Will Bailey. This change in character would be exacerbated in Season 5 and Season 6 (I’m looking at you, Kate Harper) but the seeds are laid here. That being said, there are some classic episodes including, “20 Hours in America: Part II” (which features one of my favorite speeches of the entire series), “Game On,” and “Life on Mars.”
Season 6. There are parts of Season 6 that I really like, such as watching Josh and Santos get to know each other as they head out on the campaign trail for the primaries, but the change in the characters left at the White House is just mind-boggling to me. Bartlet, committed to the hubris of his own legacy, dismisses the sage counsel of his longest friend, Leo McGarry, in favor of the show’s new “Mandy,” Kate Harper. A character introduced at the end of Season 5, Kate slides into the Bartlet inner circle without an explanation, and represents a shift from everything we’ve come to believe this President and this show stands for. Her role is not unlike the role that Will Bailey played in Season 4 when Will, a complete outsider, convinces Bartlet to adopt a new international doctrine – another outsider that grabs Bartlet’s ear, to the chagrin and disrespect of his long time, loyal staff. Many of the Season 6 episodes are good but the only Top 25 pick for me is the season finale, “2162 Votes.”
Season 5. Ooph, Season 5. This is the Season that was supposed to make you think you were still watching The West Wing but, dammit, it just didn’t resemble it at all. The tone and storytelling changed, the way the show was filmed changed, and the characters changed … which is what I find unforgivable. John Wells assumed Sorkin’s role as showrunner and he just did not understand what made The West Wing the best show on TV for the prior 4 years. From the resolution of the Zoey Bartlet kidnapping storyline through the ponderous Middle East peace talks idea at the end, this Season is a black hole in one my favorite shows ever to be made. That being said, two episodes make my Best of List, “The Supremes,” which recaptured a bit of the wide-eyed idealism that had made this show great, and “Shutdown” which finally takes Josh off the bench and treats him with a modicum of respect which had been stripped from him earlier in the Season.