(LOS ANGELES) — Twenty years ago Sunday, America witnessed the start of the Bartlet administration as The West Wing debuted on NBC September 22, 1999.
Created by Aaron Sorkin and written almost exclusively by him for the first four of the show’s seven seasons, The West Wing followed the two-term presidency of the fictional Democratic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, and the lives and duties of the staffers who served with him in the White House.
The ensemble drama also starred John Spencer and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry; Bradley Whitford as McGarry’s deputy, Josh Lyman; Allison Janney as press secretary C.J. Cregg; Richard Schiff as Communications Director Toby Ziegler and Rob Lowe as his deputy, Sam Seaborn; Dulé Hill as presidential aide Charlie Young; Janel Moloney as Donna Moss, Josh Lyman’s assistant; and Stockard Channing as first lady Dr. Abby Bartlet.
Debuting during the final year of the Clinton administration and with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal still in full swing, The West Wing arguably presented an idealized view of a liberal, Democratic White House, with Bartlet depicted as a highly-educated, Bible-quoting devout Catholic, loyal husband and loving father.
Ensuing seasons showed the West Wing staff dealing with real-world political hot-button issues, from government shutdowns over budget deadlocks, to terrorism, separation of church and state, campaign finance and even an assassination attempt on Bartlet’s life. It also demonstrated the toll public service exacted on the personal lives of its characters, with everything secondary to their service.
The final two seasons of The West Wing dealt with the impending end of the Bartlet administration and the election of a new president, with Jimmy Smits playing congressman and eventual Democratic nominee Matt Santos, and Leo McGarry stepping up as his vice-presidential running mate.
During the seventh season, however, actor John Spencer died of a heart attack, echoing a heart attack his character had during a prior season. Spencer’s death was written into the show. Alan Alda played against type as Santos’ Republican opponent, Senator Arnold Vinick, who ultimately lost the race to Santos — only to have Santos offer him secretary of state in a final moment of wishful bipartisanship lacking in real-world politics.
Despite frequent criticism from conservatives, who felt the show demonized them, and even some drubbing from liberals for what some said was its unapologetic left-wing bias and sometimes over-the-top idealism, The West Wing was widely hailed by real-life politicos for its realism, and for its showcasing of public service as a noble calling.
The West Wing was a commercial and critical hit. It won nine Emmy Awards its first season alone, the most ever won by a show in its inaugural outing. By the time the final episode aired May 14, 2006, The West Wing had won 26 Emmys and two Peabody Awards.
In the years since, The West Wing continues to earn critical praise and find new fans on streaming platforms, and is often cited as one of the greatest TV shows ever made. Richard Schiff, who played Toby Ziegler, feels that’s a telling reflection of the times.
“It’s increasing in its intensity, especially because of the current state of our nation,” Schiff tells ABC Radio. “It’s a refuge for people to go and remember what the country was supposed to be.”
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