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US political TV show, the West Wing had sat vaguly in my memory. I remember it being around, people talking about and I generally got the sense it was a pretty decent TV show. But this was early 00s. Before the box set age as we know it, before TiVo, On Demand and before - well, less legal ways of watching TV not shown in the UK were widely used. The West Wing was shown of course, on Channel 4 - at roughly the same times as in the US - with the finale almost synchronising either side of the pond. But viewers in the US were already at an advantage with DVR culture already having well took off - something that wouldn't really arrive, as it did in the US early 00s, in the UK till towards the end of the decade. TiVo has only really taken off in the UK since it was introduced here in 2011, whereas its been available in the US since 1999.
So, when it comes to long running TV series that have huge story arcs (were not talking soaps here) spanning 20+ episodes, with month long breaks and complex interwoven plot - they have struggled in the UK and flourished in the US. Of recent, the UK has enjoyed more and more lengthy drama series, but its no coincidence most shows here will have a 3-6 episode run, whereas in the US there isn't really a problem spanning something over a few months. TV producers in the US utilising the fact recording and watching stuff at leisures rather than simply when its on, has produced a lot of great TV over the years. On the back of this, TV box sets have flooded the UK market - many of the big shows from the US finding an audience via more and more reasonably price box sets.
So, back to The West Wing. The West Wing is one such show that has benefited massively from the boom in US TV in early 00s, with a staggering $6m being pumped into each episode on average, gigantic salaries for the central cast - each episode plays like a mini-movie. Subsequently, UK views have benefited massively with the box set boom - this super-premium TV shows 156 award winning episodes packaged in one box set for a reasonable £40.
I have owned this box set twice, once when it first came out in its original format for around £100 and a few months ago in its new slim-line version for £40, selling it the first time round as I watched it A LOT and I needed the money. Apart from the packaging, there is no difference - all the episodes and extras are intact, I'd say the new version is a little smarter with smaller, tighter individual boxes with a larger box that features a picture of The White House - the building pretty much all of the action is set.
The West Wing is a US political drama, written and conceived by Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network) - and it is so far his most crowning achievement. Although Sorkin stepped away after the fourth of the seven season of the show, the high quality writing didn't really dip and the vibe of the show he stamped all over it right from the first episode remains right until the end. And that vibe is very distinctive - super high quality writing, snappy dialogue that simultaneously flows, interweaves and overlaps. Add to this an utterly addictive on screen presence from all of the main cast and most of the supporting cast, a super high budget that makes everything totally believable and gives everything a premium quality feel. Stretch this out over 156 forty five minute episodes, stick a £40 price tag on and you have one of not only the best, but best value for money box set you can buy.
The first episode sets the tone well - outlining clearly what 16 million Americans tuned in for every Wednesday at 9pm for 6 years, 1999 - 2005, and also makes obvious the problems the shows biggest critics make of the show. I love the first episode and it usually wins most people over from the off - but it does present most views with a love it of hate it situation. With want for a better word, this show can be a little cheesy. Its not all out cheesy but in the sense the good guys always (for the first few seasons anyway) win, usually boring people will silence a room with an inspiring monologue and comedy timing always seems to be in abundance when an argument needs winning. The writing has a 90s feels to it, as well as keeping in mind this had a massive audience - they couldn't take too many chances. This show relies on emotions running high and cheer at the screen moments when the underdog or the good guy takes their opponent down with a speech or a quip. Balancing this out is thick political dialogue. Most, myself included will be lost among some of the terms, idea and references - but they never get too heavy you're lost. Just enough to outweigh the cred the cheesy-er moments might lose. Over the first 45 minutes you treated to a film like snap shot at a day in White House, with its tensions, ups, downs and the commitment the staff have - but its film like so its culminates in a killer speech by President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) that ties up the themes of the episode, the tone of show and almost serves as a table of contents style-wise as whats to come over. Those who find it cheesy will be put off from the start, those who fully get behind this show will be gagging for more. Whats great is that there is much, much more to get stuck into.
Each of the slimline boxsets containing each season, within the box have 6 dics, usually with 4 episodes on each - and at 45 minutes each I find it just the right length to watch to wind down before bed (I must admit, into my late 20s, a basic pleasure in life is working through boxsets in bed with my girlfriend, so its great to find something we both agree on to the point its a highlight of the day) but more often than not its all too tempting to watch 'one more', then another....finally giving in when we reluctantly admit its best to get some sleep. Its compulsive viewing, and this is for various reasons. The dialogue between the main cast is utterly addictive, but this is just a dressing to the main course of the show. Killer plots and an utterly lovable cast work hand in hand to make sure you keep watching. Plot-wise, the first season is not incredibly strong - with a few smaller arcs pulling together to keep things moving - but further into the series the stories get bigger and bolder making for the aforementioned compulsive viewing. These plots are carried by a cast and set of characters portraying them you can't but love. I won't go into details about who is who; you don't need to know that, but the family vibe they create is what keeps you watching. They look out for each other, they fight and their personal and professional lives overlap and intertwine you'll quickly feel at home with them. Its the kind of central cast you look forward to joining - you feel very welcome in their universe and they seem happy to have you.
They 156 episodes span a very wide range of political, social and personal topics - and the central cast move and get re-gigged with newcomers and stalwarts, and it frankly would be a waste of both out time for me to go into detail about what to expect. You have two options - you can look up the episode guide on Wikipedia and carefully read through what happens, or you can shell out £40 and find out first hand what happens. I'd recommend the latter option and let this well written, well directed and thoroughly enjoyable, addictive show work its magic.
I'll end with a nod to the extras on this DVD. The show itself is mega value for money, but if you were not convinced, the extras might tip you over the edge. Each season has its own set of extras; documentaries, interviews and lots of behind the scenes stuff - but there are 2 additional discs within this box set that collect all available extras together that make this a really comprehensive set with more making of bits and heaps of insight into the people infront of and behind the camera, plus extensive bits from fans of the show, even interviews with well know US politicians on what they thought of the show. I've got through this set twice and only glanced at the extras purely because there is so much additional stuff to get through, but what have have watched has been a great addition to the main feature.