'The West Wing' First Episodes: THR's 1999 Review

NBC

On Sept. 22, 1999 at 9 p.m., The West Wing premiered on NBC. Earlier that Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter reviewed the new drama, praising the series as "wonderfully engaging." Read the original review below:

Even in a season in which new dramas outnumber comedies, it's not hard to pick the best. In this case, it's The West Wing, a compelling, intelligent and wonderfully engaging drama about the hardball world of national politics.

Considering the executive producers, Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme from Sports Night and John Wells from ER, it probably shouldn't be any surprise that this new show is packed with brilliant dialogue, nonstop action and well-drawn characters. Truth is, it's hard to imagine that the premiere episode could have been improved much even if David E. Kelley had been added to the credits.

From the start, West Wing deeply immerses viewers into the thinking and workings of the men and women whose job it is to make the president look like he is in full command at all times and always making the right choice. Of course, that's an impossible job, but it's amazing to see how it's done.

Most of us will never know if this is the way they do it in the Oval Office, but what makes this show so great is that the dramatization is always plausible and surprising.

In this depiction of presidential politics, lines of authority are not always clear. The president's chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) are involved in a communications strategy and concerned with whether deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) gets fired for off-the-cuff comments made on TV about the Christian right. (Believe it if you like, but the exec producers say there is no intended similarity between Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and blustery, fictional fundamentalist leader Al Caldwell.)

In this White House, as in the real one, there are plenty of other issues swirling around. In addition to exercising damage control with fundamentalists, there's the question of what to do with the remnants of a group of defecting Cubans headed for the Florida coast and new public perceptions that the administration has lost focus.

Martin Sheen plays President Josiah Bartlet, who doesn't appear in the opener until the last act. Just when you think the White House staff is too strong and outspoken to be reined in by any one leader, Bartlet proves otherwise. In a few short minutes, Sheen gives a performance that shows why Bartlet was elected and why his staff is so fiercely loyal to him.

There isn't a mediocre performance in the entire show. Spencer brings enormous energy and confidence to his part. Schiff is a meteor of intensity, and Whitford shows wonderful range and nuance. Rob Lowe, brilliantly cast as deputy communications director Sam Seaborn, gives one of his most memorable performances.

Schlamme brings his trademark breakneck direction to West Wing, always keeping the pace quick and finding the heart of each scene. Visual consultant Jon Hutman's re-creation of White House offices is nothing short of amazing.

The show's place on the NBC schedule isn't perfect. Ideally, it should crown a night the way ER tops off must-see Thursday. Until then, lovers of good drama will have to remember there's now two of them (including Law & Order) on NBC on Wednesdays. — Barry Garron

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