Musings on re-watching two TV favourites – ER and The West Wing

Seems we have a double header this week with the old blog. This is what happens when I decide to recommit to my academic studies. Procrastination? Never. I simply needed a wee writing warm-up exercise…

Over the past 12 months I’ve re-watched the entirety of 2 of my favourite long-running tv programmes of all time – ER and The West Wing. Both shows had a profound impact on me at the time I first watched them. Now, going back and viewing them again, I re-lived those periods, yet saw them through the lens of some 20+ years of life and world experiences. This has left me with a maelstrom of ideas that won’t settle. When that happens, the only way I can calm the storm is to attempt to formulate them into some coherent thoughts and write them all out.

I watched ER when it first aired back in the mid-90s, when I was in high school. It stayed a continual presence in my life as I moved from Dundee to Sweden for a gap year (I was so obsessed that my parents recorded episodes on VHS tapes and mailed them to me every few weeks so I could keep up), then on to Glasgow and London for university. I kept watching it as I moved back to Glasgow for work, got married and the final series aired the year I gave birth to my first child in 2009. A full 15 years of my adolescence and early adulthood. I’m not sure if Channel 4 ever repeated ER, but I certainly don’t think I watched it again after that initial week by week viewing over a decade and a half.

Similarly, I eagerly tuned in to The West Wing when it came to the UK in, I think, 2001, a couple of years after it premiered in the US. This time I had a willing partner who shared my enthusiasm and when the 7th and final series ended, we purchased the full DVD box set (bye bye VHS, no-one misses you) and we did watch the whole shebang again at least once through, maybe more often. Those DVDs were left in his custody after we split, so I’ve certainly not seen any episodes for the past 5 years, although I’ll say at least 7 because after Child2 came along, late night telly viewing became a thing of the past.

Then hurrah and huzzah, Channel 4’s on demand service decide to make first ER available last year, then The West Wing came online last month.

It feels strange to talk about spoilers for 2 programmes that are over 20 years old, but with their appearance on free streaming in the UK I know that some people are catching them for the first time. If you haven’t seen them yet, by god please do, you won’t regret it. So I’ll maybe mention some names etc but I’ll try to steer clear of events and plot developments in the hope that you will discover them for yourselves and when you do, please let me know and we can share thoughts.

I started watching ER somewhere at the tail end of last year, and worked through the seasons as the COVID19 pandemic emerged, then spread, then took over all of our lives. I began The West Wing in the run up to the 2020 US Presidential elections, and reached the final seasons as results were being confirmed and a new era dawning across the Atlantic.

Apt.

First impressions – how well they both stand up today. Although obviously dated in many ways – the internet isn’t really much of a thing, pagers are everywhere and people will insist on shouting into phones rather than texting when they are noisy environments. But in terms of drama that engages, camerawork that is impressively cinematic and characters that we can believe and invest in, it’s all still there. Now whether that’s a nostalgic view on my part and people, old or young, watching them for the first time today will feel the same, I don’t know. If that’s you, please get in touch to let me know.

Both programmes tackle the social issues of the day, often from polar opposite perspectives. We see staffers in The West Wing wrangle over legislating for gun control and how to tackle the never-ending war on drugs. ER sees the victims of gun crime and drug misuse up close in all their devastating reality. Political operatives in Washington come back time and time again to discuss the politically thorny issue of gay marriage, gay people serving in the military, yet in Chicago we see an often sensitive and nuanced portrayal of gay couples fighting for next-of-kin rights and dealing with the stigma around HIV & AIDS. I had actually forgotten just how many storylines in ER touched on HIV/AIDS. It was such a big issue in the late 90s, early 2000s. Today I can’t remember the last time it featured in a storyline on any programme I’ve watched recently. Some social issues endure 20 years later – poverty and inequality, racism, the problems inherent in the healthcare system in the US. Some thankfully do not, we have gay marriage legal in many places, treatment for HIV is so successful (in some rich, Western countries) that the virus can go undetected in carriers, outcomes unthinkable a few decades ago. Both programmes shed light on subjects that were often either taboo or widely misunderstood by the public, giving viewers a multifaceted insight into the societal, economic, political and personal dimensions of each of those issues. I for one, learnt a lot from both.

I can’t discuss either programme without talking about language. Both shows highlight, celebrate and elevate language. They revel in it and hit us over the head with it then allow us to bathe in it. ER is snappy, punchy, full of acronyms and short-cuts because time is of the essence. No-one has time to stand around debating the merits of their chosen medical approach, someone is about to die if they don’t act soon, so it’s all shouted orders, get outta my way, coming though, hand me this, shove that in there, STAT! Then the quieter moments by the bedsides, whispered pleas to loved ones, here’s my story, please help me, listen to me. If you can’t help, then please just listen. In The West Wing we still have the pace, the urgency, the critical decisions at play, but they can take time to sit down and debate the merits of their positions and frequently do. We are often treated to both sides of any given argument, pro/con, Republican/Democrat, Liberal/Conservative, each delivered eloquently, intelligently and passionately. Sometimes the “opposing” argument is so persuasive you become unsure of your very values and question your own opinions. The characters all take such joy in language, articulation, debate and rhetoric. When Toby and Sam extol the virtues, dignity and potency of good writing and compelling oratory it’s enough to make me tear up. There is a musicality to the language used in both programmes, it has tempo, rhythm and timbre. Like music, it can take you places beyond the mere words, it can affect you, touch you, move you.

There are numerous actual speeches that show the brilliance of the writing and the delivery in The West Wing in particular, but I also like the exchanges between characters. Just listen to the rhythm.

Sam on exploration.

Another theme that runs through both shows is that of friendship and loyalty. I love a good programme about friendship and loyalty, see more recent examples in other favourites of mine – Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Both ER and The West Wing are large ensemble cast shows that rely on a core team of dedicated individuals to Get Stuff Done. Be that macro stuff like governing, or micro stuff like stopping a gunshot wound bleeding out. In each case, other people’s lives and livelihoods depend on it. They rely on each other, lean on each other, work best when all are at their best. Our characters each have their strengths, but together, they are more than the sum of their parts.

One area where there is a marked difference between the 2 programmes is in the diversity of cast/characters. From the get-go, ER was ahead of its time in showing a racially diverse cast portraying characters with multi-dimensional lives. The West Wing, markedly less so, being overwhelmingly white, however as with the gender balance of characters, it was likely a more realistic representation of the workplace settings of each show. Guest characters in ER were of all colours, backgrounds and nationalities. Guest characters on The West Wing were 90% old white men in suits. Interestingly, or certainly interesting for me, in my current profession as a sign language interpreter, both programmes had minor but significant characters who were deaf and their deafness was approached in very different, but I think quite refreshingly realistic ways. Marlee Matlin is incredible in The West Wing, not to mention the awesome Kenny.

Ok, I know this was referring to substitute Kenny, but it’s funny nonetheless

The West Wing is a bit thin on the ground with good female characters. Yes, we have CJ, one of the best female characters out of anything, ever, but while in the pilot alone we see Bartlet, Leo, Josh, Toby and Sam all establish themselves as individuals, it takes the whole 7 series for us to meet the same number of fully-rounded female characters, in CJ, Donna, Dr Bartlet, Ainsley and Kate. Even then, Ainsley and Kate are nowhere near the level of the main male characters. Other women come and go, but none are particularly well-written or given the opportunity to develop as fully realised individuals. ER, on the other hand, abounds with awesome women, too many from the 15 series to mention individually, but Abby is my favourite.

And the men. Well. If I go a bit soppy or inappropriate here, I’ll refer you to my previous post. I think I’ve said before that I live in a pretty much female-dominated environment. At home and and work it’s wall to wall women. It wasn’t always this way for me and I badly miss good, smart, funny men in my life. So in the sad absence of real ones in my vicinity, I turn to the fake ones on tv. Mention ER and most women my age or older will come over all faint at the thought of George Clooney as Doug Ross. When I first saw ER I was about 15 and I’ll admit, Doug Ross was a bit too much man for me. Carter was always my favourite – young, sweet, innocent but with a good heart. Seeing it now, at the ripe old age of 41, I can now fully appreciate Doug Ross. That probably makes me officially middle-aged. Carter is still my favourite, though. ER had an amazing ability to create such a range of personalities and characters, both men and women, straying from stereotypes and tropes and creating personas that were so varied and believably individual. In contrast, the characters on the West Wing, the men in particular, all have a similar drive, ambition and personal ethos that in some ways they are all similar, but by virtue of the combination of good writing and impeccable acting, they each have their own subtleties of identity and presentation. It probably says something profound and disturbing about me that I both strongly identify with and am deeply attracted to Josh. As with Carter, nothing has changed in that respect in the 20 years since I first got to know the characters. Yes, Sam is good-looking and Will is smart and funny (I know some people are anti-Will Bailey, but I really like him) but Josh is passionate, determined, principled, thoughtful and sweet. I’m a sucker for a voice/accent and Josh/Bradley Whitford’s is just somehow perfect.

Anyway, let’s move on…

Watching the full series so close together, especially ones with so many guest stars, I noticed all the crossovers, when regulars or guests from 1 would make an appearance in the other. Side note, I also rewatched Gilmore Girls during this time, but then there’s rarely a time when I’m not watching some Gilmore Girls, and Liza Weil does a superb turn in both ER and The West Wing in roles very different from Paris Geller but equally outstanding. Bonus double Gilmore Girls points for an appearance by Headmaster Charleston in the same West Wing episode. The Stars Hollow set also doubles for New Hampshire in a flashback scene in the West Wing but that may be geeking out too far…

I’ll admit I almost gave up on ER a few times, mainly when key characters left and the temptation grew in later series as the incidents and accidents befalling the staff, never mind the patients, grew ever more outlandish – the helicopter crash ffs – but I persisted and I’m glad I did. With the West Wing, I must say that this time round, the difference between the first 4 seasons and the 5th and 6th were much more apparent. I found myself thinking that this guy was being a real dick, that guy was behaving way out of character, then I remembered the change in writers and it made more sense. I never lost interest, though, and feel like things got back on track pretty quickly with some really good scenes and stories in those later series.

When I finished the 15 series of ER, it felt like the end of a marathon. I was ready for it to end and content with the way it did. Should it have stopped sooner? Maybe, but I did feel that towards the end, the quality of stories and realism picked back up again to the point where it did the previous 14 years justice. I may watch it again at some point, probably not all 15 series, but I’ll go back to County General again I’m sure. With the West Wing, despite going off the rails a little in series 5 and 6, I felt that the final series was a definite return to glory and I didn’t want it to end at all. I wanted to know how the new president got on, what happened in Kazakhstan, did CJ save the world, does Charlie eventually become president? In my mind, yes, he does. Of course.

In the meantime, I continue to live in the West Wing World thanks to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast hosted by Joshua Malina who was in it, and Hrishikesh Hirway, who is a fan. Impressively, they have many stars of the show as guests, who give insights into their characters and plotlines and offer some fun anecdotes about the making of the show. The podcast also delves deep into some of the themes and calls expert witnesses to discuss particular episodes – they consult a Rabbi on Judaic teachings referenced in one episode and speak to a military man who was instrumental in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” which as mentioned recurs as a theme through several West Wing episodes. I listen either thinking, “yes, yes, I noticed that too!!” or “huh, that’s interesting, I need to go and look into that some more…” It’s all done with a good sense of humour and is far more amusing that I have made it sound. I would highly recommend checking it out.

So it has been nice to spend a year in the company of characters who are so familiar and live through their lives and stories again. It was fun to realise I’d forgotten what happened in places and experience plots as if for the first time. It was also fun to remember snippets of dialogue just before they are delivered, anticipate the comedic plays and get drawn into the emotional dramatic scenes. Most of all these 2 programmes have provided a much needed escape from the real world, and isn’t that what good televisual entertainment should be all about?

Ok, what’s next?

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