The West Wing: Where To Begin?

While we wait for Stokes to complete his Cowboy Bebop series (c’mon, man), I’m about to embark on one of my own. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into one of those early 21st-century touchstones that everyone else … Continued

While we wait for Stokes to complete his Cowboy Bebop series (c’mon, man), I’m about to embark on one of my own. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be delving into one of those early 21st-century touchstones that everyone else experienced but me – The West Wing.

But to start, I’ll need your help.

There are apparently 7 seasons of The West Wing and I don’t plan to watch all of them. I’m a busy man. When I’m not shoveling coal into OTIS’s boilers, I’ve got a day job, a modest writing career, my own health to look after, and several ongoing series of award-winning television to watch.

Also, while Aaron Sorkin’s politics have always been a mild seasoning in everything he writes (including his shows about SportsCenter and SNL), I imagine there’s no escaping them in The West Wing. And I find Sorkin’s politics … well … I’ll save it for the actual series, but suffice it to say this won’t be TV I can just let wash over me.

So I’m going to watch one season. The question is: which one?

To forestall some obvious questions, don’t tell me that I have to watch the entire series from the beginning in order to really appreciate what’s going on. Even the most complex and sophisticated TV dramas allow for a late entry. For instance, you could start The Wire at Season 4 and only be as lost as, well, the rest of us who started at Season 1. “Wait, if Avon Barksdale’s in charge, why is the big guy with the glasses giving the orders?”

A good series should give us some expository hints, or at the very least a “Previously on …” recap, in order to clue new viewers in on any essential backstory. A series that requires complete investment from the first episode on is slacking in some of its obligations as a series. And I say this as a rabid fan of Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Game of Thrones. This makes my relationship to those series complicated, I know.

Besides, everyone knows that a TV series only has a handful of good seasons. The arcs where every plot twist feels like both a total shocker and something you should have seen coming. The episodes that generate most of the show’s favorite quotes. The turning points where every relationship gels into the form we always knew would come.

Time, skepticism and impatience prevent me from investing a full run in this series. So I’m asking you, the West Wing fans, to pick for me the season where I should start.

Cast your vote in the poll below. Voting ends midnight on January 1, 2012 – if you’re counting down for the ball drop in Times Square, it’s almost too late.

Which West Wing Season Should Perich Watch First?

  • Season 2 (41%, 70 Votes)
  • Season 1 (30%, 52 Votes)
  • Season 3 (19%, 33 Votes)
  • Season 4 (5%, 9 Votes)
  • Season 7 (4%, 6 Votes)
  • Season 5 (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Season 6 (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 171

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24 Comments on “The West Wing: Where To Begin?”

  1. Ben G #

    Season 3 is considered to be one of the best, but if you’re going to really enjoy it, you’ll need to watch the last 3-4 episodes of Season 2 which sets up the major story arc for Season Three.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Neat! Sadly, per the arbitrary rules I’ve set for myself that’s not an option. One season in its entirety!


      • Wenyip #

        Sure… but he’s absolutely right. Season 3 is almost certainly the best season, going by whole seasons, but you’ll lose a great deal from it if you don’t watch at least the last two episodes of Season 2.


  2. Eric #

    I voted 1, but really any of the first 3.


    • PritsWire #

      Agree, any of the first three.


  3. Jim Engebretson #

    My favorite was season 7, but I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much without the the others. Between seasons 2 & 3, I prefer 2, but if you go with 3, I would definitely watch the final 4 or 5 episodes of season 2 as a prerequisite.


  4. Eric Bird #

    Sorkin got canned after season 4, so if you have a problem with his politics, stick with the John Wells’ seasons.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Yes, but if I had that much of a problem with his politics I wouldn’t be watching at all. Besides, you’re supposed to steer me toward the wackiest episodes for entertainment value.


  5. old #

    I vote no on Season 2. It has a lot of embarrassingly-melodramatic moments and downer episodes. I picked season 1. It doesn’t have the addictive story arcs, but there are a lot of solid self-contained episodes with funny dialogue. Whichever season you pick, try to catch “Celestial Navigation” and “Take This Sabbath” from Season 1, “Dead Irish Writers” from Season 3 and “Game On” and “Privateers” from Season 4.


  6. Paul M #

    Season 2’s opener isn’t going to have too much meaning without an existing relationship with the characters, but the last 5 or 6 episodes make up the best arc of the series, and the finale is particularly wonderful.


  7. Shana Mlawski OTI Staff #

    My boyfriend didn’t want to watch the whole show, either, so we did seasons 1-3 and done. It worked really well, so that’s my suggestion. If you must focus on just one season, my pick is season 2, although, as Paul said, you may want to watch a few from the end of season 1 to get grounded before the HOLY CRAP WTF season 2 opener. There is a “Best of Both Worlds”-level cliffhanger between seasons 1 and 2.


  8. slims #

    Got to be Season 3. Season 1 starts off too slow and the writers haven’t hit a stride yet. Season 2 is a lot more “drama happens to people in the West Wing while they’re in the West Wing” instead of “drama happens to people in the West Wing because they’re in the West Wing” – with the exception of the beginning of Season 2 which, as has been discussed, is a cliffhanger from Season 1.

    Season 3 adds electoral politics to legislative politics and active diplomacy, brings CJ a bit more to the forefront (an important aspect), and has a couple of “flashback” episodes that help give you a better sense of the story. It’s Sorkin at his strongest in this show and he responds strongly to the proliferation of post 9/11 politics around him.

    One caveat – I’m not counting the “Isaac and Ishmael” special episode that technically kicked off the season. It doesn’t exist in the timeline of the show and can’t count here.


  9. neubauer #

    Season 2 is my favorite. I watched it recently without any memory of Season 1, and didn’t have trouble with the first few episodes. I seem to recall there is enough flashback to help.

    This season includes the back-story of how all the characters got drafted for Bartlett’s team.

    I also think several of the funniest smaller sub-plots are in this season: like when Donna is technically Canadian, and the one where the medieval map of the middle east doesn’t have Israel on it. Although, someone correct me if I am mixing this up.


  10. Erigion #

    Season 2 gets my vote since Sorkin figured out what worked and didn’t work from season 1 and wasn’t stuck with writing a political show in the aftermath of 9/11 like he was in season 3.

    Also, I would take the time to watch the pilot which does plenty to set up the basic relationships but that that’s still too much watch the cold open for the pilot which is just amusing.


  11. Caroline #

    I definitely say Season 2. Though, as everyone has mentioned, Season 1 did end with a big cliffhanger, the episodes all start with a handy “Previously on The West Wing…” so you can catch up. And although you may not be invested in what’s happening as it starts, they also do a lot to establish the characters and their relationships in those first two episodes. It took a while for them to really find who they were in Season 1; at the beginning of Season 2 they re-solidify and contextualize them. Season 2 also has several of the most memorable essays, and is the time when the show is much more about the “day to day” business of running the country than the also-excellent seasons 3 and 4 (which are more about a political scandal and reelection).


  12. Michael #

    Got to be Season 2. If only for Two Cathedrals, which is possibly the best season ender ever committed to television. The opener won’t really work, because it comes off a cliff-hanger ending, but you’ll pick it up quickly enough. (Like someone up there suggested, watch the cold open to the pilot on YouTube – it’ll set up enough of the characters that you’ll know where you stand.)


  13. Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

    John—are you aware of the crucial change that happened after Season 4 (that Aaron Sorkin stopped being involved in the show)?

    If you want that patented, Oscar®-winning banter(tm) (What? Banter. Banter? Yes, Banter. Really? Well, a banter-like impression—general banter-esque-ness.), you gotta start somewhere 1–4.

    I’m on board with starting at season 3—the show had hit its stride and Season 4 gets a little (more) didactic with all the Qumar stuff.


  14. Zac #

    Just watch Seasons 1-4. It’s some of the best television ever, period. Season 5 only had a few good episodes, and Seasons 6 & 7 were middling to good.


  15. frug #

    I’d say start at the beginning. Seasons 2 and 3 are probably stronger overall, but you won’t appreciate them as much if you haven’t seen the show since the debut.


  16. Sean Nixon #

    I love the season 2 finale. That’s possibly why it’s winning. Plus, season 2 starts with the flashback episode right?

    Plus, the cliffhanger in season 2 could be the end and still feel satisfying. Not so much with Season 1.


  17. marc #

    I said season 2, because on balance it’s the best. But really I think you should watch the second part of season 2 (starting at Ep. 17) and the first part of season 3 ( Ending at Ep. 12) And throw in Ep. 6 of Season 1, if you really feel like it.


  18. DFFF #

    You know what? I’m jumping this bandwagon. No, not by voting for my favourite season; I have never watched the show, for a large part because it’s total length put me off. Instead I’ll actually watch the same season of the West Wing that wins the vote.

    John, are you thinking of picking a standardised viewing schedule for this, or announcing your viewing moments? It seems great to get introduced to the show simultaneously.

    West Wing n00bs, who’s with me on this? The more the merrier.


  19. Breda #

    Honestly, I think that restricting yourself to only one season with no extra episodes is a terrible idea. You don’t have to watch the whole thing if you don’t want to; I get that! I mean, I watched the whole thing while on winter break one year in college: I had a month completely free, and I still almost quit near the end. But no matter which season you pick, you’re going to miss some of the best episodes. I vote season 4, because I find the reelection plotline more interesting than the MS plotline (the awesomely incredible debate episode, my favorite! The magnificently quotable and character-laden election night!), but then you’re missing “Two Cathedrals” from season 2 (plus the wonderful Republican Ainsley Hayes, who provides a compelling counterpoint to Aaron Sorkin’s usual rhetoric) and season 3’s “Bartlet for America” and “Dead Irish Writers”.

    Crap, now I want to rewatch those. Point is: the best episodes are strewn across the first 4 seasons, so I think not allowing yourself to watch anything outside of the designated season is just depriving yourself. Especially given how there are always filler episodes in any season. Ooh, maybe we could vote on best 24 episodes and make you watch those? (That’s actually a terrible idea, what with long-term plot and character development and all. Never mind.)


  20. dougdoberman #

    Sorry, can’t vote with a clean conscience. Any West Wing fan knows that you [b]do[/b] need to watch from the beginning to get anywhere near the full effect. Some of the biggest hits in this series are so powerful because the seeds were sown seasons ago.

    There’s hardly a point to watching ANY of this show if you haven’t seen the pilot episode, which has the single greatest character reveal in the history of television.

    There’s little point in watching anything after Season 2 if you’re not going to watch the season premiering 2-parter from that year, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”

    That all said, since you seem to have this foolish idea in your head, the only proper way to approach it will be to watch season 1 first. No, it’s not the “best” season (that’d probably be season 2), which is what most others seem to be trying to point you towards. But it is the first one. That way, when you finish it, and curse Netflix for not having it all on Instant, forcing you to wait for the rest of the series to arrive, you’ll not have to backtrack to start from the beginning (also cursing yourself for not having done so in the first place.)


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