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27 December 2016

Why The West Wing is a masterclass for would-be screenwriters

What I ask first and foremost of TV drama is that it feel real and lived. Aaron Sorkin seems to have a faultless ear for how clever, busy people speak.

By Rose Tremain

Known primarily for the writer Aaron Sorkin’s “walk and talk” dialogue, which sent its seductive protagonists twisting and turning down the corridors of the White House while jabbering at high speed, this brilliant series turned speech into movement and was – while Sorkin worked on it until series four – a masterclass for would-be scriptwriters trying to capture the flavour of the modern world.

With George “Dubbya” Bush occupying the Oval Office of the real universe, it was a profound relief to escape to Martin Sheen’s alternative “Bartlet version”, in which the president was a Democrat who quoted Shakespeare and Plutarch, who battled silently with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and who had assembled a group of staffers vying with each other only for the intensity of their commitment to their chief and to Project USA, for the number of lattes they could consume in a single day and for their linguistic acrobatics.

As well as the superlative Sheen, the actors Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Janel Moloney and John Spencer (who died a tragically brief time after his character’s on-screen heart attack) became, in our household, revered people. We knew that US politics was conducted on the whole by career-crazed second-raters, but this lot were adorable.

OK, we didn’t totally believe in Bartlet’s adoration of his surgery-enhanced wife. We were shocked when Sam Seaborn (Lowe, rumoured to be in a pay grade lower than his Adonis looks demanded) suddenly disappeared after series four. When Toby (Schiff) leaked classified information, he atoned in an irritating manner by throwing a baseball against the office wall and, alas, Josh (Whitford) chose as a girlfriend a bad-tempered brunette with a voice like Donald Duck’s, when all the time he could have had the love of Moloney’s sweet-natured Donna. Sure, Leo (Spencer) could be as tetchy as a trapped lobster when the midterms came around and, yes, it must be admitted, C J Cregg (Janney) would sometimes screw up her press briefings. But what the hell. Together, this feisty bunch of people sustained our belief in grown-up, thoughtful government and after watching them we went to bed feeling less frightened about the post-9/11 days.

What I ask first and foremost of TV drama is that it feel real and lived. Sorkin seems to have a faultless ear for how clever, busy people speak. As often in real life, you sometimes strain to hear what they’re actually saying – especially if you’re a Brit and they’re all talking American – but you also have faith that everything you have missed is likely to be as witty and as truthful as all the wonders you have managed to capture.

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The West Wing took the serial format to another level of enjoyment. At a time when US politics seems foolish, graceless and downright mean and when the man preparing to lead the Western world appears to be stuck in reading-primer language (“I. Will. Build. A. Wall.”), I miss it more than ever. 

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