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Warner Home Video presents
The West Wing: The Complete Second Season (2000-2001)

C.J.: They sent me two turkeys. The more photo-friendly of the two gets a presidential pardon and a full life at a children's zoo, and the runner-up gets eaten.
Jed: If the Oscars were like that, I'd watch.

- Allison Janney, Martin Sheen

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: May 04, 2004

Stars: Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford
Other Stars: Richard Schiff, Janel Moloney, Dulé Hill, Stockard Channing, Kathryn Joosten
Director: Various

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mature content)
Run Time: Approx. 954 min.
Release Date: May 04, 2004
UPC: 085393162122
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+A-B+ B

DVD Review

I love television. From reality shows, to sit-coms, to dramas, soaps, and thrillers, I become attached to fictional characters in a way that would be disturbing were it not for the smaller, more vocal fringe of internet groupies (the kind who devote endless web space to the romance of Sydney and Vaughn on Alias—beware the 'shippers, people... do not cross someone who begins a conversation with the defiant claim that "Carter and Abby belong together!" Just back away slowly) who make me feel normal. I say this to put my opinion of The West Wing into perspective. I'm not one of those who will write off the entirety of the TV schedule only to praise the select programs I enjoy. I think the hit-or-miss ratio for network television is much the same as it is for everything else—a lot of bad stuff, plenty of entertainment, and a few select works that approach transcendence or become genuine art. I think The West Wing, writer/producer Aaron Sorkin's drama about the behind-the-scenes events of a presidential administration, is in that exclusive latter category.

The show might as well be titled "Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing," because each and every episode is his singular creation. Sure, there are other staff writers and story editors, but they rarely get more than a "story by" credit, and Sorkin's name is on every teleplay. And that's a good thing. While the writer has a tendency to show off, resort to staginess or obvious metaphor, he writes some of the strongest, most well rounded characters in the business, and backs them up with snappy, quick-witted dialogue that blazes by at the speed of a 1940s screwball comedy (think His Girl Friday). The characters are all wonderfully distinct, and Sorkin knows them so well, their words always ring true—they are never exploited as interchangeable exposition machines. And though his scripts always have a political message (yes, usually a liberal one), Sorkin rarely turns his creations into polemic mouthpieces.

Of course, I may be giving Sorkin a little too much credit for his words, because he has also managed to assemble the strongest ensemble on television (and Season Two features none of the audience dividing, ratings pandering leads that have distracted before and since—thankfully Moira Kelly's nails-on-a-chalkboard political consultant Mandy is dropped without explanation). Rob Lowe got lots of attention in the first season, and deservedly so—as the somewhat smarmy but absurdly likeable Sam Seaborn, deputy communications director, he sheds his bad boy image and Brat Pack past. But, once again, Allison Janney proves herself a powerhouse in the second season. One character describes her C.J., the White House press secretary, as a 1940s film star, and that's not a bad comparison—she's got all the brains, fiery independence, and vulnerability of Katherine Hepburn at her best (I know, it sounds like hyperbole, but I'm serious... C.J. rocks, y'all). I feel no less love for the comedic stylings of verbal sparring partners Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), the deputy chief of staff, and Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), his personal administrative assistant. Moss exists, in part, to provide a layman's view of the hectic world of the West Wing, but her relationship with Josh is written so smartly, she never feels tertiary, and both actors have Sorkin's rhythms down pat.

And there are more. You'd think a show with such a large cast would feel bloated and unwieldy, but each character manages to have adequate screen time and a season arc, and it's impossible to gloss over any of the principals. John Spencer's somber, world-weary performance as Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, a recovering alcoholic and the president's closest confidant, anchors the entire series. Richard Schiff displays an understated sense of humor and a fiery temper as Communications Director Toby Ziegler. The supporting players are all note-perfect as well, even when underused: Dulé Hill is charming as Charlie, the president's personal aide, as is season newcomer Emily Procter as Ainsley Hayes, the resident Republican brought in to appease those who complained the series was too liberal. I'm sure there's something to the fact that she's immediately shoved into the basement (literally) and rarely onscreen, but all I know is I like her character and wish we saw more of her.

You'll note I've thus far neglected to mention Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet. I single him out because Sheen does the impossible: he overcomes his star status and stunt-casting appeal (indeed, originally he was to appear in only four episodes per season), and creates the most compelling, conflicted, and endearing president I've seen in film or on TV. Even if you don't agree with his policies or his personal life—a big chunk of the season deals with his decision to hide his multiple sclerosis from his staff and the nation—he's the kind of man you'd like to imagine in the White House, a verifiable genius who is impassioned, articulate, and willing to make difficult choices if need be. And let's not forget Stockard Channing as his loyal firebrand of a first lady, Abbey. Thank goodness Sorkin didn't go in for the cliché of a White House couple that stayed in a loveless marriage for political reasons.

The second year is the strongest of the seasons I've seen (I stopped watching when the show lost its footing after Sorkin's well-publicized departure following Season Four, but I hear it's slowly improving), thanks largely to the strong narrative threads that tie it together (Season One was great, but the affirmation of a Supreme Court justice can't compare to Jed's battle with MS). The second half of the season, which includes a plot about captured DEA agents, Jed's struggles with his family, and the sad departure of a much-beloved minor character, is, for my money, the best run of episodes of any show in recent television history. The season finale, the stage-y but emotionally devastating Two Cathedrals is the best-written thing I've ever seen on TV. And it all looks great, too. The sets are amazing, and the stable of veteran directors (including producer Tommy Schlamme) gives the show the quality sheen typical of a John Wells drama.

People tend to preface their comments about TV shows they love with statements like, "Even when it's bad, it's better than 95% of everything else." I sympathize with that sentiment—the immediacy of television allows you to get to know characters well even when they are poorly written, making it easy to excuse clunky drama—but for this show, this season, it's as true as an opinion stated as fact could ever be. It's suspenseful, sometimes shocking, often funny, always engrossing, with patches of dialogue that will leave you breathless. Suffice it to say, it's worth your time and money.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: The back of the box will have you believe these episodes are presented in anamorphic widescreen in keeping with the way they were originally presented on television. Well, that's not exactly the case. While the show was shot in widescreen with hi-def cameras during Season Two, most viewers, at least in America, saw it in full frame. And while the episodes look great in widescreen and may have been framed that way, the creative team obviously knew they would air full frame, because the credits and "previously on" segments were mastered at 1.33:1, and are presented here windowboxed. I think the effect is rather off-putting (especially since I love the flourish into the credits, which loses its impact with the black bars on the side of the screen), but that's the only problem I have with Warner's decision to go widescreen with the DVDs a season before the show went widescreen on TV.

That aside, the show looks great. Episodes tend to look a little dark, but it's primarily a result of a deep palette that makes use of a lot of brown and golden hues. Scenes that are actually darker look great, and blacks are deep and solid. Fine detail seems better than average for a TV transfer, and improved over the Season One set, which appeared soft at times. I didn't notice much in the way of grain or edge enhancement, and only a bit of aliasing on some long shots or on complex patterns.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The West Wing has great sound design that carries over well to DVD. Most of the action is confined to the front soundstage, but that's not such a bad thing. Dialogue is always clear and features good directionality. There is good stereo separation in the front mains and good support for the lush score. The surrounds kick in for atmospheric effect, particularly crowd scenes and poignant, dramatic rainstorms.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 132 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
10 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
4 Feature/Episode commentaries by the cast and crew on In the Shadow of Two Gunmen Parts I & II, Noël, and 18th and Potomac
Packaging: Book Gatefold
4 Discs
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Gag reel
  2. Interactive White House set tour
Extras Review: Season Two of The West Wing doesn't include quite as many features as the first set, but there's still more here than for most TV collections. Commentaries are provided for "four key episodes" (or so says the back of the box): writer Aaron Sorkin, director Thomas Schlamme, and actors Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney on the two-part season opener In the Shadow of Two Gunman on Disc 1, Side A; Sorkin, Schlamme, and Whitford on Noël on Disc 2, Side A; and Sorkin, director Robert Berlinger, and actor Kathryn Joosten (Mrs. Landingham) on 18th and Potomac on Disc 3, Side B. All four tracks are lots of fun and very informative. Sorkin is very interesting and articulate as he speaks about the creative process, and he has a good rapport with both his actors and especially Schlamme (who is also an executive producer). The tracks with Whitford and Moloney are the best, as the two poke fun at themselves and their fellow actors, but I also enjoyed hearing from Joosten, for whom 18th and Potomac had a special resonance (for reasons I won't spoil here).

The rest of the extras are included on Disc 4, not that there needs to be a disc four: With only about 40 minutes worth of features, this stuff could have easily fit onto Disc 3, but then I suppose Warner wouldn't be able to justify $60 for the set. Anyway. First is a documentary on the season finale entitled Constructing Two Cathedrals. I was disappointed that this episode, widely considered one of the best (or the best) of the series, didn't have a commentary, but this piece almost makes up for one. Through interviews and well-chosen clips of the episode, Sorkin, Schlamme, composer W.G. "Snuffy" Walden and others discuss the creation of what Sorkin considers more of a "theatrical" experience than an episode of a television show. Special attention is paid to Bartlet's "conversation" with God, and why it was written in Latin, as well as to the last shot of the season (which I love, by the way). It's a nice piece, and at 17 minutes, it's just the right length.

The other major extra is Access Granted, an interactive tour/featurette/photo gallery highlighting the series' marvelous sets. You can traverse a virtual map and view a room-by-room photo gallery, or watch a 15-minute video tour led by production designer Jon Hutman. It's nice to see the detail of these very realistic sets, and the work that went into them.

There are 10 deleted scenes from nine different episodes presented in rough full frame with a time code running along the bottom. Most are fairly brief (there is 10 minutes of cut footage in all): excised gags or short scene extensions, but it's nice to see.

Rounding out the set is a short gag reel (featuring Sheen blowing take after take) and an easy-to-find easter egg on the main menu—a featurette about C.J.'s goldfish bowl. Really.

Episodes include subtitles (which can't keep up with the frenzied pace of the dialogue and are often just paraphrased) and a manageable six chapter stops. The packaging includes a nice booklet/episode guide.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Even in its oft-criticized later seasons, The West Wing is one of the best programs on television (and I love TV, so that's saying something), and Season Two is, hands down, the strongest of the bunch. As depraved as the Emmy voting process has become, they don't hand out four consecutive best drama awards to just anybody (and indeed, it's a feat never before accomplished). Conservatives need not fear a lot of liberal hand wringing, either—there is enough good drama to offset any perceived left leaning.


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