June 6, 2015

The West Wing: "Pilot"

In The West Wing’s celebrated pilot episode, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn has a one-night stand only to discover that he’s slept with a prostitute, Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman awaits word on whether his outburst at a right-wing Christian on national television will cost him his job, a potential crisis grows as thousands of Cuban refugees brave a storm to reach Florida… and the President of the United States rides a bicycle into a tree.

It is one of the most finely crafted premiere episodes of a television drama ever made. One of the largest challenges facing any series pilot is how to juggle three needs: introducing the entire regular cast, expressing an accurate mood, style and tone for the forthcoming series, and including a solid story at the same time. Sorkin manages to pull off all three in an episode sparkling with fast-paced dialogue and an unprecedented quality of emotional depth and social commentary in American television.

Of particular note is the pre-credits sequence, which introduces Leo, Sam, Josh, C.J. and Toby in one four-minute string of scenes that successfully captures each character with startling precision. The most astounding aspect of Sorkin’s script is that it only took him four days to write. ‘I thought about it for a few months,’ he later explained, ‘I wrote it over Thanksgiving.’(1)

Sorkin’s organic, unplanned style of script writing allowed a wide variety of disparate plot elements to bind together. ‘Intention and obstacle are really kind of the drive shaft of anything that I’m doing,’ he said. ‘And so I started with a problem: A guy said something on television yesterday that he shouldn’t have. I added a couple of other problems to that: Cuban refugees are on their way, another one of our characters had inadvertently slept with a call girl the night before, and so on. And simply because I wanted to keep the president out until the last few minutes, I added the bicycle accident.’(2)

The climactic debut of President Josiah Bartlet, entering into a heated religious debate with the words “I am the Lord your God”, is quite possibly one of the greatest entrances in television. Bartlet’s subsequent dressing-down of the Christian right is a perfectly crafted introduction to his character. ‘It wasn't my intention to paint the entire religious right with one brush,’ Sorkin told the New York Post. ‘On the other hand, I admit that there are moments when I take a personal passion of mine and get up on a box and let you all know about it.’(3)

The Lambs of God, the radical Christian group mentioned in the episode’s penultimate scene, was based on the Lambs of Christ, a real-life organisation who – according to Aaron Sorkin – did ‘violent things and they harass people’(4)

The extensive White House sets were constructed at a cost of $1.2 million dollars, and were ultimately so large that they had to be split across two soundstages. Both stages included an identical corridor so that “walk and talk” scenes could be seamlessly matched together. The Oval Office set, originally designed by Michael J. Taylor, was a re-dressed version of the same Oval Office set Warner Bros had been using for years. As noted in a previous essay it was first constructed for the 1994 comedy Dave (directed by Ivan Reitman) before being loaned to Castle Rock and Universal for The American President. It was used again in 1996 for the Robert Zemeckis science fiction film Contact. Harsh downlights were installed in all of the doorways and along the corridors. These helped created a fast sense of motion during the series’ famous “walk and talk” scenes. As noted in a previous essay they first appeared in Rob Reiner’s film adaptation of A Few Good Men, but the directorial device was rapidly picked up and exploited by Thomas Schlamme while directing the first season of Sports Night. The technique was subsequently lifted again for use on The West Wing – where it arguably became the most famous. Few episodes of The West Wing get by without at least one moving conversation, or “pedaconference”, through the halls of the White House.

Only minutes into the show, in a scene that opens with the series title (the full opening credits were not introduced until the second episode), Leo McGarry enters the White House and proceeds to travel through the entire West Wing of the building. He speaks to staffers on his way, walks through the Oval Office and finally comes to a rest in his own adjacent office – having walked past more than 130 extras in the process. As with the rest of the pilot it establishes character and tone, but it also provides something equally important: it establishes geography. In three minutes the series has given us a perfect sense of space.

As the first episode of the series, the pilot introduced several supporting cast members to the show. Let's take a deep breath and run through who each of them are, and from where the actors came.

One of the supporting players – Janel Maloney as Josh’s assistant Donnatella “Donna” Moss – would graduate to leading cast status by the second season. What was originally intended as a small role increased in size as the first season progressed until Donna became an integral part of the series – and an important foil for Josh. ‘Donna was a small part in the pilot,’ said Bradley Whitford, ‘and Aaron saw in the pilot and in the episode that we came back with, he saw in dailies something really fun and just sort of capitalised on it.’(5)

Born in California in 1969, Janel Maloney trained in acting at the State University of New York. Her early performances included guest roles in Murder She Wrote, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, ER and Sports Night – where she first came to the attention of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme. Indications that Maloney’s role was going to become an integral part of the series came fairly early – at least for some people working on the series. Recalling the pilot shoot years later, Maloney said ‘During my first scene, Leo comes in and asks for Josh, so I turn around and scream “Josh!” without getting up from my chair. Leo replies, “I could have done that, Donna.” We did a couple of takes, and afterwards John said, “You’re going to be here until the curtain comes down.” He was the first person to say that.’(6)

60 year-old Kathryn Joosten was cast as Mrs Dolores Landingham, President Bartlet’s personal secretary. An American of Dutch descent, Joosten had only taken up acting lessons in the 1980s. In the early 1990s she moved to Hollywood, quickly picking up guest roles in a string of successful television programmes including Home Improvement, Picket Fences, Murphy Brown, Seinfeld, Frasier and NYPD Blue. A guest performance in the 1996 ER episode “A Shift in the Night” brought her to the attention of executive producer John Wells, leading to her casting as the widely loved, ever-so-slightly spiky Mrs Landingham. While never reaching regular cast status like Janel Maloney, Joosten appeared in 28 episodes of the series before being written out at the end of the second season – although she returned via flashbacks in the third season episode “Bartlet for America”.

One of the most memorable supporting characters of the entire series was Margaret, personal secretary to the Chief of Staff. It would take seven seasons for Margaret to get a surname (which is Hooper). She only has one line in the pilot. Nonetheless she rapidly evolved into an integral part of the show, and a regular source of unexpected comedy. She is perhaps described best by C.J. Cregg in the sixth season, when she tells the dedicated secretary ‘you’re an odd woman and I’ve never quite understood you. But you are extremely capable and you run this office like a Swiss watch, and you’re tall which is reassuring.’(7)

The role of Margaret Hooper was played by NiCole Robinson. ‘I was in an acting class and Jeff Roth from Warner Bros casting saw me. As a result, I got 12 auditions in the Warner Bros casting department. Those were the first professional auditions of my career and number 12 was The West Wing. It was the very first pilot for which I ever read, the other 11 were shows already on the air, including Friends and ER. I was only given one page of the script because, after all, I only had one line and when I read that page I knew for sure it was a very funny comedy. Luckily, before I walked in the door, I was told that it was definitely not a comedy and Aaron Sorkin was the writer. This kind of freaked me out because I am really a comedic actress. So, I walked in the room and there was John Wells, Tommy Schlamme, two of the biggest casting people in the business, John Levy and Kevin Scott, and I am told that the person I am going to be reading with is Aaron Sorkin. Aaron said to me, and I will never forget it, “This is going to be the shortest audition of your life.” He was right. It was the shortest audition and, ironically, the longest job.’(8)

Robinson’s auditions scored her one-off appearances in Friends, Suddenly Susan, Veronica’s Closet and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman before she scored her role on The West Wing. Out of all the non-regular actors seen in the series, Robinson appeared by far in the most episodes: 106. There was a particular chemistry in the series between Robinson and co-star John Spencer. According to Robinson, ‘On the very first day we worked together he said to me, “I’m going to say your name in a way that, if I do it right, people will yell it at you.” Five years later, on my wedding day, I was in a room while the guests were entering and even then I heard one of them shout, “Margaret!” Just like Leo would. Let’s just say it happens a lot.’(9)

Devika Parikh was cast as communications staffer Bonnie – we never learn her surname. The character appeared in 40 episodes from the series pilot to the fifth season's "Shutdown" in 2003. A graduate of Syracuse University, Parikh has also guest starred in programmes such as Criminal Minds, Frasier and Chicago Hope. In 2001 she played the featured role of journalist Maureen Kingsley in the inaugural season of 24.

One anonymous White House staffer in the pilot rapidly gained a name, Carol Fitzpatrick, and a specific job: assistant to C.J. Cregg. While the character was introduced properly in the second episode, she is seen briefly here in the first. Actress Melissa Fitzgerald was cast in the role. She already knew Aaron Sorkin socially through her husband. Fitzgerald was originally cast as the nondescript “Staffer #2”. By the time she arrived on the set she discovered her role had been expanded into the new role of Carol Fitzpatrick.

Peter James Smith and William Duffy were cast as White House staffers Ed and Larry. Like with Bonnie, Ed and Larry never received surnames. They were also almost never seen apart, turning them into a humorous double act akin to the similar duo of Lenny and Carl in the animated comedy The Simpsons. Ed and Larry's actual roles within the administration were never made clear. More often than not they appeared to report to Josh Lyman on matters of budget and policy, but were also sometimes present at press department staff meetings and even speech-writing sessions. The characters continued to appear throughout The West Wing's seven-year run. Taipei-born Peter James Smith played Ed. Born in 1971, he made his television debut in an episode of Silk Stalkings. Other guest roles over the years have included parts in Profiler, The King of Queens and (like Kathryn Joosten and many other West Wing performers) ER. William Duffy (Larry) had performed a number of small roles in film and television prior to The West Wing, including Law & Order, Beverly Hills 90210 and the movie comedy Blast from the Past.

Allison Smith played Leo McGarry’s daughter Mallory O’Brian, a primary school teacher whose first disastrous encounter with Sam led to a developing – but ultimately unconsummated – romance between the two characters. Smith has been an actor since childhood. She first performed at the age of nine, in the Broadway musical Evita, before scoring the title role of Annie the following year. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s she made numerous guest appearances on popular US TV shows such as Silver Spoons, Hunter, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Party of Five, Ned & Stacy, The X Files, Homicide: Life on the Street and Murder, She Wrote. In 2003 she guest-starred on an episode of ER.

According to former White House press secretary, Sam’s embarrassing gaffe of confusing Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t too unlikely: ‘Having to give tours on a regular basis, and frankly not knowing if that room was named after Teddy Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, I mean, I’m pathetic, I haven’t gotten caught yet, but I've made up a few things.’(10)

Suzy Nakamura played communications aide Kathy. She appeared in nine episodes of the first season, including the season finale “What Kind of Day Has It Been?”. Small roles in films The Player and Deep Impact led to her being cast as series regular Beverly Andolini in the short-lived Tom Selleck sitcom The Closer. In 2006 she co-starred in another short-lived comedy, Help Me Help You – this time starring ex-Cheers star Ted Danson.

Lisa Edelstein played Laurie Rollins, the callgirl with whom Sam shares a one-night stand. Edelstein, who would later co-star in the hit medical drama House, shared most of her scenes with Lowe – the subject of her own teenage crush. In one interview Edelstein recalled: ‘I said to him, “If I could just go back and tell my 16-year-old self that I’d be nonchalantly lying in bed with you, I think I would have died on the spot.’(11)

Put simply, the sheer quality of The West Wing – its writing, its direction, its production design and its performances – shine out boldly from the pilot. It represented a quantum leap in American television drama. It certainly impressed Warner Bros, who picked the series up for production with only a few minor changes: notably to sign Martin Sheen on as a series regular.

The shift towards Bartlet, and the installation of Martin Sheen as the star of The West Wing, had repercussions further down the line. Rob Lowe had signed onto the series under the impression that it was he who would be the star of the show. As the series progressed, Lowe’s character became increasingly marginalised until the actor finally resigned at the start of the fourth season.

As a combination of character, tone, visual aesthetic and narrative, The West Wing pilot can barely be faulted. It remains one of the most effective and captivating series pilots ever produced. In the end, even the episode’s own director was impressed. ‘I think any director will recognize that a pilot is different from any episode,’ said Thomas Schlamme. ‘It’s like making a movie because you’re starting with just the script – in this case, a brilliant one. I think there were better episodes of West Wing this year, but for awards consideration, I would still put up the pilot because we really did start with nothing and I’m very proud of what we ended up with.’(12)

The episode’s merits did not go unacknowledged. The pilot received a string of awards, including:
  • Three Emmy Awards, for Outstanding Art Direction (Jon Hutmann, Tony Fanning, Ellen Totleben), Outstanding Single-Camera Cinematography (Thomas Del Ruth) and Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (Thomas Schlamme);
  • The Artios Award for Outstanding Achievement in Casting (Barbara Miller, John Levey, Kevin Scott);
  • The ADG Award for Outstanding Achievement in Production Design (Jon Huttman, Tony Fanning);
  • The Shine Award for Scene Stealer.
  • The episode was also nominated for an ASC Award, a DGA Award and an Eddie.
If you want to read more, all West Wing posts have been indexed here.

1. Quoted in On Writing, February 2003.
2. On Writing, February 2003.
3. Don Kaplan, “Wing and a Prayer”, New York Post, 31 July 2001.
4. Tom Feran, “Sheen for President: Just Another Clinton?”, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 19 September 1999.
5. Interviewed by Terry Gross, Fresh Air, 16 May 2001.
6. Lynette Rice, "The Political Party", Entertainment Weekly, 12 May 2006.
7. Debora Cahn, The West Wing, “Liftoff”.
8. Jonathan McDaid, “West Wing Extra: Interview with NiCole Robinson”, in TV Guide, June 11 2006.
9. Jonathan McDaid, 2006.
10. Naftali Bendavid, “NBC’s White House drama The West Wing is generating buzz in Washington”, Chicago Tribune, 28 September 1999.
11. Virginia Rohan, “A Capitol Hill liaison”, Bergen Record, 15 December 1999.
12. Darrell L Hope, “Behind the Scenes with Thomas Schlamme”, DGA Magazine, July 2000.

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