WEST WING: THE COMPLETE 2ND SEASON – DVD review

Physically, the West Wing is an office building located within the White House compound that holds the President’s Oval Office and the offices of the President’s support staff. Historically, it was built in 1902 as a temporary office by President Theodore Roosevelt to separate the President’s living quarters at the White House from the working one. Symbolically, it represents the center of power for the office of the President as it works to set and communicate the President’s agenda for the nation.

NBC’s television series “The West Wing” is a fast moving and equally fast-talking fictionalized behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the White House Executive Office and the dedicated group of people who work there. Before this, the only public face of the White House are the press conferences by the President’s Press Secretary and the occasional photo-op of the President getting into his official helicopter, Marine One. Although a lot of attention to detail may have been made to present credible scenarios, the accuracy with which this series depicts the work done at the actual West Wing is still up for speculation due to heavy dramatization for a television audience.

“The West Wing” assembles an amazing group of actors who play an equally amazing cast of characters. Democratic President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is a former Governor of New Hampshire, Nobel Laureate in Economics and former 3-term Congressman. Supporting him is a group of highly motivated individuals whose sole goal in life is to have the President’s welfare and agenda as their top priority 24 hours a day, everyday. In charge of the Executive Office (West Wing) and the President’s de facto right-hand man and closest political advisor is White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer), who is also an old friend of Bartlet and a powerful figure in furthering the President’s political agenda. McGarry, together with his deputy Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), work closely with Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), Toby’s deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and White House Press Secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) to get the President’s message out to the media. Added into this mix are supporting characters like Vice-President John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), Presidential Aide Charlie Young (Dule Hill) and the President’s daughter Zoey (Elisabeth Moss).

The first season of the series was a humongous success for NBC, as the show earned a record nine Emmys, the most ever won by a single show in one season, beating out the much-touted “The Sopranos” and making its creator and writer Aaron Sorkin an overnight success. However, for all the great writing and fascinating stories told throughout the entire season, it unfortunately ended in a very conventional manner–with a major cliffhanger–where gunmen ambush President Bartlett and his senior staff as they are leaving a town hall meeting with college students. Although exciting and suspenseful, it doesn’t come as a surprise to many. Assassination attempts on the President’s life are as predictable in a show prominently featuring the Commander In Chief as rain showers in April.

Season Two opens with a double episode premiere that concludes the cliffhanger, revealing whom, among the group has been shot. While early conclusions point to this incident being an attempt on the life of the President, the actual intended target turned out to be somewhat of a surprise. Throughout the summer of 2000, there were many speculations on who will survive and who will not, and to keep to that spirit and to be fair to those who are still waiting patiently to find out when this new DVD set comes out, I will not reveal the details here either. But I will tell you that from the last few chaotic moments in that last scene from the first season, it is not who you think. While the wounded get treated, the story moves into flashback mode, revealing the early days of the Presidential primary, when Governor Bartlett was still a long shot for the party’s nomination. It is great that the writers take this chance to reveal how some members of the team eventually came to work for Bartlett on his campaign.

The second season also coincides with the second and third year of the Bartlett administration, which means mid-term elections and preparations for the President’s own reelection–if he decides to commit to it. Expect to also see the team deal with myriad political problems and world crises that at times can come out of left field. Vice-President Hoynes is again, his wayward self, often going against the administration’s agenda. Sorkin coyly uses Hoynes as a spoiler, the one team member that don’t always follow the rules. Whether he lasts through this administration’s full 4-year term is a good question.

Season Two is similar to the first season in terms of quality and it receives high marks all around–from the writing to the acting. However, one puzzling component of Season Two is the complete disappearance of Moira Kelly’s character, Mandy without a hint of explanation from any of the characters of the show. It is also interesting to note that two CSI alumnus–Jorja Fox (CSI) and Emily Procter (CSI:Miami)–are also recurring characters on the show in this second season.

Fans of Sorkin’s previous television effort, “Sports Night”, can immediately identify the witty and fast-paced dialogue delivery style that is also a staple on “The West Wing”. The camerawork is also quite similar and it keeps the on-screen action flowing smoothly by moving with the actors as they walk and talk around the various sets. The show’s intricately crafted plot and brilliantly written script sets such a high standard that is rarely achieved by any non-cable network show.

Like the first season’s DVD set, all twenty-two episodes of “The West Wing: The Complete Second Season” are distributed on 3 double-sided discs, with a 4th disc allocated for extra features.

Disc 1 (Side A): “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen: Part 1”, “In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen: Part 2”, “The Midterms”, “In This White House”
Disc 1 (Side B): “And It’s Surely To Their Credit”, “The Lame Duck Congress”, “The Portland Trip”, “Shibboleth”
Disc 2 (Side A): “Galileo”, “Noël”, “The Leadership Breakfast”, “The Drop In”
Disc 2 (Side B): “Bartlet’s Third State Of The Union”, “The War At Home”, “Ellie”, “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail”
Disc 3 (Side A): “The Stackhouse Filibuster”, “17 People”, “Bad Moon Rising”
Disc 3 (Side B): “The Fall’s Gonna Kill You”, “18th And Potomac”, “Two Cathedrals”

Video:
In terms of video transfer, a great improvement in quality has taken place when compared to the look of the episodes on the Season One DVD set, which was presented in full frame format. For Season Two, its episodes are presented in gorgeous widescreen anamorphic video measuring in at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I cannot seem to recall if the original broadcast version from the second season onwards is in widescreen but it is a welcome change. There are very little flaws to speak of and colors that are beautifully rendered and decidedly natural. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

Audio:
Although only encoded in Dolby Surround 2.0, the patriotic musical scores envelope the sound stage and engage the audience very well. Most importantly, in a series that relies so much on its fast paced banter between characters, the dialogue delivery through the center channel is very clear and sharp. Only an English language audio track is available.

Extras:
Disc 4 is solely set aside for the extra features. Although the disc is double-sided like the rest, only Side A contains any material.

First on the list is a behind-the-scenes documentary titled “Featurette: Constructing Two Cathedrals”. It features interviews with Aaron Sorkin, director Thomas Schlamme, the music composer for the show and the film editor. “Two Cathedrals” is the final episode of the second season and also the most emotional and moving one for President Bartlett. There are strong religious overtones throughout the episode as Bartlett looks back to his past to help him make a very important decision. The interviewees also talk about Martin Sheen’s powerful performance filmed on location at the National Cathedral. Be warned that there are spoilers to be found in this documentary.

Next we have “Access Granted” which is a video tour of the various sets of “The West Wing”. In this feature, your DVD remote is utilized to navigate between the sets. Moving on, the next extra feature is called “Gag Order”, which is made up of about a minute and a half worth of line flubs and outtakes. Also available are ten “Deleted Scenes” from various episodes without any commentaries.

While Season One had a total of five audio commentaries, Season Two presents us with four. They are:

“In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen: Part 1”: Commentary by Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme, actor Bradley Whitford and actress Janel Moloney (who plays Donna)
“In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen: Part 2”: Commentary by Sorkin, Schlamme and Martin Sheen
“Noël”: Commentary by Sorkin, Schlamme and Bradley Whitford
“18th And Potomac”: Commentary Sorkin, Robert Berlinger (director) and actress Kathryn Joosten (who plays Delores Landingham, Bartlett’s personal secretary and close confidant)

In all of them, Sorkin is the most talkative one, volunteering plenty of information about that particular episode. Not very engaging stuff to listen to but informative all the same.

Packaging:
While some companies are giving up on inserts, I am glad that some releases are still receiving some attention in this department. For “The West Wing: Season Two”, a nice glossy booklet (yes, a multi-page booklet, not insert) adorns the inner sleeve of the gold-colored 4-disc Digipak package. The booklet contains information on all the twenty-two episodes.

Film Value:
When a television series receives so many accolades and awards in its debut season, the next season after that must be the most pressurizing one for all involved, considering the extremely high expectations from not only your audience but also the network. I must say that I am pleasantly surprised that Sorkin and his crew are able to pull it off and maintain such a high level of quality throughout the entire second season. As for this DVD set, although I am glad that the video transfer has been upgraded to widescreen anamorphic video, the audio still needs a leg up to at least Dolby Digital and there is a need for better and more comprehensive extra features. Going by the stories alone, the second season of “The West Wing” is still an unstoppable juggernaut that it was in the previous season, easily mowing all its competition down.

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