‘The West Wing’ makes treadmill time go by faster

Jan. 07, 2013 @ 12:01 AM

Each morning, while it’s still dark outside and the bride is asleep, I head for a back bedroom where the treadmill awaits. I spend at least 30 minutes on it six mornings a week — gotta have one day off.

Frankly, to walk on a treadmill for a half-hour can be boring, if you have nothing to look at but a computer’s screen saver. So I placed a television in the room, connected to Netflix. I have gone through all of Ken Burns’ documentaries, two seasons of “Nip/Tuck,” two seasons of “Arrested Development” — and then, “The West Wing” showed up as a recently added program.

Wow. “The West Wing.” Only my all-time favorite program. As I walk the treadmill, behind me on a shelf are all seven seasons of the show on DVD.

I’m not sure you can wear out a DVD, but if you can, these discs are close to disintegrating. About once a year I start with the pilot episode and watch every program through season 7, when President Bartlet watches the swearing-in of a new president and heads away to face “Tomorrow” — the name of the final program.

I am geeky about “The West Wing.” I know the characters’ histories. I can recite lines from the show. I know the plots by heart.

So why watch it all again? Because much like repeat viewings of “Citizen Kane,” every time I watch a “West Wing” I see or hear something new. I notice a wall hanging in an office or a book on the shelf or a line of dialogue that foreshadows something about to happen. Unlike most shows, in this one you often see the main characters talking in the background — as if they are really doing business in the White House —while action and dialogue take place before the camera.

What makes “The West Wing” such a brilliant show is the writing. For the first four seasons scripts were written or co-written by Aaron Sorkin, who created the show a year after his sitcom, “Sports Night,” was canceled. He had written “An American President,” the movie in which Michael Douglas portrays a liberal, idealistic, president, a few years earlier and had a love of politics and the machinations of Washington.

“The West Wing” often reflected Sorkin’s own liberal politics, and President Bartlet, as played by Martin Sheen, was certainly a liberal Democrat. But to have played the show down the middle without a specific point of view would have made it much less interesting and effective. Besides, conservatives and Republicans are not villains in the show. Instead, often they are portrayed favorably and as heroes of the plot line.

I have been fortunate to work with people who loved the show as much as I did, and often we’d discuss the previous night’s episode or, when something happened in real life that mirrored a particular episode, we’d point it out.

“The West Wing” won a slew of Emmys, and most of the cast — except, strangely, Sheen, who was annually nominated but never won — took home Emmys as well. The show faded toward the end. Sorkin left after season 4, and season 5 and much of season 6 were not as good. It gained life in season 7, during which actor John Spencer, who played one of the show’s mainstay characters, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, died of a heart attack as McGarry was running for VP on the Democratic ticket. Spencer’s death as shown through his character on the show created an interesting constitutional dilemma on election night.

So, my DVDs of the show are still on the shelf, as I work my way on Netflix through 154 episodes in 30-minute intervals while I get in my exercise. I watch as issues from the death penalty to an assassination attempt to covering up the president’s multiple sclerosis to the foibles and weaknesses of the characters are explored with depth and reason, amid snappy walk-and-talk dialogue and funny exchanges.

What a nice way to spend time on the treadmill. Heck, I may even stay on the thing for 42 minutes so I can see an episode from start to finish at one time. Naah...

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to svoit@themountainpress.com.