My short list of all-time favorite television shows include The West Wing and Sesame Street.
There are many shows I like a lot and rewatch often. But when we're talking all-time favorites, these are the ones that I always cite.
I am part of the original Sesame Street generation - I was 2 1/2 years old when it premiered, and, at the time, there were only three networks + PBS, so we didn't have a zillion choices for kids' programming. Sesame Street played in the morning and then re-ran in the late afternoon, when it was followed by Mr. Rogers and Electric Company (with Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno and Joan Rivers voicing "The Adventure of Letterman" cartoon.) Saturday morning when all three networks broadcast cartoons was a veritable feast. Anyway, I learned to read before kindergarten by watching Sesame Street twice a day.
The West Wing has an altogether different place in my heart based on the fact that it has some of the best writing in the history of television, and earned so, so may Emmy Awards for writing, directing and acting. Smart and witty writing is my number one requirement for favorite TV shows and non-fiction books. Smart and witty writing is what I aspire to.
Vulture called the show unique to 90s dramas in its fundamental optimism. A “good man tries to do good” instead of “bad man tries to figure out why he is sad” in the characters of Tony Soprano, Walter White, Ray Donovan.
For four years, Aaron Sorkin wrote 22 West Wing episodes a year. That's the equivalent of writing 11 award-winning, feature-length films PER YEAR. Makes me wonder what kind of portfolio I could have developed had I cultivated a cocaine habit.
Sometimes I watch the Lord John Marbury episode just to hear Mrs. Landingham* say:
"How are you, Josh?"
"I've been subpoenaed."
"Oh I'm sorry dear. Would you like a cookie?"
It's not my favorite episode, but it's got some damn good lines.
"Allow me to present myself, Lord John Marbury...I was summoned by your president."
"Yes, we've met 10 or 12 times. Leo McGarry. I'm the White House Chief of Staff."
"I thought you were the butler."
Smart, witty scripts are my drug of choice.
Is it enough that I call this an all-time favorite show? No, I think you should also know that my dream dinner party (dead or alive) invites are:
Bradley Whitford / Josh Lyman (Josh was my pretend boyfriend before Daveed Diggs was my pretend boyfriend.)
John Spenser / Leo McGarry**
Allison Janney / C.J. Cregg
Richard Schiff / Toby Zeigler
and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin has no direct connection to TWW, but he loves the show as much as I do so I'm pretty sure the conversation will be A+. (Where you do think Angelica's quote "I'm looking for a mind at work" came from huh??)
When we watch these episodes now, we notice how much the times have changed. I'm all, "Look how big Josh's shirts are! He's swimming in them!" While Chip notices, "She's using a Gateway computer." I watch these episodes and think to myself, Could you imagine [the current president] in this scenario? For the first time since 1999, the overwhelming answer to myself is always BWAHAHAHAHAHA NO.
Many of the episodes - especially those with storylines about race in America - still ring true. In "Celestial Navigation," Bartlet's SCOTUS nominee gets pulled over in a small New England town and arrested for drunk driving. The judge actually had a liver condition that prevented him from drinking and it would appear that he was arrested - in front of his wife and son - for driving while Hispanic.
If I had to pick a favorite episode of The West Wing, it might be "Shibboleth," where [spoiler alert] President Bartlet gives Charlie a carving knife forged by Paul Revere.
Charlie: Okay, Mr. President, I say this with all possible respect, but each of these knives cuts...you know...meat. Why is it important?
Bartlet: "Because it's something we pass on. It's something with a history, so we can say, 'My father gave this to me, and his father gave it to him, and now I'm giving it to you.'"
"Well okay sir, but if that's true, why don't you already have one?
"I do have one."
"Then why do you need a new one?"
"I'm giving mine away."
To you, Charlie. He's giving it to you.
The main plot of this Thanksgiving episode isn't really about carving knives though. It's about a container of Christian Chinese immigrants who arrive in California, seeking asylum. (Hmmm, another episode that is still timely 20 years later.)
Bartlet (reviewing the Thanksgiving Proclamation): Well over three-and-a-half centuries ago, strengthened by faith and bound by a common desire for liberty, a small band of pilgrims sought out a place in the New World, where they could worship according to their own beliefs. Now therefore I, Josiah Bartlet, President of the United States, by virtue of the authority and laws vested in me, do hereby proclaim this to be a National Day of Thanksgiving.
Josh: "So the guy passed the test?"
Bartlet: "You think I would've sent him back if he'd failed catechism? Let me tell you something - we can be the world's police, we can be the world's bank, we can be the world's factory, the world's farm. What does it mean if we're not also...They made it to the new world, Josh. You know what I get to do now? I get to proclaim a National Day of Thanksgiving. This is a great job."
This episode also has some sass from Mrs. Landingham. Mrs. Landingham sass was the best.
Bartlet: "Mrs. Landingham, can I look at a copy of the Thanksgiving proclamation?"
Mrs. Landingham: "Sir, why don't you use the intercom?"
"Because you don't know how to use the intercom."
"I'm standing at the door!"
"Maybe after the ceremony you can get one of the fourth graders to come in and show you how to use the intercom."
And there is some sass from the President, too:
CJ: "Mr. President, I'm sorry to ask you this sir, but I need you to pardon a turkey."
Bartlet: "I already pardoned a turkey."
"I need you to pardon another one."
"DIdn't I do it right?"
"You did it great, but I need you to come out here and pardon another one." "Aren't I going to get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?"
"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. The runner-up gets eaten."
"If the Oscars were like that, I'd watch."
Then he has some pretty funny lines about the quality of education in this country and the fact that the kid Morton from the turkey farm doesn't know that the U.S. President doesn't have Constitutional power to pardon farm animals but I didn't want to overdo it here.
Oh wow, and now I'm just remembering the Thanksgiving episode where he calls the Butterball Hotline! "If I cook the stuffing inside the turkey, is there a chance I could kill my guests?" So good!
My other favorite is "Isaac and Ishmael," which aired Oct. 3, 2011, the first episode after 9/11. In that episode, a terrorism threat
puts the White House on lockdown. A group of high school kids from Presidential Classroom are stuck in the cafeteria and the various staffers, the President, First Lady (Stockard Channing) all take turns going in and debating issues around terrorism with the teens. It is so powerful.
Josh: "In honor of the SATs you're about to take, answer the following question: Islamic Extremist : Islamic :: [blank] : Christianity."
Student: "Christian fundamentalists"
"No, guys. The Christian Right may not be your cup of tea, but they're not blowing stuff up."
[writes "KKK" on the board]. It's the Klan, gone medieval, global...Muslims defend this country in the army, navy, marine corp, national guard, police, fire departments..."
"You want to get these people? I mean, you really want to reach in and kill them where they live? Keep accepting more than one idea. It makes them absolutely crazy."
Student: "You know a lot about terrorism? What are you struck by most?" Sam: "It's 100% failure rate. Not only do terrorist fail at what they're after. They pretty much always succeed in strengthening what they're against."
"They're still doing it anyway. They're not frustrated by the failure. What do you call a society that has to live every day with the idea that the pizza place you're eating in can just blow up without any warning?" "Israel."
Okay, Mrs. Landingham. What's next?
* RIP, Mrs. Landingham
** RIP, Leo McGarry