West Wing: The Complete Second Season (DVD)
The second season of The West Wing
takes up literally where the first season left off and, after a few moments of patriotic sentimentalism, maintains the series' astonishingly high standards in depicting the everyday life of the White House staff of a Democratic administration. The two-part opener covers the immediate aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), switching between the anxious wait on the injured and flashbacks to Bartlet's campaign for the Presidency. Other peaks in a series exceedingly short on lows include "Noel," the episode in which Alan Arkin's psychiatrist forces Josh Lynam to confront his post-traumatic stress disorder and the episodes in which President Bartlet, following a tragic car accident, rails angrily against God in Latin.
Other new aspects include the introduction of Ainsley Hayes, a young Republican counsel hired after she beats communications deputy Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) in a TV debate ("Sam's getting his ass kicked by a girl!" crow his colleagues), as well as the revelation that the President has been suffering from multiple sclerosis. Tensions grow between him and the First Lady (Stockard Channing) as she realizes, in the episode "Third State of the Union," that he intends to run for a second term in office. It becomes clear to Bartlet that he must go public with his MS, and his staff is forced to come to terms with this, as well as deal with the usual plethora of domestic and international incidents, which apparently preclude any of them from having any sort of private lives. These include crises in Haiti and Columbia, an obstinate filibuster, and a Surgeon General's excessively frank remarks about the drug situation. Thankfully, the splendid Lord John Marbury (Roger Rees) is on hand to make chief of staff Leo McGarry's life more of a misery in "The Drop-In."
These episodes, though occasionally marred by a sentimental soundtrack and an earnest and wishfully high regard for the Presidential office, are master classes in drama and dialogue, ranging from the wittily staccato to the magnificently grave, capturing authentically the hectic pace of political intrigue and the often vain efforts of decent, brilliant people to do the right thing. The West Wing is one of the all-time great TV dramas. --David Stubbs