Given this DVD’s release date (directly coinciding with one of the most highly anticipated election days in history), and season three’s initial air date (following on the heels of September 11th), this season may become the most pivotal in West Wing history- if not the most consistent. It opens with an out-of-context episode, “Isaac and Ishmael,” that’s as didactic as it is well-meaning. While Chief of Staff Leo (John Spencer) interrogates a suspect, Sam (Rob Lowe), Josh (Bradley Whitford), Charlie (Dule Hill…, Toby (Richard Schiff), C.J. (Alison Janney), Donna (Janel Maloney), First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing), and President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) discuss terrorism and it’s repercussions with a group of nervous High School Students.
Written in response to the 9/11 attacks, “Isaac and Ishmael” does present an interesting analogy (Islamic Extremist: Islamic as KKK: Christianity). But the season really kicks off with “Manchester,” a two part episode that initiates where season two concluded. After Bartlet announces his plans for re-election, the staff deals with his recently disclosed Multiple Sclerosis and a military rescue in Haiti. Flashback intensive, “Manchester” jumps back and forth between the Bartlet’s New Hampshire estate and the White House, as a team of strategists headed by Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver) attempt to revive the administration. Later, Oliver Platt shows up as White House council Oliver Babbish, and the First Lady’s secrecy regarding her husband’s condition may result in a revocation of her medical license.
Season Three deals with as many pivotal issues as its two predecessors- characters debate prostitution, terrorism, and gun control. There’s also a fair share of dramatic fluff, the best being a tentative romance between Josh and woman’s rights advocate Amy Gardner, played by Mary-Louise Parker. Sorkin turned similar material into movie magic with The American President, and he’s equally as successful in TV drama form- watching two intelligent, quirky, and relentlessly stubborn political players try to negotiate a romance marks the high point of the season. Powerful episodes like “The Women of Kumar” make woman’s rights a major focus of this season, and C.J. and the First Lady are as passionate and vocal as Parker’s Amy (“I congratulate you for punishing poor woman as a symbol of the strength of mainstream values!”)
The third season isn’t exactly a soap box for Hollywood liberalism in the face of a Republican Government, but it comes close. Sheen’s President Bartlet possesses an unparalleled combination of steely determination and charisma, and statements like “no one in government takes responsibility for anything,” are supported by his staff’s remarkable idealism- clearly in the midst of a hypocritical government (“The classic Washington scandal- we screwed up by telling the truth.”) Still, the series isn’t black and white- Sorkin may create mean-spirited Republicans like Bartlet’s opponent Governor Richie (James Brolin), but there’s also the bright and charming Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), who is short-shifted plot wise but proves a welcome presence in occasional appearances.
Watching the complete third season of The West Wing feels a bit like waiting in the calm before a storm. Flipping through the episode guidebook and seeing writer/creator Aaron Sorkin’s name attached to every episode is bittersweet, because this season was his last on the Emmy winning series. And when Sorkin departed, so did The West Wing’s brilliance.
Season Three continues the previous season’s timely switch to episodes that are presented in widescreen anamorphic video measuring in at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. For those who are not aware, the first season’s DVD set was presented in fullscreen 4:3 video and the switch to widescreen only happened in Season Two. Currently, “The West Wing” is broadcast in high definition on NBC. Overall, the images on this DVD have very little flaws with no dirt or scratches to mar your viewing pleasure. Its colors are also beautifully rendered and the skin tones, natural. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
Although only encoded in Dolby Surround 2.0, the patriotic musical scores are dramatic 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.
Only one side of the fourth DVD is used for bonus material. One major discrepancy is the listing of a bonus feature called “Political Missteps” on both the cover and the insert booklet but is nowhere to be found on the bonus fourth disc.
First, there are three audio commentaries:
- “Manchester Pt.2” with commentary by Aaron Sorkin, executive producer Thomas Schlamme and actress Allison Janney.
- “Bartlet For America” with commentary by Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme and actor John Spencer.
- “Posse Comitatus” with commentary by Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme and Alex Graves.
All three audio commentaries are by the numbers, with the usual background information about that particular episode that the participants are commenting on.
On Disc 4, the first bonus feature is “A Property Master’s Story”, which has interviews with executive producer Thomas Schlamme, property master Blanche Sindeler and On-Set property master Steve Whiteside. All three interviewees talk about the little details that go into making the Oval Office and West Wing sets as realistic as possible.
Up next is an oddly named feature called “The Chief of Stuff”, which is an interesting piece on the role of a Presidential Aide, played on the show by Dulé Hill. It has interviews with Hill and also two of former President Clinton’s Personal Aides, Kris Engskov and Andrew Friendly. Next, there are three deleted scenes to choose from, one each from the following episodes: “The Two Bartlets”, “Enemies Foreign And Domestic” and “Posse Comitatus”. All three deleted scenes are of low quality, grainy and also display the timecodes.
The last and final bonus feature is also the most interesting one, called “Documentary Special”. This feature is divided into five segments, each dealing with an aspect of being and working for the most powerful man on Earth. It contains interviews with former Presidents Clinton, Carter and Ford and also other prominent White House personalities.
I personally enjoy the high-paced drama that comes from The West Wing. Each episode seems to bring about familiar issues in a truly gripping manner. The series is exceptional in the way that it portrays its stories. If you’ve enjoyed any of the earlier seasons, the third season will definitely keep you occupied. If you’re new to the series, it’s best to start in the first season, but if you decide to start in the third season, you’ll still find the series very interesting. The West Wing is a very good television drama. Definitely worth renting.
Special Features List
- Commentary by creator Aaron Sorkin and others on three episodes
- “Reel-Life to Real-Life” documentary
- “A Property Master’s Story” featurette
- “The Chief of Stuff” featurette
- Political Missteps – bloopers