Debuting September 22, 1999, NBC's multi-award-winning The West Wing was America's first truly successful political drama series. Producer Aaron Sorkin had allegedly created the property to make fuller use of the White House interior sets built for his 1999 theatrical film, The American President. Whatever the case, the weekly, hour-long series disproved the long-held theory that the American TV viewing public was bored stiff by fictional political intrigue. The series was largely set during the administration of U.S. president Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (Martin Sheen), a Liberal Democrat (and a devout Catholic) from New Hampshire. The first lady was Dr. Abigail "Abby" Bartlet (Stockard Channing), who, though she publicly supported her husband in every aspect, privately expected him to hold to his promise that he would serve only one term. The Bartlets had three daughters, the youngest of whom, free-spirited Zoey (Elizabeth Moss), was a great source of consternation in many ways. President Bartlet was backed up by a fiercely loyal staff, including his venerable chief of staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer); his blunt-talking deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford); Josh's wisecracking assistant, Donna Moss (Janel Moloney); witty, idealistic press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney); deceptively unkempt-looking communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff); and deputy communications director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), who had trouble keeping his tempestuous private life from spilling over into his work. As originally conceived, Sam was to have been the main character, with President Bartlet merely a recurring presence. Rob Lowe left the series near the end of season four, reportedly distressed by his ever-diminishing screen time; it was explained that Sam had gone off to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. He was replaced by Joshua Malina as the new deputy communications director (and later the vice president's chief of staff) Will Bailey.
The Bartlet administration, like many before it, had as many tribulations as triumphs. The first season ended with an attempted assassination, which turned out to be directed not at the president but at his personal aide Charlie Young (Dule Hill). During season two, it was revealed that Bartlet suffered from multiple sclerosis, a fact he kept secret from the public until the beginning of season three. Despite his illness and an unpleasant congressional investigation in which both the president and the first lady faced charges of conspiring in a cover-up, Bartlet handily won re-election at the end of the third season, trouncing his conservative opponent (played by James Brolin) and emerging more popular than ever. In other developments, Bartlet was forced to find a new vice president after the defection of John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), who had never truly liked his running mate; "First Daughter" Zoey was kidnapped, compelling Bartlet to briefly relinquish power to avoid conflict-of-interest charges, placing the government under the control of Speaker of the House Glenallen Walken (John Goodman), a hard-line Republican; Leo was sidelined by a massive heart attack; and at the end of Bartlet's second term, a battle royal ensued between Democratic candidate Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Republican senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) for the Presidency. Though decidedly left of center in its political viewpoint, The West Wing used advisors from both parties to ensure a modicum of accuracy. Many felt that the series' quality diminished after producer Aaron Sorkin left the show after season four, but The West Wing made a remarkable recovery, both in terms of its writing and its viewership, during its sixth season. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi