The West Wing.
Hands down, no contest. It’s the only show (to date) that I’ve watched when it aired, from first season to last (I admit, it took until midway through season one for me to start watching it, but I did watch enough of it) actually making time to watch it each week as it aired. It was the only show which was destination TV for me the whole way through. Everything else I’ve watched on DVD or otherwise time-shifted. The West Wing, I made time for.
I will admit that some seasons are stronger than others – 1, 2, 6 and 7 are particularly good, and 5 particularly bad. But it never went below “worth making time to watch” for me – it was getting very close by the end of season 5, and I started season 6 thinking I’d give it a few episodes and see how I felt, but that season started strongly, and just got better throughout, so I kept on watching. That’s a feat few other TV shows have managed – House is looking like it would be another similar show, but even that, I’ve started time shifting to more convenient points, and honestly, it’s not the same sort of thing. The West Wing, I started watching because the whole show was astonishingly good – the writing, the scripts, the direction and the acting are just superb. House, on the other hand, has consistently superb work from Hugh Laurie, whose charisma carries the show. In every other regard it’s a very variable programme.
But back to The West Wing. It’s not just unusual in that I watched all of it, it’s also not the sort of show I normally go for. I prefer shows that are self-contained within episodes – House, CSI, that sort of thing. I don’t want the full on Star Trek dictum that any given episode should be viewable out of order with all the others, but I do want to watch 40 minutes of TV, and go away feeling like I’ve seen a complete story, even if I perhaps didn’t understand the wider arc plot bits fully. 24, Heroes, Lost, these shows do not generally work for me – they’re all arc, and no self-contained narrative. The West Wing sits somewhere between House and the Heroes, in that for 90% of the episodes, they do tell a complete story, it’s just that there will be references back and forth to earlier or later things, but most crucially given my normal viewing habits, because it’s an ensemble piece, they do not have the time to spend introducing the characters in any given epsiodes, so you really do need to watch a few episodes to get that hang of everything, particularly because they all (walk and) talk very quickly. So it’s a measure of the quality of the characters and the actors that it got me to overcome my usual allergy to shows you need to follow closely.
Yes, it’s absolutely a liberal wet-dream of a show – it posits a full 12 years of a Democratic White House, for one thing, and the president in it is positively communist by the standards of real world American politics (even if you can practically see the show’s runners and writers backing away from their own instincts about two thirds of the way through the 1st season, around the time Bush got elected). That’s no bad thing – it was never going to reflect the absolute reality of American politics, not least because if the journalism I’ve read is to be believed, you have to be a particularly unsympathetic sort of personality damage case to get involved in that particular circus, and if it’s not going to reflect reality, it might as well reflect aspiration.
And to cap it all off the entrance of Martin Sheen, as Jed Bartlet at the end of the first episode is one of the greatest bits of TV I have ever seen. I could watch this again and again and again.