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Lemon/Lyman: Was The Wire Too Harsh on 'The West Wing's Josh?

After the outcry at our character rankings, two of our writers debate the worthiness of The West Wing's Josh Lyman.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Last week, The Wire published a "definitive" ranked list of The West Wing's characters, averaging the votes of writers Joe Reid, Kevin O'Keeffe, and David Sims on the show's 113 most important cast members. As it bound to ensue with any item ever published online, outcry ensued, but there was particular consternation over the relatively low placement of Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who ranked #17. While David and Joe both ranked him relatively high, Kevin's list had him in the middle of the pack, bringing his overall ranking down and leading to some ... let's be generous and call them "impassioned" responses.

The flame war was hot enough to necessitate a response. So now, the writers who ranked Josh highest (David) and lowest (Kevin) are here to hash things out in a Cocktail Crossfire.

David Sims: Okay, Kevin. I can see not liking Josh as much as some of the other West Wing standbys (CJ, Toby, Bartlet and so on), but your low placement of him seemed to register outright dislike of the guy. While Josh certainly gets on my nerves at times (particularly when the show thrusts him into despair, like in the awful fifth season), he's probably the most consistently featured character on the show and always felt like a core part of its personality to me. So what gives! Why you no-a like-a Josh?

Kevin O'Keeffe: I guess I'm puzzled as to why "consistently featured" is a good thing, and "core part of its personality" is a whole thing I'll get into later. But on the first: I can think of plenty of characters who are a big part of shows I like who I don't personally enjoy or think are well-written. That's not inherently good. The Josh Lyman I remember watching is loud and immature, and his attitude towards women – including and especially his treatment of his assistant Donna – is pretty terrible. He treats women about as well as Will McAvoy on The Newsroom does, but the defense seems to be "but it's Josh! Josh is great!" My question to you, then, is this: why is he great?
DS: I think the show is always pretty up-front about Josh being a flawed person, as it is about all of the central characters. Sam is idealistic and a perfectionist, Toby is unwilling to compromise on all of his bedrock principles, Josh is arrogant beyond belief. They're all unable to concede when they aren't right, especially in those great early seasons, when we watch their idealistic crusades run into brick walls of red tape and politiciking. Basically, I get that you think Josh is annoying, but I don't think he's terribly written, he's just the kind of blustery smart-alec who gets high pretending to rule the world in Washington (and gets kicked in the pants more than anyone else as a result). I know what you mean re: Donna – especially in the early seasons, Sorkin uses their mansplainy walk-and-talks to hold the audiences' hand and have Josh explain this week's plot to us, and it makes their dynamic occasionally infuriating, though rooted in the screwball tradition Sorkin respects more than anything.
KO: Perhaps saying that he's not well-written is a bridge too far – I'll walk that back and just say I don't personally like him. Which is fine; there are characters ranked higher than him on our list that I don't like, either. I don't really enjoy Toby, for instance, but I totally get why people do. I can't say the same about Josh, to the point where all the tweets and comments we got just baffled me.
One person asked if I had stolen Bradley Whitford's girlfriend, a ridiculous tweet both because I am incredibly, pridefully gay and because it's as if there was no other reason why I wouldn't like several members of the thriving, diverse ensemble of The West Wing more than him. What do you think? Do you think Josh is so central to The West Wing that he must have been higher?
DS: I do think that the intensity of Josh fandom is kind of amusing, particularly as the show always poked fun at that concept internally. Josh is modeled on George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton administration staffer who became a cute-guy celebrity (remember that early Friends episode lionizing him?), and the other characters are always mocking his fat-headedness over the screaming young fans. In a cast that's slightly on the stodgier side, Josh is a bit of a cad and figures into two central romances (with Donna, later Amy, then Donna again) that provide a bit of relief from the political storylines. That has to be part of his appeal. For me, his appeal lies more in his long arc on the show, which feels the most complete to me (alongside CJ's). Yes, he starts out an annoyingly self-posessed master of the universe type, but by the end of the show, he's forged into a more mature (if occasionally high-strung) leader by the Santos campaign. Along with CJ, he's really the only character who is consistently a lead on the show, but more importantly they actually find a way to mature him believably, which is especially impressive given the show's creative muddle after Sorkin departs.
KO: Let me just say I completely agree with you about him maturing. I actually think his character benefitted most from the change-over in creative staffs – a lot of his worst attributes were also his most Sorkin attributes. So let it be known that I don't hate Josh Lyman – I just happen to like a bunch of characters more.
Before we go, however, I do want to point out a weird trend that came about in some of the tweets. A lot of people insisted that our list was flawed because Josh and Donna in particular are the show. I get that we all enjoy shows in different ways, but I was really disappointed to hear that. To discredit the fabulous work being done by actors like Allison Janney, Martin Sheen, Stockard Channing, Dulé Hill, Richard Schiff, the late John Spencer, and Alan Alda, among the many, many others, is to ignore the fact that The West Wing had one of the best ensembles on any series in American television history. This show wasn't a love story or about any one or two characters; it was a passionate, exciting, sometimes infuriating, almost always entertaining tale about the people who give over their lives to serve their country. That's so much better than a simple love story – at least, in my opinion.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.