July 20, 2016

Ranking the Characters from the West Wing from Worst to First

With the current clusterf*ck that is our political system, is it any wonder so many people are turning to reruns of The West Wing for refuge? The political masterpiece, which wrapped up ten years ago, is still exactly as relevant today as it was when it debuted. We are still dealing with the same issues tackled in the show: conflict in the Middle East, racial conflict, police shootings, school vouchers, tensions with China and Russia, and of course, a deadlocked Congress. Even the contested convention episode was almost a reality on the Republican side. (And I imagine it would have been even more chaotic and ridiculous in real life.)

So every night, I've been hiding from the news and immersing myself Aaron Sorkin's magical world where people actually care about what happens to this country. Over the course of 7 seasons (though let's be honest, there are a fair number of people who wish it would have just stopped at 5), I've started to realize I look forward to watching some characters more than others. Some I flat out dread seeing. So with the purpose of hiding out from real life just a bit longer, I decided to rank the major West Wing characters in the reverse order of my preference. (Caution: spoilers ahead)

26. Will Bailey I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say Joshua Molina is the Martin Skrelli of The West Wing. He has a smug face you just sort of want to punch. And I cannot get the sound of his very terribly faked astonishment at finding a goat in his office out of my head. Ugh. I cannot believe we lost Sam Seaborn as a character and were given this as a replacement. The fact that he leaves to work for the VP only solidifies this status.

25. Mandy Hampton I almost didn't bother listing her since she was only around one season, but the fact that she disappears without a mention and no one cares is proof that creating her character was a mistake in the first place.

24. Matthew Santos I don't want to talk too much about Seasons 6 & 7, mostly because they're difficult for me to watch. The writing quality takes a nosedive, the entire West Wing seems hobbled and sad, but mostly, I can't stand to listen to Matthew Santos talk. Look, I love accents. Adore them. They make almost any person automatically more attractive. But his accent is distinctly not Southern. It's fake Southern. And badly faked, at that. So combined with his stubborn attitude and equally irritating wife, watching him get sworn in isn't exactly my dream ending to one of the best TV series ever created.

23. Kate Harper She appears out of nowhere and is involved in seemingly every meeting, despite the fact that the administration managed to survive a number of years without ever having a deputy NSA at their beck and call. And then suddenly she's at the President's library opening years later? She's like the Tori (from Saved By The Bell) that leaves you wondering how she just came in and was suddenly part of the cool crowd.

22. Zoey & Ellie Bartlet That episode focusing on Ellie and her dad? Snore. Zoe's relationship with Pierre? Could not care less. Everyone constantly commenting on how good Zoey looks despite not actually looking that good? Their boring personalities? All these factors contribute to the two younger Bartlet daughters being so low on the list. The fact is, neither character is very interesting and I dread every time one of them appears on screen. (I excluded the eldest, Liz Bartlet, because she has a little more sizzle to her character, but also appears so infrequently she's not really worth ranking.)

21. Annabeth Schott Another late series addition, Kristin Chenoweth brings her usual perky charm to the role, but her character is a bit of a throwaway. Beyond filling the gap when CJ becomes Chief of Staff, there's not a lot of reason for her to stay on as a regular and certainly not as some weird Leo McGarry fangirl.

20. Bob Russell On one hand, he's as dull as a paper bag. On the other hand, that's exactly who he's supposed to be. Though I may never stop thinking of him as the boss in Office Space, this role is one Gary Cole is destined to play again and again.

19. Cathy, Carol, Ed & Larry, and every other minor regular Let's hear it for the non-black minorities, who are basically all encapsulated in this category! But seriously, it's sort of comforting to see the same faces pop in and out to remind us that the entire federal government isn't, in fact, run by Josh and Toby. Even with their minimal participation, I still enjoy the whole of the assistant staff more than the people listed above. Plus you know, Asians!

18. Leo McGarry Leo got dinged because after Season 4, he became a bit of an asshole. I dislike the fact that he frequently dismisses staffer's concerns and seems to have an inflated sense of his own power. Like when he was reassuring the Joint Chiefs that President Bartlet would give the order to bomb whomever in that episode where Toby's brother gets stuck in space? Or when he demands that Josh get "his candidate" to concede the election because "he'll never win," but ends up running on the ticket with him? His political shadiness is a little too real for a fictional show. I know he dies in real life, but I can't just throw him sympathy points for it.

17. John Hoynes I can't explain it. There is something I like about him. Maybe because he is familiar as a typical politician? Maybe it's because you expect to hate him, based on how President Bartlet talks about him, but he turns out to be a pretty decent guy? (Minus all the affairs, of course.)

16. Jed Bartlet Yeah, I know, he's the president. But he's also kind of a pain in the ass. Have you ever known someone who could actually quote long Bible passages or play entire chess games from memory? Did you actually like that person? He may make a good fictional president, but he's not a character I want to be coerced into sitting with while he lists every National Park in the country. No one likes a know-it-all. Plus, he looks like a chipmunk. It's distracting.

15. Ainsley Hayes I like that Ainsley serves as a counterpoint to the heavy left-wing rhetoric of the show. The fact that there is at least a minimal attempt to highlight some rational right-wing positions makes it more thought-provoking than if it just fed viewers exactly what they already believed. My one sticking point is that although Ainsley is a smart, competent woman, she is also made to be a bit of a ditz and I just don't think it was necessary. Also, like so many other non-main characters, she straight up disappears without an explanation. The West Wing must have some sort of black hole portal in the office.

14. Arnie Vinick I know everyone watching the show is supposed to be a hardcore Democrat, but I really preferred Vinick. At least as a person. I'm glad they at least had him lose the election through no fault of his own, but that speech he gives to the press about it being no one's business whether or not he goes to church is one of the best moments of an overall lackluster Season 6. DAMN IT PEOPLE, WE HAVE A SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE!

13. Toby Ziegler I have a love/hate relationship with Toby. He represents the most pure Democratic ideology and the vocabulary to eloquently express his views. But he's also a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch. So much so that I find myself sometimes disliking him, even as I'm agreeing with every word he's saying. He's just such a downer. His ex-wife (who is not believable as someone who would marry Toby, btw) said it best when she told him, "you're too sad."

12. Oliver Babish He's a fairly minor character, but he gets a lot of screen time during the long and arduous MS saga that weighs down Season 2. To which I say, I wish the president had run into more legal trouble. Oliver Platt is such an excellent actor and his no-nonsense way of knocking one's ego down a notch or two is exactly what all of these staffers need. Because really, I'm pretty sure everyone in Washington thinks they are the smartest, most righteous person who ever existed. It's why everyone hates politics.

11. Sam Seaborn Sam is above Toby because, well, Rob Lowe. No matter how many bad things you read about him, no matter how many shows he quits mid-season, it's impossible not to love him on screen. The guy can act. He channels his most charming self as idealistic Sam Seaborn, who brings a tear to my eye when he deletes his State of the Union speech about curing cancer. I'm pretty sure he is  one of the only universally loved characters in all of television. If only he had stuck around longer.

10. Debbie Fiderer & Margaret I know everyone mourns Mrs. Landingham's death like it was their own grandma and everything, but her replacement, Debbie, is pretty phenomenal. Just her mention of alpaca farming alone is enough for me like her. And while Mrs. Landingham was around for less than 2 seasons, Debbie ran the office for almost 5 seasons. And Margaret, whom everyone seems to think is weird, is so excellent as an awkward but well-intentioned assistant. And damn it, I would want to know the calorie content of that raisin muffin too.

9. Abbey Bartlet There are so many things I love about Abbey. I love that she has her own career. I love that she doesn't take crap from anyone. I love that she is age appropriate. And I love that every time I look at her, I still think of Rizzo from Grease. But seriously, she's not a First Lady who stands around as arm candy for her husband. I love that even in a household where her husband is supposedly the most powerful man in the world, she can hold her own.

8. Bruno Gianelli Though a temporary character, Bruno helps remind us that governing and campaigning are two very different things. I love his insight into the strategy of politicking and his wry sense of humor. His presence is just another reason I was cheering for Vinick to beat Santos in the election.

7. Donna Moss In some ways, I wanted to rank Donna higher. She's excellent at her job, she's funny, she's caring, and she serves as the voice of regular citizens who want to know what the hell Washington's problem is on a regular basis. But her infatuation with Josh is hard to watch, no matter how much you find yourself rooting for them to get together. He does not deserve her. Period. So the fact that he has some Jerry Maguire moment in his mind where he finally realizes he needs her does not make up for the fact that he never fully respects her. Donna lacks her own narrative apart from Josh, which makes her character both stronger and weaker at the same time.

6. Amy Gardner I'll admit, the first time I watched the series I didn't love Amy. Mostly because I saw her as impeding the romance between Josh and Donna. But the more I watch the show, the more I want to be her. She's smart, she's capable, and she's a freaking go-getter. I'm not a huge fan of the flat tones of Mary-Louise Parker's voice, but I'm channeling Amy Gardner's attitude in my next career. The woman makes me want to go into politics.

5. Charlie Young Aside from his love for Zoe Bartlet (which turns weird and slightly stalker-ish during the Jean-Paul phase), Charlie is one of the most steady and reliable characters. He is always there, always professional, and literally the only major character of color. I am continually impressed at his restraint from shouting down the idiocy around him on a regular basis. If I don't come back as Amy Gardner in my next life, I could settle for being Charlie Young (though I imagine it would be quite a large pay cut).

4. Danny Concanon To be honest, part of the reason I like Danny so much is because he likes my favorite character, CJ. Another part of it is because it finally erased my anger at his character in Field of Dreams that causes the daughter to choke on a hot dog and forces Doc to leave the field. He's a pretty understated villain in that movie and it took 4 long seasons of The West Wing to finally lobby me onto his side. Oh yeah, and the fact that he has journalistic integrity and all that.

3. Josh Lyman Josh, to me, is the main character. He's in almost every storyline and he's the character with the widest range. Sometimes he's a sympathetic, caring friend who flies to Germany to sit by Donna's bedside (swoon!); sometimes he's a pompous jerk who overestimates his own power and ends up converting Congressmen to the opposite party. But above all else, he is always in a suit that looks to be too big with a backpack slung over his shoulder like some frat boy going to a job interview. And that's what makes him so likable--he's like an overgrown man-child in a room full of stodgy adults and he brings the fun.

2. Joey Lucas Who would have thought that the funniest character on the entire show was someone who rarely even speaks? Joey Lucas sets her own rules and has people chasing after her for work instead of the other way around. She make something that is inherently boring (polling and the data that comes with it) and makes it exciting to hear about. I love almost every episode she is a part of.

1. CJ Cregg Really, can anyone disagree that CJ is the best character on the show? She is so utterly charming (which I suppose is the crux of her press job) and a nice change-up from the overflowing testosterone coursing through the rest of the West Wing. (Seriously, did Sorkin not realize he made every single assistant in the building female?) She says what we are all thinking at home. And she balances her passion for certain issues with a light-hearted demeanor, even as she gets hit with some of the heaviest story lines. The scene where she cries about the women of Qumar being stoned for adultery and has to go out and brief the press on the US' arms deal with the country immediately after gets me every time.

I'm sure there will be some fair amount of disagreement over the middle section, but can anyone really argue with my top and bottom choices?


  1. My opinion: Ainsley Hayes should be about eight spots higher because she was possibly the most entertaining character on the show - when a scene with her came on, I'd perk up to watch (not just because of her appearance). I'd have Josh at one and CJ just outside the top five because she sometimes gets too humanitarian instead of recognizing the bigger picture (the greater good). Sam, Donna, Charlie, and Bartlet would round out my top 5. I think you only hate Will so much because he was made to fill the shoes of Sam, and the writing for him wasn't as witty once Sorkin left a few episodes into Will's tenure. Remember how awesome Will was in season 4 when Sorkin was writing? Every character suffered after season 4 imo

    1. Fair point on Will's writing, though I still didn't care for him in Season 4. Maybe it was just a bad combination of introducing a new character while kicking beloved Sam out.

      I definitely go back and forth on Josh. It's impossible not to love him, but when I sit down and think about his actual personality, he ends up getting kicked down a couple notches.

      And yeah, the whole show went into a decline after Sorkin left. I think Season 5 hangs in there as best it can, but when I do re-runs I skip Season 7 all together.

  2. Great list, though I dont fully agree with the order. I would have separated the list into main and side characters. I dont think we can club Joey Lucas and even Ainsley as "main" characters. or even 3 lists as "main- A" who appear in most episodes; B-list "who disappear for full seasons, but still have a big impact, e.g Danny, Hoynes and C-list who appear only in a few episodes (Ainsley) or appear in several with really minor roles (Margaret). alternatively B and C can be clubbed?

    so, by that argument, I would rank as follows: A-list
    1. Josh 2. Sam (even though he IS cuter than Josh) 3. CJ 4. Toby 5. Charlie 6. Donna 7. Bartlett 8. Leo

    B-list 1. Ainsley 2.Danny 3. Bruno 4. Hoynes 5. Vinick 6. a distant 6th-Amy 7.distant 7th again Fitz

    C-list: 1. Margaret 2.Simon Donovan 3. Cliff 4. Debbie 5. Babbish and Lionel Tribby

    I think you've been a bit too harsh with Will Bailey-in his defense Sorkin wasnt writing much for him. I agree with the previous commentator that the show went diving dwnhill after Sorkin left.

    personally I think Abbey Bartlett was the smuggest and Least likeable, followed by Kate Harper, the Bartlett girls, Annabeth (most annoying)

    1. I like the idea of banding the main characters and secondary ones together. It would certainly make it easier to compare

      I know I'm mostly alone in my hatred of Will Bailey, but even on subsequent watches I just don't warm to him. I also always find myself wishing he had less children, or that they would be featured less. Bartlet's family just does not interest me.

  3. Thanks for this really interesting list. I would rank Mandy last because I honestly can't think of any redeeming features. Annabeth Schott is teeth-grindingly annoying and Kristin Chenoweth plays her as if she's auditioning for a part in Glee. Will Bailey jumping ship to work for Russell was a terrible plot development that fatally compromised the character, so I think your dislike is justified (even though I blame the writers more than Joshua Malina). My one major disagreement with you is over Toby, who I think is a superb character. Not always easy to like, but fierce and honourable, and responsible for many of the show's best moments.

    1. Thanks for reading! I could definitely make it a toss up between Mandy and Will, but she's not around as long to annoy me, which is why I ranked her higher. I agree having Will jump ship to Russell is probably what sealed his fate, but I found his character pretty smug and annoying before that. Kristin Chenowith is sort of always the same in every role, so I guess it's more of a "you like her or you don't" sort of thing, and she came in at a time when the writers started to get desperate for new plot lines. Toby is a tough one. As I said, it's love/hate. I think he's an important character to have, but is just too cynical for me.

  4. I actually sort of disagree about the Josh/Donna thing. You make a fair point about Josh having a " Jerry Maguire" moment or not deserving Donna, but I'd argue that he does fully respect her by the time they actually get together. I think season 7 subtlety shows that. I realize some thought it was too little too late, but I wanted to offer a different perspective.

    1. I'll agree he respects her by the time they get together, and she's his equal in rank, but it pains me so much that she spent 7 seasons pining after him and basically wakes up one day, realizes he's in love with her, and *poof* gets her. I think he should have had to do a lot more atoning for the way he treated her before.

  5. I think he knew how he felt about her after Gaza( and possibly even in season 4,) but it's definitely open to interpretation. I get what you're saying, but I think the whole situation was just so complicated on several levels. There's also the fact that because the relationships on this show are so secondary, viewers are expected to fill in a lot of blanks themselves. So of course people are going to have different points of view about what issues were resolved and/or discussed off screen.I think we just see the whole thing differently, but that's okay. We can agree to disagree.

  6. One of the things I liked about the later seasons was they finally made Donna a real person. One of the things I hate is that they finally made Donna a real person only to have her end up with someone who belittled her professionally and personally for YEARS.

    1. YES!! No matter how much I love Josh as a character.

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  8. I feel and always have that CJ Cregg is hugely overrated. The fact that she was promoted to COS was the dumbest move on the entire series. For some reason she is made out to be the greatest thing! Personally I think she is the 3rd best female character on the show behind Donna and Ainsley Hayes.

    1. Even a while but I am rewatching WW and I am still dumbfounded by the accession of C.J. to COS. They is no way this would have happened. Josh, Toby, even Will would have been a better choice. She was so uneducated about what the COS deals with. This was the biggest mistake in the series.

  9. I agree. C J was often overrated. Arrogant, rude 1/2 of the time. Way too impressed with herself.
    Actually, I liked Will. He had a sense of humor. Also liked Charlie, President Bartlet, Leo, Ainsley, LOVED Sam, all the assistants. Donna could be smart and a bit ding ding at the same time. Liked Danny. Always told it like it was. Could not stand Mandy or Amy.
    Toby and Josh - both in a league all their own. Toby smart/intelligent, supportive of Vets and could lean so far to the left at times he could tie his right shoe. Josh - childlike at times. He so often thought world opinion revolved him, and he believed he always knew best. He was beyond liberal. Always loved the Situation Room, and often thought if only. Also, a good thing that Toby, Josh and CJ weren’t included. C J somehow jumped from press secretary to political analyst.

  10. CJ was tremendously overrated. She was a press secretary who came from Hollywood, so how did she vault experienced political operators like Josh to become CoS? She was also as arrogant and abrasive as Josh and Toby without even half their political expertise. Now, granted, she was good in her role as press secretary, but aside from that she was misplaced.

    The heart and soul of the show to me was Sam. The show was originally intended to focus on him before Sheen stole the show as Jed. But Sam was the conscience of TWW, less cynical than Josh, less dogmatic than Toby, more astute than CJ, more committed to the cause than Leo, and more important than either Donna, Charlie, Margaret, etc. Something died in the show when Sam walked.

    The most underrated character for my money was Hoynes. He had such a complicated relationship to the West Wing staff that made him a wild card, which was fitting, given that he was modeled on LBJ. His issues with Jed and his alternating insight and stupidity made him a perfect picture of so many politicians. I loved episodes with his character.

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