President Josiah Bartlet (supposedly a distant relative of Josiah Bartlett, a New Hampshire signer of the Declaration of Independence), played by Martin Sheen, was originally only intended to be a minor character in the series, but Sheen's performance as the sometimes Clintonesque (though without the moral failings) Bartlet has seen him become the show's central character. Bartlet represents, in many ways, a liberal Democrat's fantasy of the ideal president: a fierce intellect, with great personal integrity (though a lapse in such has been a major focus of the recent season), toughness, but tempered with essential compassion for the less fortunate. His staff, collectively, are similar — talented, bright, and thoroughly committed.
The show often features extensive discussion between the characters on current or recent political issues. Whilst making no secret of the writers' liberal Democrat leanings, other perspectives are presented — particularly with the introduction of a new, Republican staffer in the second season. Nevertheless, the show is derided by some conservatives as The Left Wing. However, it retains a core of sentimentality and whimsy that gives the show its heart.
With the election of the Republican George W. Bush in 2000, many wondered whether the show could retain its relevance and topicality with the real governmental agenda obviously swinging to the right, but it is still considered by many to be amongst the best American television dramas.
Following the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks, the season-three premiere was pushed back a week for a special episode. A script was quickly written and filming began on September 21 and finished shooting in about a week—an incredibly quick turn around time for a TV drama. The special episode, titled "Isaac and Ishmael," aired on October 3 and addressed the sobering reality of terrorism in America.
Despite its focus on American politics, the show remains popular throughout much of the Western world.
In May 2003, Sorkin, who served as a primary writer and executive producer, announced that he would leave the show after the fourth season to persue other film, television and theater projects.
The West Wing has won Emmy Awards for Best Drama Series in 2000, 2001 and 2002.