A tribute to C.J. Cregg: The West Wing's greatest ever character

Rob Keeling
Allison Janney as CJ Cregg in The West Wing – © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.
Allison Janney as CJ Cregg in The West Wing – © Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc.

I still miss The West Wing. It may have been off our screens for 12 years, but barely a day goes by where I don’t think about it, or at a bare minimum hum the theme tune in my head.

One of the key factors in making it so rewatchable is the show’s incredible ensemble cast. Out of that wide array of talent however, perhaps the most vital component of them all was Allison Janney’s faultless performance as the incomparable C.J. Cregg.

With Janney currently looking to be a strong contender for an Academy Award thanks to her stunning turn in I, Tonya, I felt it was high time to pay tribute to The West Wing’s greatest ever character:

Warm Personality

Allison Janney as CJ Cregg & Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman – ©Warner Brothers 2001
Allison Janney as CJ Cregg & Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman – ©Warner Brothers 2001

Part of what makes C.J. such a great character is the fact that despite the inherently serious nature of her job, she tackles it all with warmth and humour. One of The West Wing’s great strengths as a show was its ability to balance high drama with witty comedy, and no one embodies this more than C.J..

Claudia Jean shines in the show’s lighter moments, whether she’s being schooled by the ‘Cartographers for Social Equality’ during one of Leo’s infamous ‘Big Block of Cheese’ days, or being forced to choose between two turkeys to pardon at Thanksgiving. She takes it all with a playful good grace and maintains an endearing self-depreciating streak throughout.

C.J. also has a wonderful chemistry with all her colleagues, whether it’s ribbing Toby for his dour demeanor, resolutely taking no crap from Josh (“technically…I outrank you”) or maintaining a strong connection with the press core. There’s a warmth, respect and camaraderie there that is clearly reciprocated.

Utter professional

Allison Janney as CJ Cregg – ©Warner Brothers 2001
Allison Janney as CJ Cregg – ©Warner Brothers 2001

Throughout the show’s run, during particularly tense moments C.J. proves herself to be a calm, dependable voice of reason for the administration. When the President loses his rag at press intrusion into his daughter’s private life in season 1 for example, it’s C.J. that talks him out of storming in to the press room to berate them.

C.J.’s also frequently acts as a moral compass of sorts on the show. She often provides the ethical counterargument to the cold, hard political logic expounded by others. A prime example of this came in the episode The Women of Qumar. In this episode, despite the fictional State’s gross mistreatment of women, we find out that the US Government is still selling them weapons. C.J. naturally takes great issue with this and her impassioned plea to Nancy Mcnally is a particularly affecting moment.

A great arc

Allison Janney as CJ Cregg – ©Warner Brothers 2001
Allison Janney as CJ Cregg – ©Warner Brothers 2001

There’s a number of strong character-arcs on the show, as well as engrossing season-spanning plotlines. The ballad of Josh and Donna and the President’s battle with MS in particular stand out as two prime examples of storylines that played out over several years’ worth of episodes.

In terms of single-person arcs though, C.J.’s is by far the most interesting. We see her blossom from a relatively green political operator to an extremely confident and dependable press secretary, before going on to become a highly capable Chief of Staff too. She repeatedly proves her importance to the administration and after Leo suffers his heart attack, it’s C.J. who is selected to step up and fill his role. Her promotion is backed by everyone on the staff and C.J. takes to her new role seamlessly.

Along the way, C.J. also has some of the show’s other great love stories in the form of her on-again, off-again flirtation with Danny Concannon, and a brief romance with Secret Service agent Simon Donovan. In the case of Simon Donovan, their brief romance also led to one of the show’s most heartbreaking scenes in which C.J. received devastating news amidst the hustle and bustle of Broadway.

Allison Janney

Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg and John Spencer as Leo McGarry – ©Warner Brothers 2001
Allison Janney as C.J. Cregg and John Spencer as Leo McGarry – ©Warner Brothers 2001

A great deal of the character’s effectiveness of course stems directly from Allison Janney’s stunning performance. Janney won a total of four Emmy’s for her role as C.J. and it’s not hard to see why. She created a character who was warm, dependable and incredibly witty. Thanks to Janney’s inherent likeability, C.J. is automatically a character who viewers can’t help but root for.

Janney’s performance on The West Wing was exemplary throughout the show’s run. However, some of her finest work came in season 3’s epic two-parter, Manchester. In these episodes, C.J. buckles under the pressure following the announcement of the President’s MS and misspeaks during a briefing. This uncharacteristic error creates a clear tension between C.J. and Leo which threatens to jeopardise her position.

Throughout these two episodes, Janney is absolutely electric. She perfectly conveys to us the frustration and disappointment that C.J. is clearly feeling and ensures we are deeply invested in whether or not she and the President can work out their differences.

C.J. is the beating heart of The West Wing. Bartlet may be the leader, Toby the smarts and Josh the mouth, but without Claudia Jean, it simply wouldn’t work.

Now shush, C.J.’s doing the Jackal .

Read more:

The West Wing’s most memorable moments
10 Times the West Wing predicted the future
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