How I Fell in Love with Richard Schiff: He Has a Quality

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When I sat down to inhale The West Wing – only ten years after it ended – I didn’t realize that I would fall in love with Richard Schiff. Or at least partly Schiff and partly the character he embodied, the beleaguered, smart Toby Ziegler. The whole cast is stunning – and every episode is packed with smart dialogue, consistent treatment of issues and so many guest stars that I can’t count them. But by the end, Schiff stood out for me. A show conceived as a starring vehicle for Rob Lowe, who saw less and less action until he finally exited the show in the fourth season, it did not occur to me that of the strong ensemble, Lowe would be the least interesting part of the show. I have always loved Allison Janney, and Bradley Whitford’s performance launched him into the lead, in which we care deeply about his character and story. Sure, none of it would work without the ensemble, but these were standouts. And Schiff is one of those pieces of the ensemble. He is a part of the group, close to all the players, but still stands apart – negative, a voice of reason but never quite a part, sometimes going renegade and doing things someone would never expect from Toby Ziegler.

I read recently that Schiff felt strongly that Toby would not have done what he did in the final season of The West Wing. He might be right, but considering that he was principled almost to a fault and might break other confidences and principles for greater principles, and he was grieving in his own quiet/angry Toby Ziegler way at the time, the result did not feel completely out of left field.

I only write about this because I devoured all of The West Wing in about a week, and as much as I enjoyed so many characters and related to them, Schiff’s Toby stood out to me as my favorite (even if dealing with the guy would probably have been totally infuriating in reality).

And somehow, maybe because he is just so good at blending into what he is doing as an outsider, and does not mind not being well-liked, I had already forgotten that he was in the initial season of Manhattan, which I really enjoyed. He was not a nice guy and not the flashiest (John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams as the Winter couple provide this flash), but fit so well into his role as interrogator and another kind of fish-out-of-water. He also did a stint in Murder in the First, which I have also enjoyed.

And next up, he has a recurring role in The Affair… one of those shows that had a lot of promise and only turned itself around a little bit in the end. I liked the two sides of the same story, told from two different perspectives. I liked the cast but somehow the idea of an affair does not appeal in the long term as a long-running television show. I don’t know what Schiff will do in the second season, much as I do not know what the second season can cover – the titular affair is over, the main character left his wife (at least that’s how it seems in the end of season one). Where can it possibly go from here?

But who cares? Schiff is in it – he has a quality!

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