“We shouldn’t elect a president. We should elect a magician.”
This month marks the ten year anniversary of the start of the final season of The West Wing. The West Wing is my favorite network drama, and I would go so far as to call it the best network drama. I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to discuss a series with the scope of The West Wing is season by season.
Key Episodes: The West Wing (Pilot), The Crackpots and These Women, In Excelsis Deo
The West Wing premiered the same year as The Sopranos. Which show you prefer really comes down to what theme you find more interesting – the corrosive nature of evil or the frustrating nature of good. Audiences, critics, and television writers have clearly sided with the former. For every popular show about fundamentally good protagonists (Parks and Recreation), there are three about morally ambiguous ones (The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men), and five about fundamentally evil ones (The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Hannibal).
The West Wing is an aberration in the so-called “Golden Age” of television. It is was a highly rated political drama with strong writing, strong acting, and innovative television production techniques. While being fundamentally positive, it wasn’t cheesy – it had a real sense of gravitas. Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was potentially a once in a lifetime president trying to do his best in the face of a cynical political system.
The first season of the West Wing sets the stage for its two best seasons, but in many ways it is also a showcase of some of the criticisms of the Aaron Sorkin seasons of the show (1-4). The Bartlet Administration’s political opponents often come off as one dimensional, no one is a fan of Mandy Hampton (Moira Kelly), and there are times that the show feels a bit like a civics lesson, albeit an entertaining one. Fortunately the show gradually adds depth to the Republicans characters, writes Mandy out of the show, and adds in exposition more seamlessly as it goes on.
Key Episodes: In the Shadow of Two Gunmen; Shibboleth; Noel; Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail; 18th and Potomac; Two Cathedrals
Seasons two and three of The West Wing are two of the best seasons of any show. Season two especially ramps up the drama and characterizations. It builds on the successes of the first season while repairing most of its flaws.
The season opens by providing much needed backstory for the characters. After a shooting at the end of season one, a series of flashbacks tells the story about how the Bartlet team came together and won the Democratic Party’s nomination. The story is framed by the aftermath of the shooting, especially Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) fighting for his life after being critically wounded.
The events of the first episode, combined with the backstory within, bring a real feeling of momentum to the second season that wasn’t always there in the first season. The Bartlet presidency seems to be recovering from early missteps, that is until the end of the season.
Two Cathedrals might be the best episode of the entire series for a variety of reasons. The ticking timebomb of the Bartlet Administration is Jed Bartlet’s failure to disclose a potentially debilitating illness (Multiple Sclerosis) while he was running for president. Two Cathedrals centers on Bartlet struggling with the decision to weather the scandal and run for a second term or to accept defeat and announce that he will not run for reelection. His decision to run again in the face of overwhelming odds is subtle, but it is there at the end of the episode in a beautifully shot moment.
Key Episodes: Bartlet for America, The Two Bartlets, Night Five, Hartsfield’s Landing, Posse Comitatus
The first half of Season Three largely deals with Bartlet’s reponse to his revelation at the end of Season Two, but the show increasingly becomes about his reelection campaign. Meanwhile, at the end of the season he has to make a difficult decision – whether to assassinate a foreign leader who moonlights as a terrorist.
That’s just the plot. The best parts of season three involve deep-dives into the characters. Every member of the team gets examined in this season, the highlights being Bartlet for America, where we learn a lot more about Leo McGarry (John Spencer), and a stretch of episodes in the second half of the season that once again masterfully get inside the head of Bartlet himself.
Fittingly, season three ends on a Shakespearean note with a fantastic final episode. While the show would have its moments for the next four seasons, it would not again reach such heights.
Key Episodes: 20 Hours in America, College Kids, Game On, Holy Night, Inauguration, Twenty Five
Season four starts off strongly with a series of great episodes leading up to Bartlet’s re-election. I don’t even mind that his opponent is a bit of a lightweight – the show must go on after all and it’s clear the whole time that Bartlet is going to win. It’s compelling television how he gets there.
Although the first half of the season is compelling, the second half meanders a bit. After two and a half seasons dominated by the MS revelation and the re-election campaign, it loses focus. There aren’t any outright bad episodes, but every time I re-watch the series this is about the point where I lose momentum and would rather start over at the pilot than watch the next episode.
Although plenty have disagreed with me, I’m not a fan of the last couple of episodes either. I think this is where Sorkin started losing control of the narrative, and the whole “Zoey gets kidnapped” storyline feels like it would be better placed in an episode of Law and Order than The West Wing.
Key Episodes: The Stormy Present, Slow News Day, The Supremes, Access
Season five is by far the weakest season in the series. The key problem is that one creative force (Sorkin) was replaced by a dozen writers weaned on “patient of the week/case of the week/criminal of the week” dramas. While they try their best to weave the threads together, the fifth season feels like “political issue of the week.” There are unrealistic episodes (Toby saves Social Security), rushed episodes (let’s appoint two Supreme Court justices in an hour), and gimmicks (fake documentary starring CJ).
There are two redeeming qualities in the fifth season. The acting remains top notch. Although poor writing makes the characters say things that just sound wrong, they are still compelling to the audience. Episodes like “The Stormy Present” give interesting depth to the West Wing world by shedding light on the pre-Bartlet era. There are a couple of other strong episodes too, and strong moments in weak episodes throughout, so it’s still worth watching for the most part.
Key Episodes: King Corn, Freedonia, Things Fall Apart, 2162 Votes
The sixth season is better than the fifth season, but it doesn’t start out that way. The scenes inside the White House are starting to feel repetitive at this point, and the writers are still in “issue of the week” mode by and large.
The West Wing’s creative team did do something brilliant to turn the series around during the sixth season. It removed a year from the Bartlet Presidency (which I would argue fits between “Access” and “Talking Points” in season five), and brought us into the campaign for his successor. The narrative center of the show shifts from Jed Bartlet to Josh Lyman as Josh guides a long-shot presidential candidate, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) through the Democratic nomination process.
The campaign storyline injects new life and purpose into the West Wing, and the campaign episodes in season six are its best. Unlike the Bartlet reelection campaign, Santos has a worthy opponent in Republican nominee Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). For the first time since those re-election episodes, the show is filled with new life and purpose.
Key Episodes: The Debate, Duck and Cover, Welcome to Where Ever You Are, Election Day, Tomorrow
Season seven is the equal to seasons four and one, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of seasons two and three. Bartlet’s last days in office are punctuated by a nuclear meltdown, an international crisis, and the anxious wait for his successor. Smartly, the last season is condensed into about four months rather than matching up with the calendar like previous seasons. It’s mostly all election, all the time, pushed forward by strong performances by Smits, Alda, and Whitford.
One improvement from season six that I’d like to point out is in the characterization of Matt Santos. In the sixth season, his candidacy seems too unrealistic and out-there – he’s introduced to us as a three term congressman after all. His resume is fleshed out a bit in season seven with two terms as mayor of Houston, TX, a distinguished career as a Marine fighter pilot, a degree from the U.S. Naval Academy, and the ability to win the State of Texas for the Democratic Party (granted that’s trumped by Vinnick’s equally superhuman ability to win the State of California for the GOP).
The rare mis-step is the live debate episode. It’s in season five gimmick territory and I would rather have had a behind the scenes episode like season four’s excellent “Game On.” It’s interesting, but it can be easily skipped too.
Tragically, John Spencer passed away in the middle of production, so the writers had a difficult decision to make regarding the fate of his character. Fortunately it their solution was well handled and dramatically compelling. The last episodes in general can be described as such, and the last few scenes of “Tomorrow” are especially bittersweet.
Sometimes it seems like the American people want someone with magical powers in the White House. As a fictional creation, Jed Bartlet comes awfully close at times – but is human enough to keep us all interested. His America is a better place for having him lead it.
Will we ever have the opportunity to visit the West Wing universe again? I highly doubt it. It was likely a hard enough concept to sell the first time around and a sequel series would be met with unattainable expectations. Still, I wonder how Matt Santos did. If he got re-elected, his term would have ended in 2014 after all.
Ultimately we view our president through the clouded lens of our own hopes, fears, and political preferences. The man or woman who dares seek that job inevitably acquires a maddening combination of expectations they can never meet and blame for events they had no control over. The West Wing is essentially about a group of good people trying to do a good job in the face of both.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe