Has history been a bit unkind to “The West Wing”?
We’re talking about a show that won the decade’s first four Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series and probably even deserved two or three of those wins.
Yet “The West Wing” has been missing from many of my favorite critics’ Best of the Decade lists, or pushed down towards the bottom in favor of sexier, edgier, cable-ier alternatives. This list obviously isn’t immune, as I had “The West Wing” in my Top 10 for a long time before talking myself out of it at the last second.
The greatest crime that “The West Wing” committed, to my mind, was starting off its run so tremendously and then becoming average (Dale Murphy isn’t in baseball’s Hall of Fame for the same reason). Because of that early excellence, the show’s averageness felt like a horrible violation and people (both critics and audiences) turned on the show.
Looking back on “The West Wing,” more than three-and-a-half years after its finale, it’s easy to see enough greatness in those first three seasons, plus the underappreciated sixth season, for me to place the White House drama at No. 11 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
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Created by Aaron Sorkin and airing its first 10 episodes in 1999, “The West Wing” was like an intermediate lesson in politics for School House Rock generation. Those Gen Xers knew how a bill becomes a law, but here was an introduction to all of the variably recognized staffers who push the agendas, broker the deals and keep government moving. They also attended state dinners, observed arcane Beltway traditions and fought with their own consciences and their own ideologies. And they did it with Aaron Sorkin’s sparkling repartee, which would forever spoil us all for every future politician and government functionary. The people in Jed Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) inner circle were so smart and so funny and so idealistic that we dreamed our own public servants might be half as driven and half as clever.
“The West Wing” premiered at the end of the Clinton Administration, when the dreams of that White House had already been tempered by seven years of cut corners, dead-end compromises and door-slamming scandals. The show already dreamed of a better way of doing business in Washington. Then, in November of 2000, more than half of the voting population was left feeling that America’s version of democracy had failed them. And again, “The West Wing” was there to provide almost a shadow government. When the terrorists attacked on 9/11/01, the Bartlett Administration had to temporarily transition into the real world, and while “Isaac and Ishmael” was preachy and didactic and rushed, this writer isn’t going to criticize Sorkin for being one of the few small screen maestros to stare down the tragedy and attempt to provoke conversation.
Then “The West Wing” went back into its fictional world, which was where we liked it best and where it best served one side of the political spectrum. “The West Wing” was a liberal fantasy. Nobody would argue with that. And in the early going, especially in the pilot, Republicans were treated in a cartoonish manner. Sorkin got better and occasionally found ways to introduce right-leaning tokens to spur debate. Even if they were acknowledged as tokens within the show, Emily Procter’s Ainsley Hayes and, in his couple appearances, Matthew Perry’s Joe Quincy added to the level of the debate, which otherwise tended to be a dialogue between the left and the far left. Since the debate in the real world was mostly between the right and the far right, “The West Wing” was a voice that otherwise might have gone unheard (and still went unheeded). And “The West Wing” was popular enough in the beginning that it obviously wasn’t only Lefties watching, which probably means that good writing and acting and directing aren’t merely entertaining to supporters of a single party.
For at least two seasons, “The West Wing” was a remarkable place to spend an hour each week. The show’s run in The Aughts began with “Lord John Marbury,” introducing Roger Rees as one of the show’s many wonderful recurring characters, and went on to include such classics as “Take Out the Trash Day,” “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet” and the relatively shocking first season finale. The second season, while occasionally bogged down in hole Sorkin dug himself with Bartlet M.S., hit an amazing peak toward the end with “The Stackhouse Filibuster” and the devastating double of “18th and Potomac” and “Two Cathedrals,” which was one of several times Sorkin sent viewers scurrying online to learn Latin.
“The West Wing” assembled one of TV’s all-time best ensemble casts. Sheen and Rob Lowe were positioned as the early standouts, but there proved not to be any weak links in the assortment of familiar faces (Allison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff) and relatively newcomers (Dule Hill, Janel Moloney and Elisabeth Moss). And it was a true ensemble. Not only did Sorkin rarely lose track of characters, but he instituted a seeming tradition wherein he wrote an annual Emmy episode for each male member of the supporting cast, leading to wins for Schiff in 2000, Whitford in 2001 and Spencer in 2002.
When attempting to praise their shows, TV actors have a favorite cliche that makes TV critics cringe: It’s like making a movie every week. But with the core cast and a new-ending rotation of recognizable guest stars, all put through the paces by Thomas Schlamme and the directors who emulated his walk-and-talk style and the handsome lensing of Thomas Del Ruth, “The West Wing” came close to that movie-every-week promise.
Then, in the spring of 2003, The Bad Thing happened. Sorkin exited the show and left it in the hands of executive producer John Wells. “The West Wing” went away in May of 2003 and when it returned in September, nobody talked the way they did before. Bartlet didn’t sound as erudite. Josh and Donna didn’t flirt with the same wit. Leo’s bluster was more indignant and less righteously indignant. Journalists weren’t about to let viewers forget that something was different, but it wasn’t like the change could have gone unnoticed.
In their haste to justifiably tear into the depressingly anonymous fifth season, the first year of the John Wells administration, people are oddly generous to Sorkin’s fourth season. Not only did Sorkin dig the show deeply into a another hole with the Zoey Gets Kidnapped and John Goodman Becomes President arc (Goodman’s path to the monarchy in “King Ralph” was smoother), but he blundered what ought to have been the key arc of the entire series in Bartlet’s reelection. Rather than staging some sort of meaningful fictional political referendum, Sorkin punted the reelection by having Bartlet face off against a brain-dead Republican (played by James Brolin) who failed to instigate any debate and was only there to provide our president with a few big “Aw, snap!” moments. “The West Wing” was not crushed by the transition from Sorkin to Non-Sorkin. Team Non-Sorkin was just left in the difficult position of digging out. That they did so without any real inspiration wasn’t surprising. That they did so at all was impressive.
Creative salvation arrived in Season Six, specifically in the episode “Liftoff,” with the first appearance of Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos. Allegedly based on Barack Obama (but who cares whether or not that’s true), Santos was the catalyst behind a season long look at the primary process. Santos was joined by Alan Alda’s Republican Senator Arnold Vinick in “In the Room” and the two men spent the rest of the season showing the journey and compromises that a candidate has to take to even earn a party nomination. The remainder of the season was as serious and interesting and in-depth a look at American politics as “The West Wing” ever took. It almost makes me sad to think of how great the season could have been with somebody else setting the structure and Sorkin coming in to contribute the dialogue.
Paired against each other in the Season Seven election, Santos and Vinick were a bit less engaging, but they still allowed for “The West Wing” to achieve a finale, with Bartlet leaving the White House and a new president arriving for duty. What Wells and company did in those last two years was bring a dose of realism to Sorkin’s fairy tale Washington.
When “The West Wing” was at its heights, the networks made several attempts to capitalize on what was perceived as a newfound fascination with civics. Thought shows like “Citizen Baines” and “Mister Sterling” and “The Court” and “First Monday” and “Commander in Chief” took bits of the show’s formula (and, in some cases, pieces of its creative team), what Sorkin and Schlamme brought to the table from the beginning wasn’t reproducible.
Unfortunately, in the show’s absence, nothing has appeared to fill the void in the political discourse. So we’ll just throw in our DVDs from those early seasons and they’ll give a reminder of why “The West Wing” is No. 11 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? Carl Weathers jokes, “Star Wars” references and family embarrassment.