Sunday, December 28, 2008
**Warning- may contain spoilers**
After the nonstop excellence of the show's second season, "The West Wing" had a hell of a challenge ahead of it; surely nothing could compare to the bar set. But I learned not to sell Aaron Sorkin short, as he delivers yet another classic season of television.
The last season ended on a cliffhanger of sorts with the President poised to answer whether he would seek a second term. However, like all shows of the 2001-2002 season, "The West Wing" was impacted by the events of September 11th. Postponed a few weeks out of respect, the show returns not with a continuation of the story at hand but a special one-off episode written by Sorkin to address the issues that 9/11 brought up and to raise money for affiliated charities. The special, entitled "Isaac and Ishmael" revolves around a terrorist threat that locks down the White House while a group of specially selected students are touring. To keep them calm, Sam and the other staffers speak to the group about terrorists and what motivates them. As this goes on, Leo and the Secret Service confront a Muslim staffer...just to be safe I guess, because they figure out quickly that he's done nothing wrong.
I know what Sorkin wanted to accomplish with this episode, but it's heavy-handed and comes off like a PSA rather than an episode. Then again, at the time, I can understand why Sorkin was so blunt. I may be young, but I remember the hate, the unabashed open hatred of anyone who even "looked" Arab after 9/11. The message is clear to anyone remotely level-headed (and probably to the entire target audience of the "West Wing"), but Sorkin's insistence on trying to educate everyone makes it stifling.
However, once we really return to the season's canon with the second episode, things get right back on schedule. We learn that Jed Bartlet will indeed seek a second term, and he'll weather whatever Congress throws at him. The last season showed Bartlet and his administration trying to pass their legislature in a Republican-controlled Congress, and this season continues that by having the Republicans come down hard on Jed. My favorite aspect of this is that Sorkin never demonizes them for doing so; indeed, he lets both Jed and Abigail know that what they did was wrong, plain and simple, and they have no right to be outraged or indignant over their treatment.
The MS scandal finally concludes with a run of superb episodes, chief of which is "Bartlet for America," in which Leo testifies how long and how much he knew of the President's illness. I love the flashbacks for this series almost as much as I love the ones of the "Buffyverse;" they always offer such rich insight while remaining immediately entertaining.
In the wake of the huge MS arc, Sorkin needed something big to plug the gap, and he filled it with an explosion of new subplots. Apart from Bartlet gearing up for his re-election campaign, Josh hooks up with a feminist leader and the two constantly debate over legislature important to women, Sam gets duped by the Republican campaign into getting a negative ad on the Bartlet administration played on the news, and, most importantly, the United States must contend with the rising threat of a terrorist attack in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Qumar.
"Isaac and Ishmael" had a good concept but was clearly Sorkin's attempt to appeal to even the lowest common denominator to temper their outrage with contemplation. However, the ending Qumar arc is very much Sorkin working within the actual parameters of the show to deal with the subject of terrorism. A failed attack on the Golden Gate Bridge reveals that Qumar's ambassador to the United States is actually a terrorist organizer, which puts more pressure on President Bartlet than ever before. He and his chiefs of staff debate on how to handle the situation, but eventually only one course of action becomes feasible: they must assassinate the ambassador.
Everything comes to a head in the astounding season finale "Posse Comitatus." As with last season's "Two Cathedrals," it manages to both tie up loose ends and spark a whole new wave of interest. After meeting his Republican opponent, Bartlet vows with increased vigor to win his re-election, while CJ's budding romance with her Secret Service bodyguard is cruelly cut short. The assassination itself sets up a big question for the next season: how will Qumar respond?
When it comes to season finales, I think I'd have to put Sorkin just behind Joss Whedon as the best writer. So far all three season finales have been among the best the show has to offer, and some of the best TV around. Even the first season's big cliffhanger earned its suspense. While I tend to pick the finales out more than anything else, I don't think the actual bulk of the season is weak; on the contrary, it continues the last season's trend of thorough excellence, to the point that picking highlights from the middle is hard. Special mentions would have to go to the aforementioned "Bartlet For America," as well as "The Two Bartlets" and "Hartsfield Landing," in which Jed must come to terms with his abusive childhood, mainly because Toby brings it out of him.
The big weakness this season is the Republican candidate, Florida Governor Robert Ritchie. Clearly a parody of George W. Bush, Ritchie is the anti-intellectual candidate, establishing himself as the opposite of the "elitist" Bartlet. Sorkin fleshed out a number of Republican characters in the course of the show, but Ritchie is so one-note as to be painful. He's just setting this up to be the 2000 election the way Sorkin wanted it to turn out.
Ritchie serves to get in a bunch of jabs at Bush. "Why would they pick him when there are so many qualified Republicans to choose?" ponders Bartlet aloud. Ritchie challenges Bartlet to a clean campaign (even though Bartlet has run all of his campaigns so) only to start throwing out loads of dirty tricks. Look, I don't like Bush either, and I know the "The West Wing" has a liberal bias, but I expect something a bit subtler. Frankly it doesn't even make sense why the Republicans would run Ritchie as the folksy, relatable candidate when Bartlet is so immediately likable. Take the exchange between Charlie and Jed when Jed helps him with his taxes; when Charlie discovers he actually owes money instead of getting a refund, Jed just smiles, holds out his hand, and tells him "you don't even need a stamp. Pay up." He doesn't need to manufacture an image of relatability; he simply is.
Thankfully Ritchie stays in the background - he only appears in one episode- and the focus is more on the staff convincing Bartlet to run as himself and not what he thinks he should be to fight Ritchie. Combined with the rest of the season's predicaments, it makes for another thrill ride of issues and scandal that kept me on the edge of my seat. It's not quite as powerful as the last season, but its still superb.