Monday, February 16, 2009

The West Wing — Season 4

[Warning -- contains spoilers for the last season and possible minor spoilers for this one]

Well, nothing is forever, I suppose. After an ever-so-slightly flawed first season and two of the finest seasons of television I've ever watched, The West Wing finally slipped a bit. Oh, it's still heads-and-shoulders above 98% of any TV that was airing at the time or indeed has ever aired, but Sorkin finally got carried away with himself with one too many flights of fancy. The fourth season of his transcendent show still flirts with the high-water marks of past seasons, it sadly marks a slide into the merely above-average.

The third season ended with the overflow of goings-on that was "Posse Comitatus," in which the possibility of a new beau for C.J. was tragically cut short, Bartlet had a mini-battle of wits with Governor Ritchie, Charlie pushed wacky-but-likable Deborah Fiderer (Lily Tomlin) as Mrs. Landingham's replacement, and the President relucantly decided to assassinate the Qumari ambassador for his involvement in terrorist activities. That's a lot to handle, but unfortunately Sorkin decided to just move on from the death of Simon Donovan without ever really showing C.J. deal with it in order to make room for Qumar and the re-election campaign. I guess the message there is that life goes on.

Nevertheless, the season gets underway in style with the uproarious and insightful two-parter "Bartlet For America," in which Josh, Donna and Toby find themselves trapped in the middle of Podunksville, America after the motorcade leaves without them. It leads to some more flashbacks of characters dwelling on what brought them to Bartlet, and the present-day scenes are filled with some of the shows best gags and one-liners. It's an auspicious start to follow up on a killer season finale.

Then things go awry for a bit. Because Sorkin makes Governor Ritchie out to be a two-dimensional chimp of a man, we know he doesn't stand a ghost of a chance (yes, I know that such a character ran the real world for 8 years, but since the show never brings up mass corruption and cronyism I know Ritchie had no shot). Nevertheless, we have to sit through 7 episodes of "suspense" as somehow Ritchie pulls ahead even in Bartlet's home state, New Hampshire, which is too ridiculous for words. We're really not given any concrete reasons for Ritchie being popular with anyone, much less posing a threat to a wildly popular incumbent, but you have to have some conflict, I guess.

Ritchie of course loses and things start to pick up for the most part. With such a terrible character gone, things can't help but look up. Sadly, the next few episodes fail to capitalize on the momentum of Bartlet's win and the characters even mention how they're just basking in the victory for the moment. That's great guys, but what about the terrorists? Even the Christmas episode doesn't stand up to the previous installments; "Holy Night" introduces Toby's father, who used to be a hitman for the mob, because hey, why not? It also introduces one of the worst characters I've ever seen distract me from an otherwise great show: Zoey Bartlet's new French boyfriend.

Now, I don't remember his name because I simply don't care, but I'm willing to wage money that it's Pierre, Jacques, Jean-Paul, or (if Sorkin just went all out) Jean-Pierre. Hang on, Wikipedia tells me his name is Jean-Paul. Of course it is. Jean-Paul belongs on that list of characters like Jasmine in Angel or Pyz in Veronica Mars, the forced foil to established characters that never quite fits with those characters and instead just wanders around sucking the life-force from the screen. JP fills the role for Charlie, who separated from Zoey for reasons we're never told, as he somehow finds himself in the White House constantly, ostensibly for no other reason than to taunt Charlie because he's tapping that now. Eventually he brings about a terrible event for the Bartlet family, so I can only pray that when I pop in the first disc of Season 5 it shows his body being cremated by Secret Service officials.

Things pick up, funnily enough, with an episode that has almost nothing to do with politics. In "The Long Goodbye," C.J. returns home to see her Alzheimer's-stricken father and must decide how to handle the situation. It's heartbreaking and real, even if the actor playing the father slips in and out of the real symptoms of someone in the advanced stages of the disease (and trust me, I know). From there the show picks up to the same level of quality it enjoyed in past seasons, as the the Bartlet administration must handle a crisis in the fictional Kundu. We also meet Will Bailey, a marvelous character who essentially swaps places with Sam Seaborn when Sam promises Will he'll run for the House in Orange County. Will has a lot on his plate when he arrives at the White House and becomes Toby's direct subordinate on the basis of his skill; in protest of this promotion, the writing staff up and quits, leaving Will in charge of four bubbly look-alike interns, three of whom are all named Lauren.

The finest of these late game pre-finale shows is "Evidence of Things Not Seen," a gripping hour of television where the White House literally comes under fire. The Qumari threat has been bubbling under the surface all season long, but it finally begins to genuinely show itself in the confusion of the small attack. Did the Qumaris fire the shots, or was it just some wannabe anarchist? It all culminates in the usual stellar two-part finale; "Commencement" is one long thriller, unsettling somehow even from the start even though it opens with the President's elation that his daughter is graduating college and that he gets to give the address. Zoey goes to a party afterwards with Jean-Paul, and things go terribly, terribly wrong. An event occurs that is so shocking that Bartlet makes a shattering decision in the follow-up, "Twenty-Five," easily one of the top three episodes of the show so far.

For all my criticisms of this season, even at its weakest moments it contains enough to Sorkin's wit to make it entertaining, even if the plots get just too ridiculous at times. But the sheer two-dimensionality of Ritchie and Jean-Paul grates, and once again Sorkin just flat out declines to explain where peripheral characters go. Near the end of the season Josh and Donna pick a new Associate White House Counsel, who eventually uncovers a scandal. But far more interesting than that was the fact that Josh and Donna mention that the man, a Republican, was the perfect replacement for Ainsley Hayes. I didn't even know Ainsley Hayes had left! I understand that Sorkin wrote every last one of these first 88 episodes, but swallow your pride and hire other people if you can't keep track of things.

Nevertheless, this is a damn good season of TV, and a bit of a watershed moment. After this season, Sorkin and executive producer Thomas Schlamme departed the show citing difficulties with the studio. Without its two dominant runners behind the show, The West Wing fell into the hands of E.R. producer John Wells, a move that I've widely read meant the end of the show's status as a must-watch, but I'll just have to wait and see. But whatever happens after this will hardly dent my love for these first four seasons, even this occasionally tedious one. For my money both "Commencement" and "Twenty-Five" belong on the short list of the show's greatest episodes, and "Evidence of Things Not Seen" and the two-part premiere belong somewhere on that list as well. Now I must brace myself to see what new direction the show will take.

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