Sunday, May 23, 2010

The West Wing — Season 5

In all fairness to John Wells, the executive producer/showrunner of ER whose production company launched The West Wing, no one could have taken over for Aaron Sorkin after he and director Thomas Schlamme acrimoniously departed the series at the end of its fourth season. Now, the idea that Sorkin, who placed his name (and usually only his name) on 85 of the first four seasons' 88 episodes, really was the exclusive writer is horseshit. However, even if he really did, Sorkin's biggest impact on those who would have to fill his shoes came in the form of the previous season's finale, a grandiose, gripping cliffhanger that plunged the show into an emotional and political mire that posed a number of deep conundrums between the necessity for the leaders of state to be objective and reasoned and their status as actual human beings, subject to fear, rashness and, most importantly, potentially compromised by human connections.

With Bartlet invoking the 25th Amendment in the wake of his youngest daughter's kidnapping, the president surrendered his position in order to divorce his personal reactions from the power afforded to the leader of the country. It was a humbling display of civic responsibility and personal willpower, even for a fictional character, and with Republican Glenn Allen Walken (John Goodman) immediately taking control, Sorkin ran out of the White House cackling to himself, placing our beloved fake president at the end of his wits, forcing the country to handle a terror attack (and thus raising issues of America's culpability for its covert ops) and even saddling the staffers with a dyed-in-the-wool conservative to add insult to injury. You could practically hear him shout, "Deal with this, fuckers!" as the credits ran.

So, how does Wells, his new head director Alex Graves, and the whole West Wing cast and crew deal with Zoey's kidnapping and the myriad of issues it raised? Why, they solve everything in two episodes. Oh, boy. Narratively, these two episodes are fairly taut, maintaining the tension of the situation as a far more hawkish leader considers which target to annihilate in response to the kidnapping, even if a fast retaliation could get Zoey killed. But even in these strong openers, the seeds for the season's downgrading present themselves: obviously The West Wing is a politically oriented show, but the sight of Toby and Josh launching immediately into political scheming to combat their fears of what Walken might do if the situation drags on robs both of a baseline of humanity that they'd previously shown. For the rest of the season, both characters stretch their always outspoken political concerns and machinations into garish shapes; Wells actually makes the Republicans out to be both morally and intellectually superior to Josh and Toby by refusing to campaign on the perception of Bartlet as too weak to govern out of respect and simple pragmatism (assaulting a man whose daughter just got kidnapped would sink a platform faster than video of a sexual affair).

Perhaps Wells meant that, however, as the fifth season moves away from Sorkin's unabashed liberal optimism into the murky waters of bipartisanship. That shift makes the political angle of show more realistic than ever, and more attuned to the current climate, but Wells uses simple compromise ostensibly to solve major ideological issues. By mixing Republican and Democratic ideas, The West Wing "fixes" Social Security, finds a way to nominate highly partisan Supreme Court justices without watering down experience and passion in favor of safe picks and compares the burst-bubble recession to a bagel for facile explanation and solution proposals.

One could certainly argue for the need for moderation in government, but if just rule simply meant the combination of semi-opposing ideas, wouldn't we have figured everything out by now? Say what you will about the inefficiency of Congress, but I cannot imagine that pure stubbornness could have sustained a system that refused to progress for the sake of saving face beyond a decade (well, maybe two). As we can see now, bipartisanship too often waters down legislation, packing bills so full of concessions that potentially major reform is reduced to something scarcely distinguishable from the current system. This change in the show's tone clashes openly with its own previous aversion to bipartisan politics, with Bartlet's assertion that intense debate produced better leadership than instant compromise. After a time, I began to even soften toward Toby and Josh's hard line against even considering the other side, arrogant as it was, because it showed a backbone the rest of the season lacked. Consider that episode involving the Supreme Court nominations: as easy, too easy, as its solution was, "The Supremes" was easily the most Sorkin-esque episode of the season because it showed two highly opinionated judges bettering their arguments and deepening their mutual respect through constant bickering.

Everything else, though, is too simplified. Within the context of the rest of the fourth season, Zoey's kidnapping prompted an examination of this country's indignation at action taken against us in response to economic and military forces we use to hobble or fund various regimes. Quite rightly, Americans responded to 9/11 with anger, but the question of why we were attacked quickly disappeared with assurances that our "freedom" inspired hatred instead of lingering Cold War foreign politics that place troops and influence where indigenous populations don't want it. I do not expect a television drama to get to the heart of our tangled foreign policy, but Wells frustrates by broaching the subject that America has brought this action on itself and that sovereign nations have a right to defend themselves regardless of their diplomacy toward this country, only to undercut it by portraying our desire for revenge as not just understandable (which it is) but justified. Bartlet's somber quoting of Dr. King about the vicious cycle of violence does not gel with his routine threats of force throughout the season, and too much of the season's focus on the War on Terror tries to have its cake and eat it too, indulging our anger while arguing at the last second for reason.

The season's greatest weakness, however, simply stems from Sorkin's departure. The dialogue lacks much of his wit; lines are still funny, but the rapid-fire hilarity of yore has given way to sporadic chuckles. Only Bartlet's interactions with Abbey and Charlie retain their amusement, while everyone else sounds as if the characters themselves are trying to sound like they used to. They become synopses of themselves, little more than the sum of past characteristics without development and maturity. This can be seen most nakedly in the season's, if not the show's, nadir: "Access." A C.J.-centric episode structured as a news documentary, "Access" serves as a sort-of "greatest hits" for one of the series' most interesting characters, presenting aspects of her we already knew through the emotionally distancing filter of a narrated documentary. Its plot seems to have been cobbled together in retrospect -- undermining its fleeting sense of immediacy at the end by justifying the impossibility of the cameras capturing secret meetings in a time of crisis by "airing" the doc years later -- but the episode's biggest failure is to condense the weakness of character writing into a dense chunk of regression and stunted emotion.

Still, The West Wing does not become truly bad in its fifth season, merely...average. Take out the setup of Zoey's kidnapping and this could have been the show's first season. It certainly plays like one, more so than the deeper, fleshed-out season that introduced the series and its characters. Most episodes are enjoyable, if forgettable, and a few even rank among the series' better moments ("The Supremes," the two-part episode concerning the shutdown of the federal government over an impasse). But its admirable quest to reach across the aisle fails in the face of Wells' simplification of issues and, frankly, of Republicans, who are still portrayed mostly as self-serving, war-hungry madmen (Walken appeared to be a professional, severe man at the end of the last season, only to be shown to be a goofy hawk who insists on bringing his dog everywhere). Overall, I enjoyed the season, but I felt like I lost whatever shred of political idealism the real world hadn't already purged out of me when Josh Lyman stepped out of a vehicle to scream at the Capitol building.


  1. You're a lot kinder to this season than I am. I remember really disliking this season because Welles' need to make the White House like the emergency room in "ER". He failed to understand that these characters were interesting because of their singularity. Toby has always been my favorite character, and his dialogue and character really suffered when Sorkin left (I think Sorkin liked Toby and Josh -- which is no surprise since Whitford has always been a kind of avatar for Sorkin -- more than Wells did). However, I think CJ really came into her own during Wells' tenure, and her character -- since Toby is pretty much marginalized in the final three seasons -- is the most interesting thing about the Wells years, and one of the only reasons I stuck through season 5.

    I don't know if you've seen the last two seasons (I don't want to spoil anything for you), but the Republican bashing thankfully takes a break as Alan Alda becomes the Republican candidate for the presidency, and his character -- and his interactions with his staff over what he should be campaigning on -- is the best thing about the final seasons. It's sad, though, because Wells inserts a lot of his "ER" formula into the relationships aroud the White House staff, thus making them (sans CJ and Charlie) the least interesting thing in the final seasons; however, the campaign stuff with Alda and Jimmy Smits (and the breakdown of Josh who shines during the episodes concerning the campaign) is really, really good, and almost makes one forget about the atrocious fifth season.

    Great review. Have you reviewed previous seasons? Are you going to do subsequent seasons?

  2. Thanks Kevin. I have indeed reviewed previous seasons, though I did so when I first started the blog (I received the complete series two Christmases ago and fell behind for about a year) and I'd like to revise at least a few of them.

    I haven't seen the rest of the series, but I know how it unfolds and I shall be curious to see how the shift in focus works. As it is, this season kind of hobbled the idea of staying in the White House anyway (it's like the show itself became a lame duck even though the characters worked harder than ever to get stuff done). Still, I found enough to enjoy about the season to at least have kept going at a moderate pace with it, but this used to be can't-put-down TV for me when I went through the first seasons. I forgot to even mention that I don't know what to make of the new vice president, because they make him both goofy like Quayle and scheming like Bush I or Nixon but they still present him as kind of good. I love Gary Cole, but he seemed to be as confused about his role as I was.

  3. Several months back, I decided I'd start chipping away at a second complete tour through the West Wing series. Or at least a tour through the first five seasons. Alas, last night I got around to "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" ... I'm not even through the first season.

    It doesn't help that Season One is in many ways its most painful -- probably not as it was unfolding but after the best seasons of 2-4, if memory serves, in which the series found a groove. (Aside: I realize this is the case for almost all shows. It takes a season to find your identity and strengths. An in the case of The West Wing that meant taking a full season to realize that Moira Kelly's Mandy is one of the most annoying characters of any long-running show. But I digress.)

    My rough memories of Season 5 are like yours: it's still enjoyable, even if it starts running away from what it had been. We can knock the series for heading in the ER direction, but we also can't ignore that in its prime ER was some damn compelling drama. So, yeah, it switched identities, but it was still interesting. For me, the hardest part of the season is dealing with so much John Goodman, an actor I've never really cared for outside of his role on Roseanne. But I digress again.

    Personally, I love that the Zooey kidnapping is resolved within two episodes. Anything more would have seemed silly. The way it's written, the kidnappers come up with a good plan to nab her and get a little bit lucky on top of that, but then they're out of their league, which strikes me as pretty realistic. Committing big crimes like that isn't all that hard. It's getting away with them. (Aside: I work not too far from the restaurant where the kidnapper finds himself surrounded in the parking lot. I always think of that scene when I see it. That's digression No. 3.)

    Anyway, I think you're right: Sorkin really guides them there. And even if it isn't aligned with the show's spirit, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with three more thrilling consecutive episodes than those (finale of 4 and first two of 5). Again, if memory serves.

  4. While I enjoyed the early seasons of the West Wing, the fifth season was a disappointment and when I gave up on it. I suppose all shows have their high water mark and then an eventual denouement, and the fifth season is what that is for me.

  5. I'm a little late to the game party here, but for my money, Season 2, far and away, was the best, and the final episode of Season 2, "Two Cathdrals", was the best thing I've ever seen, on TV, in movies, on the stage....anywhere. For me, it was totally engrossing. I was never so riveted in my life. Spine tingling writing that didn't treat you like a Moran. Wow. That was different. About
    Politics (which I had a career in). With a story that had many similarities to personal experience of mine. Aside from being good, it resonated deeply with me.

    Also, generally, aside from the loss Sorkin , which was obviously devastating, don't count out the loss of Rob Lowe. Sam was the most interesting compelling character IMO. Lowe nailed it. It even makes me forgive him for wrecking "The Hotel New Hampshire", although some of that has gotta be on the decision to put the incredibly beautiful Nastasia Kinsky in a friggen bear suit. Canman

  6. Good review, thank you. It's appreciated. I'm a fan of Sorkin's writing and have enjoyed revisiting the West Wing (via Netflix streaming), if just for the first five seasons. The above reference to Sorkin's "take that fuckers" moment is hilarious, and probably true, as the fifth season sees the show's characters begin to act unlike themselves as we have grown to know them under Sorkin's writing - simply put, the show begins to fall apart and It's where I stopped watching the show.

    The fifth season sees Sorkin's wit and occasional grandstanding absent, as is the rapid-fire dialogue and vague references peppered in every other sentence. I watched the show because it not only brought up a number of subjects that I would later research out of curiosity (congressional censure, and Tammany Hall are two examples...yes I actually learned things from the show), but I primarily watched it because of Sorkin's very pointed and optimistic view of federal government as an instrument of good. I am a progressive/liberal who sees the role of government as a potential force of good, but only if it is involves everyone, not just the inside-the-beltway elite. The first four seasons of the show embodied that philosophy and each character drew upon it. Josh, Toby, C.J. and especially Sam and the President embodied this optimism, despite the massive bureaucracy that is government. The ideal is still held high, despite the clumsy machinations of the system itself.

    Sorkin's optimism that we can do better, that we can raise up instead of sinking to the lowest common denominator, is the kind of belief we need more of ("We are going to raise the level of public debate in this country"). He continues this optimism throughout Studio 60, where a new network chief decides to raise the level of television content to a higher standard. Again, Sorkin promotes the same idea in The Newsroom. It's his passion, raising the level of discourse, and he tries to do so in many of his projects. Sadly, his departure from the West Wing took that optimism away from the characters, leaving a void that was filled with writing typical of more traditional prime-time network drama.