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.