The Winter of Discontent – West Wing Season 5

As I’ve mentioned before, we spent the summer rewatching The West Wing from start to finish.  That marathon ended a few weeks ago and I’ve been neglectful about sharing further thoughts on this epic journey of television drama.  It seems appropriate then to return to the subject on the 45th anniversary of the debut of another classic NBC program some of you may be familiar with – Star Trek.  There is even a touch of synergy to the two in that the only appearance on TWW by a regular member of a Star Trek series cast in fact took place in Season 5.  Think about that for a moment (no running to Wikipedia to check) and I’ll reveal it at the end.

John Wells is no slouch, but even he had to be scratching his head as to how to resolve the conundrum Aaron Sorkin left him in the fourth-season finale, Twenty-Five.  Zoey Bartlet was a hostage to terrorists, President Bartlet had stepped aside and conservative Republican Speaker Glen Allen Walken was now Acting President.  I can picture Wells nursing a scotch, staring at a blank screen with a cursor blinking and hurling a stream of profanity at it.  Equally disorienting is the experience of watching the fifth-season premiere, 7A WF 83429.  The teaser begins with whip-pans, quick cuts, distorted sounds and images (such visual trickery becoming the trademark of director Alex Graves) and the audience desperate for a glimpse of the friends they’ve missed since the end of season 4.  When you do see them finally, they are disheveled, in darkness, as lost as we are without the familiarity of Aaron Sorkin’s keyboard behind the scenes.  Wells did the best he could, and the episode does have some beautiful moments – the ending montage set to Lisa Gerrard’s “Sanvean” in particular – but things just aren’t right.  I said earlier today that watching the post-Sorkin West Wing is like going back to your favorite restaurant, saying hello to your favorite waitress, settling into your usual table, reaching for the menu and finding out they’ve changed chefs.

It’s tough to say for certain, but Sorkin seemed to take great care in ensuring that characters behaved consistently from one episode to the next.  You get the sense in many of the season 5 stories that characters who would habitually go left were being wrenched right (no political pun intended) to serve the demands of the plot.  Would the Leo McGarry who saved Josh Lyman from being fired in the pilot and told him “as long as I’ve got a job, you’ve got a job” in Season 2’s Noel really strip Josh of his legislative portfolio and cut him out of the loop as he did in the three-episode arc that followed Constituency of One?  Would Leo really be willing to walk from Jed’s side to defend some other guy – supposedly his real best friend, whom we’ve never seen or heard about before – in An Khe?  Would the Bartlet administration, who had shown such hope and confidence in NASA in Galileo really become utterly disdainful of them in The Warfare of Genghis Khan?  And how in the name of all that is holy did Congressman Robert Royce of Pennsylvania from Season 3 suddenly become Senate Majority Leader in Jefferson Lives?  (I blame a casting mishap on that one – I’m guessing that the “Majority Leader” character was written with no one in mind, H. Richard Greene was cast before anyone remembered he’d already played this other role, and the character was then named Royce in a bit of retroactive continuity.)  Still, this lack of internal consistency in Season 5, an unfortunate side effect of a dozen writers working on it instead of only one, only adds to the discomfort we feel in watching it.  These people don’t feel like our friends anymore.  They’ve changed, man.

Ultimately, Season 5 was when The West Wing went from masterpiece to just a pretty good show.  And yet there was one standout gem of an episode that just for its 43 minutes made one hope that the magic could be recaptured.  I’m referring of course, to the fake documentary episode Access.  JUST KIDDING!  Heavens no.  That well-meaning misfire is best left forgotten.  I’m referring to Debora Cahn’s award-winning The Supremes.  The elderly liberal Chief Justice is ailing, a young conservative judge on the Supreme Court has died, and the White House is besieged on all sides as they attempt to choose a replacement who can survive the Senate confirmation process.  In what had to have been one of the most expensive guest casts for a single episode of television in history, Glenn Close, William Fichtner, Mitchell Ryan, Milo O’Shea and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Doctor, Robert Picardo, all lend their dramatic talents to what turns out to be a funny, erudite, wholly implausible but inspiring and thoroughly entertaining romp – ending with a scene of standing ovation that we want to join in with.  While the nitpicker in me bemoans the absence of even a mention of Season 1’s Justice Mendoza (with all those other guest stars they surely couldn’t afford Edward James Olmos as well), the episode is a little helping of vindication for those of us who stayed with The West Wing, lending some hope that all was indeed not lost.  Those beloved characters felt like our friends again.

Ironically, Season 5 would be the last time The West Wing would operate as originally intended.  Season 6, which I’ll get into at another time, saw old friends change jobs, new characters enter the picture and the thrust of the show become not the administration of President Bartlet but the race to replace him – with several episodes in the latter half of the season taking place not anywhere near the White House.  For me, the final word on Season 5 – and there could be more, but I’m trying to keep it under 1000 words – is best paraphrased from Toby’s pronouncement on Bartlet’s new Vice-President, Bob Russell.  It wasn’t the best, it wasn’t the worst, it was just what we were stuck with.

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