Tag Archives: Jed Bartlet

The lasting lesson of The West Wing

The first time I saw The West Wing, I was in bed with a bad cold over the Christmas holidays.  Bravo was running a third-season marathon and while I’d never paid much attention to the show before, for whatever reason (sluggish, cold med-induced trance perhaps) my finger slipped off the remote as Josh and Donna bantered along through the hallways.  It wasn’t two minutes before I was hooked – I had never seen television characters interact like this before, bantering back and forth with sparkling, witty repartee that actually rewarded you for keeping your brain engaged while you were watching (as opposed to almost pleading that you turn it off).  After spending the subsequent seven years evolving into whatever the Trekkie-equivalent of a West Wing fan is (Wingnut?  Westie?) I look back on the role it played at a transitional time of my life in helping to shape my worldview – already pretty liberal, I was still missing a critical element of the equation.  I could never really say why I was a liberal, I just felt more at home in the liberal tent, and progressively disinclined at a gut level towards anything remotely conservative.  The West Wing crystallized it for me.

The missing ingredient was the power of people – that famous quotation attributed to Margaret Mead that cautions us to never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world, as it is the only thing that ever has.  One of the challenges to anyone’s governing philosophy is deciding which side of that famous dichotomy you sit on – the nature of mankind, whether he is by nature basically good, or basically evil.  Whether altruism and compassion are our natural state, or if we’re all fundamentally John Galts out for number one alone.  You can find plenty of arguments for and against in the animal kingdom, whether it’s in watching a pride of lions leaving their weakest members behind to the hyenas, or in seeing a herd of elephants gather to bury and mourn their dead.  Yet those same lions will tend lovingly to their cubs, and those same elephants will battle each other with their mighty tusks to win the favour of the most comely pachyderm.  As human beings we are poised so delicately on the razor edge of that question, crawling along it like the snail Colonel Kurtz rambles about in Apocalypse Now (even he calls it both his dream and his nightmare).  We want so much to be the good man that we fight ceaselessly from slipping over the other side.  When there are a lot of us gathered together in that fight, we can do some pretty damned incredible things.

In Canada, the CTS network is showing West Wing reruns nightly.  CTS is including segments in each act break called “West Wing Attaché,” where a right-leaning media personality provides “balance” (I suppose that’s what they call it, he sniffed derisively) to the ideas the episode is putting forward.  The comments offered thus far have been predictably insipid.  There has been a question asked many times in many Internet forums over the years as to why there was never a show about the Presidency produced from a Republican or more general right-wing perspective.  The answer to that one is easy – because conservatives at heart do not believe in government.  To them it’s a nuisance that gets in the way of people making money and living their lives.  It is impossible to have a workplace drama where the characters in that workplace don’t believe in what they’re doing, and more to the point, are seeking to dismantle the very structure that provides them employment.  Would ER work if the doctors were always looking for a way to reduce services and ultimately close down the hospital?  Would Star Trek work if Captain Kirk thought the Enterprise was a bloated waste of tax dollars and his five-year mission better handled by private contractors?  Closer to home, you probably know at least one guy in your office who hates being there and bitches constantly about how the whole organization is a joke.  How much time do you enjoy spending around that dude?  (As an aside, this is why I always laugh – and cry a bit – watching conservatives campaign for office, as they claim government is terrible and evil and horrible and ghastly but they want to be in it anyway.  I’d like to try this approach the next time I interview for a job:  “Well, I feel that your company should be reduced in size and finally dismantled because it is a grotesque blight on the cause of personal freedom.  Hire me please.”  The crying is for how often this pitch works at election time.)  CTS doesn’t mind the ad revenue they’re earning from airing West Wing, obviously, but I guess they feel they have to stay true to their viewer base by ensuring that not one of them starts to think seriously about the “heretical” ideas it offers up.  I will wait patiently for the day they offer similar “balance” by giving a liberal atheist a few minutes of airtime during 100 Huntley Street, and in the meantime, thank goodness for the mute button.

The West Wing characters believed in the capacity of government, whatever its flaws, to be a place where good things can be done to help people in need.  Their reward for advancing this philosophy was not wealth, fame or even a healthy family life – it had to be in the knowledge that they had done their jobs well, even if no one else knew it.  As a guiding philosophy for our brief shuffle across this mortal coil, not bad.  Not the selfish whine of the Ayn Rand devotee looking to cast adrift those who have a harder time of it while they gobble up exponentially more than their share.  Not the bottom-line focus of the corporation who cares about people only so long as you keep buying stuff from them.  Instead, fighting to do good for good’s sake – and while they’re at it, pausing to enjoy the fight itself (Josh Lyman’s telling a right-wing Senator to shove a Stone Age legislative agenda up his ass still resonates, as does President Bartlet’s utter demolition of his Bush-clone opponent in their debate with “Can we have it back, please?”)

Warren Kinsella talked about how the staff in former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s office was obsessed with The West Wing and how it proved to him that they were headed for a massive electoral wipeout.  People in politics, Kinsella argues, are never that smart.  Indeed, in some of The West Wing’s more idealistic (and unrealistic, if we’re being fair) moments it counts on the wisdom of the American people to make the correct choice, and again, this is the same country that elected George W. Bush and at this point in 2008 was ready to put Sarah Palin within one John McCain heart attack of the presidency.  Yet it’s not fair to write The West Wing off as an unattainable liberal fantasy.  Perhaps it’s a long game, something to always strive for, with the recognition that you’ll probably never get there – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t still important to try.  It’s ironic that it’s the other side that usually goes on about the importance of belief in those who seek to enter public life, because for a liberal, the pursuit of the greatness a country can attain when the best people lead its government is a true journey of political faith.  You could see faith on The West Wing in every episode, even when the characters were beaten down by political realities and implacable foes.  Communicating that faith to non-believers is the challenge real-life liberals continue to face.  The other side is usually better funded and better at getting its message out, because the other way is just easier – appealing to cynicism and greed and pitting us against them.  No one ever went broke riling ordinary folks up against invisible enemies.  But as I said in a previous post, faith unchallenged is no faith at all, and the path of faith leads to a more lasting reward.  In this case it’s the promise of a better place to live.

Is that the lasting lesson of The West Wing?  Well, it is for this Wingnut.

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It’s not a great show yet, but it can be

The Newsroom has taken a lot of flack in the press for being too similar to what Aaron Sorkin has done before – a workplace drama where characters race through halls and corridors, their words flying at the same breakneck pace as their feet, while sermonizing about everything that’s wrong with the world and about the nobility of trying to fix it.  Well, what can you say, really – the man has his wheelhouse.  We’ll probably never know for certain the exact details of why Sorkin left The West Wing in the hands of John Wells after the fourth season, but I believe that he missed writing it.  On the DVD commentary for the final episode he penned, he hints at having an alternate resolution for the storyline where President Bartlet’s daughter is abducted and Bartlet steps aside to allow the Republican Speaker of the House to serve temporarily as President until she is found – but ultimately chooses to hold his piece and not pass judgement on the version penned by Wells.  When Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip came out, the old West Wing tropes crept back in to a series that was ostensibly about something a light-year removed from Washington politics – a Saturday Night Live-esque comedy show.  But when Matthew Perry’s unapologetic liberal Matt Albie and Sarah Paulson’s sorta-conservative-but-not-really Harriet Hayes got into a debate on the beliefs of their respective political parties, it was almost a flare going up from Sorkin indicating that he’d rather be putting these words in the mouths of Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes.  Cementing this notion, the final four episodes that closed Studio 60’s only season were an extended plot about one of the characters’ brothers going missing in Afghanistan and the rescue operation to find him.  You could tell that the limitations of potential plots about sets breaking down and guest hosts showing up drunk were chafing Sorkin’s desire to tell big, consequential stories, and by the time he knew the show was on the way out he didn’t care to make the distinction anymore.

The Newsroom is a kind of hybrid of these two disparate beasts – a show about television that now has a logical reason for dealing with political stories.  Sorkin’s thesis is that news on both the left and the right has lost its way, that scoring points and sucking up to corporate and political interests has become more important than the reporting of the truth and the willingness to challenge people on their obfuscation and misinformation.  He’s not wrong in this, even though the right is more complicit along these lines (for all the bitching on the right about MSNBC, it is not a blatant propaganda mouthpiece for the Republicans the way Fox News is).  As conflicted anchor Will McAvoy, Jeff Daniels has a great moment in the pilot when he turns to the left-wing talking head (seated, unsubtly, on his left) and tells her that no one likes liberals because they lose all the time.  Again, as a liberal eternally frustrated by our collective inability to explain our message succinctly and stick it to people who don’t agree with us the way conservatives do, this is manna, something that desperately needs to be said, understood and acted upon.

But the show isn’t meant as a wakeup call to the left, inasmuch as it isn’t a strict smackdown of the right either.  It’s a request to both sides to do better.  For liberals to find their balls, and for conservatives to find their sense of decency.  Sorkin wants the debate – he wants both sides to present their ideas in their purest, most robust, intellectual form, bereft of political gamesmanship and the “my dad can beat up your dad” state of current discourse.  As a news anchor, McAvoy is positioned perfectly, in Sorkin’s view, to act as arbiter of this hoped-for grand debate, to call out liars and steer the conversation away from constant appeals to the lowest common denominator.  As the show puts it, to tell truth to stupid.  What frustrates Sorkin most is that the only thing preventing this happening in real life is not the lack of resources, or opportunity, but of will.  As Sam Waterston’s network boss Charlie Skinner puts it in the line that gives the title to the pilot episode, “we just decided to.”  We can just decide to.

Noble ambitions aside, how fares the execution?  Well, The Newsroom is not without its flaws, some of which may be chalked up to first-episode jitters.  The West Wing cast was considerably more seasoned than this starting lineup when they began chewing on the “Sorkinese” in 1999, and while old pros Daniels and Waterston are excellent (and it’s fun to watch Waterston play an old drunk who doesn’t give a rat’s ass after what felt like decades as stalwart integrity warrior Jack McCoy) the younger performers haven’t quite nailed the pacing of the dialogue – fast-paced banter among them feels like they are trying too hard to make sure the lines come out in the proper order, as opposed to sounding like the character thought of them first.

One of the great things about The West Wing’s pilot was how the ensemble entered the story individually, with distinct beats that gave you a great snapshot of who they were and what they might become, before they began to interact with one another and the plot built gradually to the climactic introduction of the President.  Not so here.  We’re thrown into ACN’s news bullpen with little sense of who is who and what their function is – perhaps that matches the chaotic feel of a real newsroom, but it doesn’t necessarily allow us to latch on to types we want to identify with quickly.  And this is a personal preference, but as someone who is not the biggest fan of obvious love triangles, it would have been preferable to see the Don-Maggie-Jim subplot develop gradually a few episodes in, instead of hitting us over the head with it in the first half hour, because now, dramatically, it doesn’t have anywhere to go.  Maggie is with Don and then might end up with Jim and of course Don won’t accept that and so on and so forth.  I’m still not quite sure what Don’s function will be going forward – he is supposed to be moving to another program but is still hanging around McAvoy’s “News Night” for the time being.  Anyway – easily my least favourite character and the greatest potential to be the Mandy Hampton of this series.

As for the other major player, Emily Mortimer as MacKenzie McHale, a few histrionic moments do not provide an adequate counterbalance to Daniels’ McAvoy.  She is, in this episode, as insubstantial as the phantom vision of herself that McAvoy thinks he spots in the back row of the auditorium.  If theirs is to be the pivotal relationship around which the show revolves, I’m hoping that we see more humanizing flaws as the weeks go by, and a little less of the idealized “news goddess” with forced moments of endearment.

As a devoted fan, I’m willing to cut Sorkin a lot of slack because I love the rhythm and spirit of his writing so much, and I empathize with his opinion on the excessive devotion major media gives to the stupid and the banal.  But he has to balance his criticism with the demands of drama, and in “We Just Decided To,” I think he’s fallen a wee bit short of the mark.  As I noted earlier, one cannot impugn his main argument about the state of the media.  But if you can’t fire your rebuttal on all cylinders, you open yourself up for accusations of pontificating, and Sorkin would be the first to admit that his ultimate responsibility is to entertain.  (As an aside, I wish he’d stop beating up on bloggers – really Aaron, some of us do like you a lot, and we’re not all the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest chain-smoking Parliaments in our muumuu’s.)

Fundamentally, television is better when it challenges us, instead of regaling us passively with the embarrassing exploits of real-life rich families.  And it’s certainly better when Aaron Sorkin is on it.  When McAvoy is asked, at the beginning of the episode, why America is the greatest country in the world, he sees MacKenzie in the audience holding up a sign that reads “It’s not, but it can be.”  That phrase, I think, is the best judgment on The Newsroom for the time being.  The elements are all there to make a challenging and entertaining show, even if they haven’t quite jelled yet.  Hopefully audiences will have the patience to go along for the ride.  I certainly do.

Even if Sorkin still hates blogs.

I can’t worry about gay marriage; I’m too focused on my own

There is a first-season episode of The West Wing in which a pollster played by John de Lancie advises President Bartlet that he can sew up re-election by supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, as the numbers indicate that a vast majority of Americans are in favour of such an amendment.  Faced with the prospect of a gut-wrenching policy flip-flop to the dark side, the news is dispiriting to Bartlet’s staff, until another number-cruncher (Marlee Matlin) gives them her figures on how little the issue is of importance to the average voter, and that the total number of people whose vote would actually be swayed on flag-burning alone is insignificant.

This exchange was at the forefront of my mind as I read about President Obama’s announcement of his support for same-sex marriage yesterday.  The people who are so tyrannically obsessed with this issue that their vote hinges on it (the Santorums of the world) were never going to support the president anyway, even if he announced he was cutting taxes on the rich to 0%, declaring Planned Parenthood enemy combatants and appointing Pat Robertson Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  In strictly political terms, the president has lost nothing, energized the liberal base that first elected him, and forced his presumptive opponent into defending bigotry.

All in simply doing the right thing.

I can’t pretend to understand the fervour that drives certain elements of the conservative religious population to spend so much time, energy and money in attacking the LGBT community; I haven’t been to a regular church service since I was nine, and even then it wasn’t exactly one of these old-time fire-and-brimstone parishes either.  Like the lily-livered liberal latte-sipping literati atheist that I am, I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated, and that the consensual relationships of two adults, straight or gay, are none of my damn business.  Frankly, even if I were of the abhorrent mindset to want to dictate to other human beings how they should be permitted to love each other, I don’t know where I’d find a spare moment.  I’m busy working on my own relationship.  I’d say my plain old man-woman marriage is generally a happy one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t constant effort.  I simply don’t have the time to worry about anyone else’s.

When we think about the complexity of love, its many twists and turns and ups and downs, and its perpetual evolution and change as two people try for decades on end to figure out how to share their lives with each other, it is a difficult enough road without having elements of society, even family, castigating you at every turn – looking askance at the two of you as you walk down the street holding hands, or whispering sarcasm out of earshot as you share a kiss in a tender moment in the park on a sunny afternoon, or smirking smugly after you’ve had a fight.  Love is a journey to be explored, a discovery awaiting each of us as we wind our way through life, and each of us deserves the chance to find and experience the love that we long for.  Who we love forms our identity, and asking our LGBT brothers and sisters to turn away from their natural feelings is like asking them to disconnect part of their soul – condemning them to a slow death of the spirit.  No one deserves that, and I cannot believe it’s what any truly loving god or goddess would desire for their creation.  Nor does the evidence indicate that a broad societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will bring forth any of the apocalyptic visions foretold by the dubious media soothsayers who adore citing nonsensical “slippery slope” arguments such as the forthcoming rise of man-dog, woman-horse, boy-tractor and girl-Cayman Islands holding corporation marriage.

A friend posted on her Facebook status yesterday that she was disappointed in the dearth of common courtesy these days, in the almost complete absence of “please” and “thank you” in our daily interactions.  Whether it’s the economy, sunspots, Mayan prophecies or too much Fox News, the world of 2012 seems stalked, like Winnie the Pooh, by a persistent little thundercloud.  Gloom and a general unpleasantness are humanity’s dominant tone.  I can’t help but wonder if we are obsessing too much over other people’s lives and failing to attend to our own, to the root causes of why we are so unhappy, why our own relationships are struggling.  A man who spews homophobic invective is clearly not smiles and sunshine deep inside, and rather than blaming the same-sex marriage boogeyman for his woes, he needs to take a good, long look at what is lacking in his own soul, at why, instead of trying to make a positive contribution to the world, he simply be hatin’.  What is so wrong with his own marriage, his own life, that he turns that loathing outwards instead of confronting it.  For hatred will not heal self-neglect.

We only make our marriages better by never taking them for granted, and by ensuring that our marriage, and ours alone, is our singular passion.  Our LGBT friends should be able to enjoy the same challenge, the rewards and even the pitfalls that may come with it.  That, I think, is how one preserves the sacred institution of marriage – by making our own an example of the best that it can be, not fretting fruitlessly over whether other people can or can’t get married to the person they love.  It would seem, based on his announcement, that President Obama feels the same way.

Laudantium Duo Cathedrales

"Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?"

A review I found of The Grey recently (not mine) pointed out that it’s not often we see poetry in the movies.  Nor are we likely to find it on television, particularly when there is after all so much donkey semen to be consumed, and so much ritual humiliation to be suffered, in pursuit of cash and prizes.  In a way though, it’s not really surprising.  The production of episodic television can best be likened to a meat grinder churning through product ever faster.  Compromises are the order of the day to meet the schedule; creativity takes a distant back seat to speed.  Poetry, by contrast, is meditative and contemplative – it takes time and care to compose, and even more time to read and reflect upon.  That is why the rare occasion one does come across televised poetry is such a gift.  James Lipton called The West Wing‘s “Two Cathedrals” the finest hour of television ever produced, and I’m inclined to agree.  Written by series creator Aaron Sorkin with his usual brilliance and flair, it is an allegorical story of Job, a story of a man, the President of the United States – ostensibly the most powerful man in the world – whose faith is tested to its limits.  A man who is forced to confront his innermost demons, who is pushed to the edge, to breaking, and finds solace and strength once more to stand against the coming storm.  A story of the true bravery of which human beings are uniquely capable.

The setting:  The White House.  As re-election looms, President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is about to reveal to the world that he has multiple sclerosis and did not disclose it during his first run for high office.  His beloved long-time secretary and confidante Mrs. Dolores Landingham has just been killed in a car crash.  Tragedies and misfortunes pile on and the President finds himself questioning what he sees as God’s plan, wondering if God is, in fact, merely a feckless thug.  In a series of flashbacks we see young Jed demeaned by an imposing, small-minded father who seems to resent his son’s very existence.  When the President curses God in Latin (“Cruciatus in crucem – eas in crucem”) and crushes out a cigarette on the floor of Washington’s National Cathedral, he is rebelling against God and his father as one.  He has sunk to his lowest and is resigned to defeat, advising his staff he does not intend to seek re-election.  An hour before a press conference at which he plans to announce the same to the world, Bartlet sits quietly in the Oval Office, preparing himself for the grand humiliation to come – when suddenly the door is blown open by the wind and his conscience reasserts itself.  In the form of a conversation with an imagined Mrs. Landingham, Jed reminds himself – through the voice of his departed mentor and friend – that the fight is worth the struggle, that he is in a unique position to help so many faceless people, and he cannot and will not be undone by the failings of the father.  He walks outside, and as the haunting guitar of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” starts up, Bartlet is baptized by the driving rain.  At the press conference, he throws away the script and invites the question of whether he intends to run again.  It’s established earlier on that when Jed has made up his mind, he smiles and puts his hands in his pockets.  Without speaking, he does so again, and his journey is complete.  He has descended to the depths, walked through the fire, and emerged whole and greater.

One cannot watch the episode without feeling a similar lift, regardless of whether or not one is a person of faith – and that, to me, is one of the triumphs of “Two Cathedrals.”  The allegory of God/father vs. Jesus/son is plain, but it is handled so delicately that even though the underlying themes of the episode are highly religious, it does not come across as a sermon, but rather a paean to the faith a single human being can have in himself, and the ability to overcome any amount of doubt in order to do what is morally right.  There will likely be a time in every man’s life when he looks to the image of his own father and questions why he is here, or what purpose, if any, his suffering must serve, very much as Jesus on the cross cried toward heaven asking why his father had forsaken him.  It is the paradigm of the relationship between a father and a son.  The clarity and certainty Bartlet finds as he stands in the rain is to be admired, and in many ways, to be envied as well.  We should all be so lucky to understand ourselves and our place here on earth.  Where “Two Cathedrals” helps is in throwing down the challenge, forcing us to ask the question – one of the most terrifying any man can ask, because the answer can truly shape the rest of his life.  It can come to define the limits of who he is and everything he will ever be.  That is more than mere poetry – it is the essence of truth.

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.

God save Sam Seaborn

In the absence of compelling summer television and a firm disinterest in whomever The Bachelorette picks, we are engaged in a repeat viewing of the entire seven seasons of The West Wing.  Assaulted by news feeds of corporate-backed Tea Party lunacy and the fiscal axe falling on libraries, it’s good to step away for an hour or two each night into Aaron Sorkin’s erudite exploration of the virtues of public service and the triumph of liberalism.  When TWW was originally airing during the height of the Bush administration it was a welcome salve for wounded progressive hearts and a source of hope for better days ahead – showing what it could be like when the reins were held by people who genuinely believed in government as a meaningful force for good rather than some nebulous beast to be starved lest they not be able to buy another yacht.

No character better exemplified this than the Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in an arguably career-defining role as a fast-talking, pure-hearted and paradoxically handsome nerd, able to translate his unassailable convictions into elegant turns of phrase for the President to deliver just as smoothly.  Where Toby Ziegler was the moral conscience of the senior staff, and Josh Lyman was the warrior determined to win at all costs, Sam was the idealist, the dreamer, a bottomless well of hope never tempered by politics as usual.  Originally intended to be the focus of the show – he was the first character to be introduced in the pilot episode – Sam began to fall off the radar as the seasons progressed, usurped at the center of the series’ main plots by Josh and Toby.  As a writer, it’s not difficult to see why this may have occurred for Sorkin – a character of such upstanding value and with so few apparent flaws as Sam is very hard to write.  Usually the approach is to test the limits of their values and morality by challenging it from every angle, daring the character to retain their hope against the creeping ennui of human failings.

We saw this articulated in Sam’s best episode, Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.  Sam is struggling with the revelation that his father has been cheating on his mother for 28 years when he is asked to look into a pardon request for a man who had been accused of espionage for the Soviets during the Second World War.  Determined at the start to reverse what he feels is a mockery of justice, Sam ultimately discovers that his pet cause was, in fact, a traitor, the revelation of which combined with his father’s infidelities nearly crushes him.  In a touching scene where he breaks down in front of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), he confesses the need he feels for certainties in life on which to hang his hope, like “longitude and latitude.”  And yet at the end Sam makes a difficult phone call to try and begin reconciliation with his father.  He has found his certainty – and his hope – again in the faces of his friends.

One always got the sense that Sam was driven to prove that hope could triumph cynicism.  After a soul-flattening career using his intelligence and skill with the law to protect oil companies from litigation, working at the White House was his chance to redeem those mistakes.  It would have been nice to see the hinted-at wounded part of his character explored in greater depth had he stayed a few seasons more.

Rob Lowe’s and Aaron Sorkin’s respective early departures from the series after its fourth season left a huge question in what the plans for Sam Seaborn ultimately would have been.  Yet a tease was dropped in the third-season episode Hartsfield’s Landing.  Discussing the intricacies of a standoff with the Chinese over a game of chess, President Bartlet comments to a stunned Sam, “You’re going to run for President one day.  Don’t be scared, you can do it.”  A flicker of reaction crosses Sam’s face, both sheer terror at an incredible notion that he might not have ever considered, replaced swiftly by a quiet confidence that if he has inspired that kind of hope in someone he admires so deeply, he might just succeed.  The currency of hope remains potent, and we are grateful that it is – making one agree with Toby’s final line to Sam as he walks out of the series in the fourth season episode Red Haven’s On Fire – “God save the United States of America… and Sam Seaborn.”