"Diehard fans insist that "The West Wing" is getting good again, but for all the viewers who defected during the dark Kumar Years, it's too little fun too late in the game. They are bitter and jaded, and they intend to stay that way.
"It's no wonder, then, that West Wing fans panicked in 2003 when creator Aaron Sorkin left his high-minded series in the hands of NBC's Thursday night schlockmeister. They complained that Wells (an original executive producer on the series) would run Wing into the ground, turning it into another mish-mash of clunky storylines and ratings stunts. As his first episodes in charge followed up First Daughter Zoey's (Elisabeth Moss) kidnapping with President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) temporarily ceding power to John Goodman's Republican, their fears seemed well-founded.
More big events followed, from Donna's (Janel Moloney) near death in the Gaza Strip through last month's much-hyped, ultimately ho-hum live debate between Presidential contenders Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Vinick (Alan Alda). But West Wing didn't quite crumble under new management. Rather, Wells made collapse -- specifically, that of Bartlet's merry band of West Wingers -- the long-term story. On his watch, the series' chief relationships have been tested and compromised, turning Sorkin's noble, fast-walking liberals into more than the sum of their quips and ideals. They're also myopic, cranky, and sad.
Josh (Bradley Whitford) thought he could keep Donna as his Girl Friday forever. By ignoring her requests for more challenging work, he lost her to a competing candidate in the primaries and feels lonelier than ever as he struggles to run Santos' campaign. Strident Toby (Richard Schiff) was unhappy for ages -- so much so that Andie (Kathleen York) refused to live with him, fearing his gloom would infect their children. In this season's second-most-talked-about episode, he was revealed as a White House leak and fired by an angry, though not-quite-surprised Bartlet. "The one thought that hits the hardest," he told Toby, "is that this was somehow inevitable, that you've always been heading for this kind of crash and burn." Only C.J. (Allison Janney) remains at the President's side. Now Chief of Staff, she's often at odds with Josh, cut off from Toby, and fighting to make something of Bartlet's remaining lame duck term. The three could really use a goofy, gentlemanly go-between like Sam Seaborn to restore some of the peace. Does Rob Lowe really still have other plans? "
From the New York Times:
"Most television dramas play with the question "what if?" NBC's "West Wing" revels in "if only...."
Sunday's live presidential debate was the quintessence of wishful writing. Two intelligent, principled candidates tossed aside debate rules and went at each other full throttle on live television, debating everything from immigration and energy policy to foreign debt relief.
Now in its seventh season, "The West Wing" lost much of its original magic when its creator, Aaron Sorkin, left and took the series' screwball comedy wit and intellectual sophistication with him. The show still has banter and worldly references, but at its height in its first few seasons, even tiny bits of dialogue were three-dimensional, providing a joke, a subplot and a policy point all at once. Mr. Sorkin's successors do not think and talk as fast as he did, and neither do the series' characters. "West Wing" aides retain their idealism, however, a sense of civic purpose and honor that is made palatable with wisecracks and personal pratfalls.
When it began in 1999, "The West Wing" proved that audiences could become enthralled by Congressional committee reports and tracking polls. It was a smart bet. Americans may not vote in high numbers, but they know the material, if only through the osmotic power of 24-hour cable news shows, C-Span cameras and Internet saturation.
ABC's copycat version, "Commander in Chief," is just as topical, sometimes maliciously so. (Last week, President Mackenzie Allen was greeted at a hurricane disaster area by grateful victims and a Florida official who said, "Thank you for acting so quickly on the disaster package.") "Commander" is not as clever or convoluted as "The West Wing," but it taps into the same appetite for a cleaned-up realpolitik - the government we wish we deserved.
Even now, "The West Wing" still offers an intriguing tension between ripped-from-the-headlines politics and a dreamy romanticism about leadership. Just as the Bush White House was bracing itself for indictments from a real-life special counsel investigating a national security leak, Josiah Bartlet's staff was awash in subpoenas from a special prosecutor investigating a national security leak. On the NBC version, the leaker turned out to be Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), who broke the law to save lives (astronauts trapped on the International Space Station).
One of the endearing fictions of this television series is that White House officials are not motivated to leak for petty score-settling or political intrigue.
Sunday's debate posited that presidential candidates, once unleashed, can think on their feet and disagree without resorting to cant. To lend verisimilitude, a real journalist, Forrest Sawyer, was tapped to play the moderator; he looked believable but a bit self-conscious, perhaps because he is one in a growing pool of television anchors without news shows. (The episode's sole sponsor, American Express, recruited Ellen DeGeneres to do backstage ads that were far more implausible, but at least in a low-budget, C-Span way.)
Religion and culture wars are a common topic on "The West Wing." In one recent episode, the Santos campaign manager, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), refers to the Bible-friendly theory of "intelligent design" as "creationism in a Groucho mask."
Yet even "The West Wing" is careful about the tinderbox issue of abortion, keeping pro-life sentiment at a safe remove. In the writers' imaginary world, a pro-choice Republican could win his party's nomination and privately dismiss evangelical Christian lobby groups as "those people." "
"Season five (2003-2004) was the really big sink, and that was because Aaron Sorkin, the insanely talented writer who created the show, left and was replaced by John Wells. (Yes, that John Wells—the man who gave us ER, but also was responsible for Third Watch.) Suddenly the writing was less crisp, the stories more politically moderate, there were more special effects and oddly, the lighting was darker. Only towards the end of last season, when the race to succeed President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) started heating up did we get a new, cracklingly tense West Wing.
Two things happened: CJ got promoted to Chief of Staff and Alan Alda was cast as Senator Arnold Vinick—the maverick, John McCain-ish Republican nominee for president. New faces and new situations helped the series, as does the impending end of the Bartlet presidency which freed the show to shift towards three parallel storylines: Bartlet’s troubled, lame-duck presidency; the surging Vinick campaign; and the campaign of Matthew Santos, a Democratic nominee played by Jimmy Smits."
"The good news is that I have found the presidential candidate I’ve waited for all my life.
On the down side, he is Rep. Matt Santos, a Texas Democrat who exists only on TV’s “The West Wing.” (Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, is supposed to have a real debate, though, when he and his Republican opponent, played by Alan Alda, face off in a live episode this Sunday
night.)Some have been similarly smitten with this show’s President Jed Bartlet, for years, I know. But I’m too reality-based to have even a good political fantasy about a character so didactic I’m not positive he could win a city council seat on New York's Upper East Side. (And a president
who fires one of his top aides just for compromising national security? Please.) I am open to a campaign crush on “Commander In Chief” Mackenzie Allen, but she’d have to be better written.
Santos, on the other hand, is moderate but not muddled, acute without any need to condescend, capable with people but not a total operator, a man of faith so centered he can stride right past the culture wars. As for real wars? Ha! This is a gulf war vet and Marine Reservist who knows that not all military interventions were created equal."
"Now in its seventh season West Wing is admittedly past its prime, a fact of life for most weekly scripted broadcast series that enjoy so long a run. Episodes rarely pack the emotional punch that so many did back when series creator Aaron Sorkin was first writing the show.
But, under the supervision of longtime executive producer John Wells, West Wing at the moment is unlike any other series on broadcast television. Structurally, the show it most resembles is HBO's The Sopranos, in that it plays like a complex novel adapted for television, rather than just another episodic television drama. On both of these series, multiple plotlines about adults play out at different speeds, some spanning entire seasons or longer, some lasting for only one episode, while primary, secondary and recurring characters come and go along with their personal baggage and back stories. The producers of both shows trust that their viewers are intelligent enough to remember details and keep track of multiple storylines.
The fact is, West Wing isn't tired, as so many of its critics claim. It is simply and impressively different from its former self. If the show in season seven offered nothing more than the ongoing drama of the men and women of the Bartlet administration scampering about the White House tending to foreign and domestic crises, often at their own personal expense, then it might be as exhausted and redundant as its detractors would have us believe. But West Wing during seasons six and seven has become something altogether new and improved from the irritating, increasingly pointless series that it degenerated into during its over-rated third and fourth seasons and its truly dreadful fifth.
In many ways West Wing has evolved into an entirely new show, one that would likely receive high praise were it a freshman effort. It is skillfully and simultaneously advancing two different story arcs, each laced with numerous sub-plots. "
""Reinvention" is a great American pursuit, but who would have guessed that this great American show would have transformed itself into something like this: Long after show founder and visionary Aaron Sorkin departed following the 2002-03 season, "West Wing" is now written by a coterie of professional TV writers such as Peter Noah, Eli Attie, Alex Graves and Lawrence O'Donnell, who have managed to make it even more intricate, intelligent and exhilarating. Sadly, the campaign trail has creatively revived "The West Wing" just as ratings have crumbled. Its seventh season (averaging around 8 million viewers, down more than four million from last year) may well be its last.
Is "West Wing" perfect? Nah, of course not, even though there's some genuine beauty in all of its chaos. Through luck, prescience and plain old-fashioned smarts, the show has almost eerily tracked some real-life Washington battles, most notably the I. Lewis Libby leak case. Just two episodes ago, White House communications czar Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) was fired after he admitted to leaking classified information to a newspaper reporter.
But "Wing" has occasionally felt too immaculately produced this season, as if the campaign were being played out in some hydroponic sphere where the air is bracing and clear, but bears almost no relation to the smog outside. What, for example, happened to that brief and rather graphic reference to Santos' bisexuality early in the season? Does any "Wing" writer really believe a bisexual candidate has any hope of attaining the presidency? (Maybe this will come up in the debate.)
And while there are endless and mostly convincing efforts at real-life resonance - with references (in one episode alone) to Zogby polls, VFW endorsements, Minutemen, Guest Worker programs and the Central American Free Trade Agreement - the real world, with a terrible war in Iraq, has made the fake world of "Wing" seem puny and insignificant by comparison.
Could a gimmicky live debate salvage the show? Stranger things have happened."
"But, to his credit, Wells bounced back last season. The focus was smartly placed on the political primaries and some of the magic of those early years returned.
Smits a favorite to win?
Which brings us back to the upcoming debate and who should be the next leader of the free world.
Logic says Smits will win, as he’s certainly the bigger star these days, and would certainly draw younger, and advertiser-friendly, demos.
That being said, Wells would be both courageous and smart to put Alda in the Oval, thereby giving the series a right-wing bent it's never had before.
One benefit would be taking all the leading characters out of their element and giving them a fresh spin — maybe positioning them in the private sector. C.J., who for so many years had to spin stories as press secretary, could return as a reporter on the White House beat. Josh runs for and wins a congressional seat, where the machinations of Capitol Hill would be new terrain for dissection and discussion. Charlie could clerk for a Supreme Court justice (though that seems like a fascinating thesis for an entirely different show).
NBC’s decision to move “West Wing” from Wednesday to Sunday has proved disastrous. If it stays in its current Sunday slot, it’s a goner. A move back to Wednesday is a distinct possibility, even though that may not make a difference either.
Whether "West Wing" says goodbye in May, or miraculously reappears in September is yet to be determined, but viewers of smart and sophisticated television will always have a place in their heart for the Bartlet administration. There’s no debating that."
From Entertainment Weekly's The Must List:
"2. "The West Wing" After a brilliant revamp focusing on the intense Alan Alda-Jimmy Smits presidential race, it has become the year's sharpest new (old) series."
From the Detroit News:
"1. Mighty Aphrodite-three: Watching NBC's "The West Wing" is so much more fun with Garofalo on board. The comedic actress plays Louise "Lou" Thornton, Democratic candidate Congressman Matt Santos' (Jimmy Smits) new director of communications. Not only is the tension between Lou and Josh (Bradley Whitford) delicious, but her overall role adds needed punch and zing to the 7-year-old presidential drama."
From Time's 6 TV Shows Not To Overlook:
"THE WEST WING NBC, Sundays, 8 P.M. E.T. A move to Sunday nights has sent the Washington drama's poll, er, ratings numbers tumbling--ironically, just as it's become complex and exciting. In its high-rated days, the show was an eloquent but simplistic fantasy. The presidential race between Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) has given it what it always lacked: a nuanced conflict between two flawed but empathetic opponents. (The Bartlet White House story lines seem like a distraction now.) Santos and Vinick square off for a live debate on Nov. 6--just in time for you to rejoin this political party."