Thursday, January 19, 2006

What's Next?

Allison Janney gave an Interview to KTLA TV this morning. You can watch it here. You have to click on the right where it says "Allison Janney Talks About Her New Movie". The video definitely works in Internet Explorer, and perhaps in other browsers as well)
- she says the writers have a found a way to deal with John Spencer's death, but doesn't get more specific
-she talks about being people saying that the series has a new wind, but that she thinks that it's winding down
-she gives a sneak peak of her evil character in "Over the Hedge" and the segments show a dramatic scene from "Our very Own", which she wishes would get a distributor."

From USA Today:
"West Wing star Allison Janney said writers will deal with late co-star John Spencer's death in a February episode. "It really feels like the organic end of the show."
(editor's note: She is probably unintentionally mistaken and may not be aware that the Olympics will preempt "West Wing" in February. All indications so far are that the first post-John Spencer episode will air in March)

From the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle:
"By the time he arrives in Kansas City for a Jewish Federation fund-raiser Jan. 28 (See box at right for details) Joshua Malina, who plays Press Secretary Will Bailey on NBC's "The West Wing," should know more about how the series will carry on after the Dec. 16 death of actor John Spencer, who played Chief of Staff Leo McGarry.
When he spoke to The Chronicle this week, though, Malina hadn't shot any new episodes since Spencer's death. "I don't know how they will deal with the loss of the character," Malina said."

Commentary from TV Squad.

From TV Guide:
"Question: How is the West Wing planning to deal with the tragic loss of John Spencer? — Casey

Ausiello: Tragic indeed. I had the good fortune to interview John a few times and I always remember him being extremely down-to-earth and very non-actor-y. As far as WW goes, the writers are convening after the holidays to tackle the dicey issue of Leo's fate. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Reporter apparently erred when it reported that WW's quandary was further complicated by the fact that Leo appeared in that flash-forward sequence set three years into the future in the season premiere.'s Matt Mitovich tells me that one of his cronies went back and rewatched the episode and insists that Leo did not appear in the sequence. In related news, it must be nice having your friends do your grunt work."

From the Independent (UK):
" Political life, as we all know, is full of nasty surprises, often requiring the best-laid plans to be hastily redrawn, for better, or worse. John Smith's death in 1994 led to a different sort of Labour government under Tony Blair. Without President John Kennedy's assassination, there may have been no Vietnam war. The murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 reconfigured the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and may have been its undoing.

But what happens when an equally nasty surprise is visited on a fictional political world? I'm talking, of course, about The West Wing, the long-running TV drama that imagines a US president so idealistic - and so far to the left - that he could only properly exist and thrive in the wish-fulfilment universe of the Hollywood screenwriter.

John Spencer, the gravel-voiced character actor who played Leo McGarry, long-time White House chief of staff, died of a heart attack last Friday, leaving a large hole at the centre of the show. Spencer was, in many ways, the best thing about the programme, compulsively watchable and propelled by nervous energy. In episode after episode, his character proved ever devious, ever devoted to the cool resolution of any given crisis, even as the demons of his former alcohol and pill addictions lurked close by.

As the show evolved and changed over the past couple of seasons, Spencer's character changed with it. During last year's sixth season, he was fired as chief of staff in the heat of a disagreement over Middle East policy and - poignantly enough, in the light of subsequent real-world events - suffered a heart attack on the spot.

Leo recovered, and soon found himself in the thick of a campaign battle to determine who would succeed the show's lame-duck President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. First, Leo played Democratic Party kingmaker, attempting to sway the nomination race this way and that. Then, in a twist reserved for the end of the sixth season, he was anointed the vice presidential nominee.

That, in turn, had guaranteed his continuing predominance into the seventh season, of which nine episodes have already aired in the United States and five more are in the can. Leo and his presidential running mate Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, have been hamming it up in debates and on the campaign trail against their Republican opponent, the California Senator Alan Vinick, who is played with unalloyed gusto by Alan Alda.

So what next? What on earth is supposed to happen now? The producers of The West Wing were on their Christmas break at the time of Spencer's death and have made no fixed plans for the rest of the season.

A spokeswoman for Warner Brothers said that the writers would be meeting this week to try to decide how to proceed with the Leo problem. They will, the spokeswoman said, all but certainly decide to write Spencer's character out of the show.

And the broad outlines of what they will do seem pretty clear. Leo will have to be killed off in a hurry. Since footage already exists of Leo having one heart attack - not to mention a fantasy sequence in which he suffers another a few years down the road - it might make sense to have the character share the actor's fate and die of a sudden coronary. Any other outcome is going to be hard to pull off, dramatically speaking, since it cannot be filmed. An assassination, for that reason, seems unlikely. He could be kidnapped, or simply vanish without a trace. But this is prime-time drama, not a daytime soap opera, so there are melodramatic limits that cannot be breached without also severely straining audience credibility.

In the end, what The West Wing does with Leo McGarry the character is a relatively straightforward problem. It's all a question of plotting, which is what writers are paid to come up with. The larger question is whether the programme itself can keep going now that it is bereft of one of its biggest draws. And the answer to that is far from predictable.

The easy observation to make is that The West Wing is already on the familiar downward path taken by all hit shows after a few years in the limelight. This season, it has moved from its familiar Wednesday evening slot on NBC to Sunday evening, where it has ranked a dismal 50th among network prime-time series, attracting an audience of just more than eight million viewers each week.

Even before Spencer's death, industry tongues had been wagging that the prospects for an eighth season next year looked less than rosy. Now he has gone, predictions of the entire show's demise are likely only to multiply.

That said, The West Wing has survived numerous setbacks in the past. When George Bush became President - the real President, that is - it was commonplace in official Washington to dismiss the show as a hopeless anachronism, a liberal's wholly inappropriate wet dream in a new conservative era. True, Josiah Bartlet appeared to have been conceived as a sort of liberal Democratic counterpoint to the much more centrist Bill Clinton, under whose presidency the show had its debut. But the audience clung on, even after trauma of the 11 September attacks when President Bush's approval ratings went soaring.

A second, arguably more serious setback hit in 2003, when Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing's founder and workaholic chief writer, chose to quit rather than continue fighting over the political tenor of the show. That same year, the original star, Rob Lowe, also baled out, as his character Sam Seaborn, a White House deputy communications director, dwindled in importance to the point of insignificance.

For the past two and a half years, the show has been in the hands of a seasoned television veteran, John Wells, previously responsible for producing ER. It has certainly been different under his tenure, with much more screen time offered to Republicans such as Senator Vinick, and a noticeable change in the slick, machinegun speed dialogue that Sorkin used to write by himself. The show has also developed a fondness for echoing real-life events. For example, Leo was recently subpoenaed in a potentially scandalous White House leak case, an echo of the outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame by White House staff, over which indictments are now flying.

Not many people have been won over by the changes, as the tumbling audience figures attest. Interest revived somewhat for the candidates' debates, aired in the States in early November to considerable publicity fanfare, but has since subsided again. US audiences are likely to tune into the show again in large numbers on 8 January, for a vice presidential candidates' debate between Leo McGarry and his Republican counterpart, Governor Ray Sullivan of West Virginia.

That could be The West Wing's last best hope for a revival. There are several precedents in the annals of American television to suggest that the death of a major actor can in fact help a show survive longer because of the interest - morbid, respectful, or any other kind - it generates.

Most striking, in recent history, was the 2003 death of the sitcom actor John Ritter, who collapsed on the set of a relatively new series called 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter. The premise of the show was the comic raging against the inevitable represented by Ritter's character, Paul Hennessy, as he tries and fails to stop his daughter from expressing her interest in the opposite sex.

Everyone assumed the show would die along with its star, but something rather curious happened. First, there was enough finished footage of Ritter to keep the show going for several more episodes. Then, audience interest soared for a special one-off episode devoted to the death of Ritter's character and the grieving of his closest family, hardly the conventional stuff of sitcoms. Thereafter, the show was renamed 8 Simple Rules and became a touching, lightly comic look at family dynamics in the wake of a bereavement. That might not sound too promising on the face of it, but 8 Simple Rules survived on air for two more years until it was cancelled in May.

The West Wing will not undergo a transformation that drastic, since it is a multi-character drama focused on an institution - the government of the United States - rather than any one person. For all the admiration Spencer has garnered over the years, he probably does not attract the sheer public devotion that Americans lavished on Ritter, who was best known as one of the principles on the long-running sitcom Three's Company. In a country that thrives on sentimentalism, especially when it comes to actors on popular shows, nothing should be ruled out.

That said, nothing should be ruled in, either. In the wake of Spencer's death, the popular Washington-based web log Wonkette derided the show for descending into "a John Wells-style no-fun zone of oppressive, swampy melancholy" in the past couple of seasons and added: "We're hopeful that pretend America will be devoured by ravenous sea serpents and the show put out of its misery."

The magazine Entertainment Weekly pointed out what may be a deeper truth about politics in the fictional, as opposed to the real, world: it is all very well rooting for a candidate for high office, but what happens if his four-year term is cut short because the show is yanked off the air? At least Leo McGarry will not have to suffer that indignity."

From the Wonkette (Satire):
"West Wing Futures: America Makes Its Pretend Choice
If there's one thing West Wing watchers know, it's that John Wells can't be trusted to be the brains behind filling the gaping, John Spencer-sized hole in the show's plot. At least one respondent summed up the John Wells-era correctly, terming it "shitastic glory." So we turned to you readers to offer predictions and suggestions as to what might happen to the Santos campaign going forward in this television season. Pretend America thanks you for your responses.— DCEIVER

Reader feedback after the jump:

As far as regular West Wing cast members go, there was one not-forgotten favorite that topped the suggestions. As one respondent's wife put it: "Go down to the unemployment office and [start] looking for Rob Lowe." Yes, most of you, in the throes of Christmas spirit, thought Lowe could definitely use the work. "Maybe he really did win" the Orange County Congressional seat. If so, he hasn't developed a voting record circuitous enough for Karl Rove to hang him with. Collie F. James IV smartly sums up the rationale:

It’s a great ticket -- Santos from Texas and Sam from California (props to my Laguna Beach) -- and a great way to revive (so to speak) some interest in the show. Plus, it’s a great harkening back to Bartlett's goodbye to Sam when he said that Sam was destined for the Oval Office. Finally, the producers might be able to get Rob to bite by making feel like its something he can do to honor Spencer's legacy, blah, blah, blah.

True dat double true! Other nominations went to CJ Cregg, Ainsley Hayes, and Sam's call girl from Season One. One respondent was torn between two extremely unlikely outcomes -- Janeane Garofalo and Butterstick. We think the Butterstick brand tests better in middle America. Don't make us prove it.

At least one person was feeling me in imagining a Santos-Vinick partnership. We get it, we get it. The Kerry/McCain cream dream! Never gonna happen America!

We enjoyed some of these radical suggestions:

• The Arnold Option: "Santos will do what Democrats always do when they find themselves in need of a Veep candidate – go out and round up a Kennedy in-law. It should take them about one extra episode to build national consensus and amend the Constitution so a foreign-born candidate can take office."

• "We will find out that the show really took place in a little glass snowglobe in the mind of a neo-con idiot puppet who rocks back and forth in the oval office all day and night, clutching his sides and muttering, 'Amurrica...Terreris'... Freedom...'"

• Bradley Whitford's character FINALLY steps up to the table -- naked. He marries Donna Marsh (sic), who in a neurotic fit of banter with the equally neurotic Josh, decides that clothing should be optional and together they convince Santo's and his beautiful wife to finish out the Presidential race nude.

Or, they can just cancel the damn thing already. Thanks for playing, Wonketteers. We'll leave you with the thoughts of Stephen Rojak:

I'm still pissed that when John Goodman took over as acting president, Roseanne didn't come in and tell Stockard Channing to "get your ass out of the residence, needle-butt." Could've redeemed the series.

We feel you, Stephen. We feel you."

From EOnline:
" There's one man who perhaps best understands the predicament faced by the writers of The West Wing in the wake of actor John Spencer's death. Unfortunately, President Taft is unavailable for consultation.

Back in 1912, Taft's running mate, Vice President James Sherman, died six days before Election Day.

NBC's The West Wing is in similar straits--caught between mourning the loss of a colleague, and mounting a presidential race of its own.

"It's going to be hard to cover this up [the loss of Spencer]," says political blogger Ron Gunzburger of "It's not like an actor getting pregnant."

Indeed, there's no potted plant big enough to mask the space left by Spencer, who died of a heart attack Friday at the age of 58. The 2002 Emmy winner was an original cast member of the Oval Office drama, his character, Leo McGarry, having risen from indispensable chief of staff to indispensable vice presidential candidate.

Although West Wing's declining approval ratings--it's averaging just 8.2 million viewers this fall on Sunday nights--make an eighth season seem unlikely, the show isn't going down meekly. Its seventh season has been devoted to the question of who will replaceMartin Sheen's termed-out President Barlet:
Jimmy Smits' Congressman Santos or
Alan Alda's Senator Vinick. Spencer's McGarry is on the Santos Democratic ticket.

Now on hiatus, West Wing was scheduled to return Jan. 8 with an already completed episode featuring McGarry and Governor Sullivan (
Brett Cullen), his Republican counterpart, gearing up for a V.P. debate.

Slightly more than half of the season's 22 shows are in the can, leaving producers and writers only about eight episodes to tie up their presidential election--and acknowledge or deny the death of Spencer.

If the show chooses to deny Spencer's death, for short-term storyline purposes, it could go The Sopranos route which, as pointed out in Monday's Hollywood Reporter, could entail using body doubles, special effects and dialogue snippets to make it seem as if McGarry were still around, a la Soprano family matriarch Livia, who lived on even after her portrayer, Nancy Marchand, passed on. Or it could simply go the daytime soap route and recast.

If the show chooses to acknowledge Spencer's death, it could go the way of Cheers, Dallas, 8 Simple Rules..., or any other series that killed off a character because of an actor's passing. Even The Sopranos went there eventually.

At least West Wing writers aren't boxed in by a tease in the seventh season premiere in which Barlet, now the former leader of the free world, mixes with members of his former staff at the dedication of his presidential library. The scene, set three years in the future, aka three years after the Santos-Vinick election, did not feature Spencer's McGarry.

According to NBC, the show is currently on its holiday break. No meetings on its direction, post-Spencer, are likely to be held before production resumes Jan. 2.

Although political junkie Gunzburger hasn't watched The West Wing much since creator Aaron Sorkin stopped cranking out episodes, he has a hunch as to where the show's headed: "My guess is they do an episode real quickly where they get a call."

A bad one. A hospital stay, and an off-screen death for the previously heart attack-stricken McGarry will ensue, Gunzburger predicted.

Things didn't end happily for Taft campaign, either.

Outpouring of sympathy or no for the deceased Sherman, Taft's Republican ticket finished a dismal third behind third-party maverick Theodore Roosevelt and Democratic victor Woodrow Wilson.

Politics, like showbiz, can be harsh. "

At there was a poll question asking "Should be the part of John Spencer be recast?" So far 84% of respondents have said "no".

From the AP:
"NEW YORK -- Writers on "The West Wing" aren't expected to begin grappling with how to deal with actor John Spencer's death until after the holidays -- and the production and program schedule affords them extra time to do so.

Spencer, 58, who played former White House chief of staff and now vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry in the political drama, died of a heart attack on Friday.

Because there are five episodes of the Emmy-winning drama already filmed, staff members need not begin discussing how Spencer's death will be addressed on the show until production meetings start again in two weeks, said a spokeswoman for Warner Bros. Television. A phone call to Lawrence O'Donnell, one of the show's executive producers, was not immediately returned on Monday.

Also, the show airs no new episodes until Jan. 8, with the last of the completed episodes not scheduled to air until March 19, due to the Winter Olympics and other specials, NBC said.

Spencer is featured in two of the unaired episodes. The show scheduled for Jan. 8 includes a debate between vice presidential candidates, including Spencer.

The entire season is built upon a presidential campaign featuring actors Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, and Warner Bros. hasn't filmed the results of the election yet.

The lives of actor Spencer and character McGarry had odd similarities. Both were recovering alcoholics; McGarry was forced to give up his White House job because of a heart attack.

NBC hasn't announced a decision on whether "The West Wing" will return after this season. Given declining ratings since its move to Sunday nights, its prospects are not promising."

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