Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Comments and Recaps of "West Wing" Episode "Election Day Part 2"

The cable channel Bravo is reran this episode Monday at 8PM ET.

Discuss the episode at Television Without Pity.

Commentary from TV Guide.
Comments from Matt Roush at TV Guide here, and here.

From the San Antonio Express News.
From the Wichita Eagle.

This article is currently the most e-mail article at nytimes.com

From the New York Times:
"Like many political campaigns, the presidential election depicted last night on "The West Wing" on NBC would have had a different ending had it been held four months ago.

But the reversal of fortune for Matt Santos — the Democratic nominee, played by Jimmy Smits, who was the victor — had nothing to do with any shift in opinion among voters.

Instead, Lawrence O'Donnell, an executive producer of the show, said he and his fellow writers had declared Santos the winner only after the death, in mid-December, of John Spencer, who portrayed Santos's running mate, Leo McGarry. At the time of Mr. Spencer's death, the plot for last night's episode had been set: the election was to be won by Alan Alda's Arnold Vinick, a maverick Republican (modeled a bit on Senator John McCain), whom many Democrats (including the Democrats who write the show) could learn to love.

But after Mr. Spencer died, Mr. O'Donnell said in a recent interview, he and his colleagues began to confront a creative dilemma: would viewers be saddened to see Mr. Smits's character lose both his running mate and the election? The writers decided that such an outcome would prove too lopsided, in terms of taxing viewers' emotions, so a script with the new, bittersweet ending — including the election-night death of Mr. Spencer's character — was undertaken by John Wells, executive producer of "The West Wing" and "E.R."

The loss of Mr. Spencer, who had been on "The West Wing" since its inception seven years ago, imposed a layer of grief on the sadness and nostalgia the cast would feel in the weeks leading to the final day of production. NBC announced in January that primarily because of falling ratings, it was not renewing the series for next season.

The final episode of "The West Wing" is not be broadcast until May 14, but the show effectively ended for Martin Sheen, who plays President Bartlet, and for his fellow cast members on March 31, when they filmed their last scene together. Appropriately, it shows the president striding around the White House for final goodbyes to the applause of his staff members, in a scene filmed on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, Calif.

An impromptu cast party followed shortly thereafter in and around the trailer of Allison Janney, who plays Bartlet's chief of staff, C. J. Cregg, said Bradley Whitford, who portrays Josh Lyman, most recently manager of the Santos campaign.

"This show is probably the first line in my obituary," Mr. Whitford said. "Everyone knows they got lucky with this one."

For a series that sought to provide a backstage glimpse of White House politics, however stylized and idealized, it seems appropriate to assess its legacy, political and otherwise, as its conclusion nears.

On that score, Mr. Sheen was offered an opportunity to see how his character's appeal would play in a real-life campaign. Not long ago, he said, he was approached by Democratic Party representatives from his native state, Ohio, to see if he would be interested in running for the United States Senate after he left the show. Though he would have had little trouble drafting a campaign platform — he is a fierce opponent of nuclear power and the war in Iraq, and a champion of human rights — he turned them down.

"I'm just not qualified," he said. "You're mistaking celebrity for credibility."

Nonetheless, Mr. O'Donnell, a onetime adviser to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, said he was especially proud of the show's response to the increasingly shrill political debate in the real world, particularly on cable news. As it became tougher to learn much of any substance from programs like "Crossfire" on CNN, now defunct, "The West Wing" seemed to delve deeper into real issues like health care and education, as exemplified by the raw, one-hour live debate last fall between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick.

"Political talk on TV has degenerated so much," said Mr. O'Donnell, who is also a political analyst on MSNBC. "You can say something complex on 'The West Wing' and you will not suffer a screaming interruption by three other panelists."

It may not come as any surprise to viewers, given that President Bartlet was a Democrat, but there were no registered Republicans in the most recent incarnation of the "West Wing" writers' room, which included Eli Attie, a former speechwriter for Al Gore. Though the show began at the end of the Clinton administration, it soon found its creative niche by evoking a parallel reality, one that imagined how the White House might have been different if George W. Bush had not been elected to two terms.

As the war in Iraq escalated, Mr. Sheen said he came to liken the show's role to that of good, escapist fiction.

"In order to sometimes get a different perspective on what's going down in the world, to reach back to your humanity, you read novels," Mr. Sheen said. "We're like the reading of a novel."

Which is not to say that President Bartlet escaped making some of the hard decisions that President Bush faced in real life. This year, Bartlet was shown agonizing over whether to commit 10,000 American troops to an escalating, fictional conflict on the border shared by Russia, Kazakhstan and China.

In deciding to put flesh on a Republican like Mr. Alda's Arnold Vinick and committing, at least initially, to having him win, Mr. O'Donnell said he and the other writers had delighted in playing against type. And then Mr. Spencer died.

Other than a coming episode that will linger at the funeral for Mr. Spencer's character — and include, as mourners, a parade of former cast members, including Rob Lowe — the show's final episodes will be devoted to the transition from the Bartlet administration to that of President-elect Santos.

The actors and producers are embarking on a similar transition.

Mr. Whitford has signed on to star in "Studio 60," a one-hour drama expected to be on the NBC schedule next fall, about life backstage at a live variety show. It was created by Aaron Sorkin, who created "The West Wing."

Mr. O'Donnell has deliberately put off finding his next project, to savor the last days of editing "The West Wing," though he can currently be seen in a rare acting role, as a lawyer for the polygamist main character on the HBO drama "Big Love."

And Mr. Sheen?

At 65, he has decided to make good on a promise he made to himself long ago: to enroll, for the first time, in college. A graduate, though just barely, of Chaminade High School in Dayton, Ohio, nearly five decades ago, he will began taking classes next fall — in English literature, philosophy and, he hopes, oceanography — at National University of Ireland in Galway, in the country where his mother was born.

In describing how much he relished retreating to an ivory tower, Mr. Sheen sounded a lot like a former president after two terms in office, even if he was a former president whose biggest challenge was commuting to a fictional White House.

"I'd be up at 4 in the morning, and out of the house by 5 to get on the freeway, all so we could start at 7 o'clock," he said. "That's a lot of wear and tear on your body."

From the Miami Herald:
"The end is near, but at least stalwart fans of The West Wing -- and the Santos campaign -- are going out as winners.

On Sunday night's episode of the series, which has spent the past two years following a new presidential race, Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) eked out a victory over Republican Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda, nominated for an Emmy last year for the role) to become the country's first Hispanic commander in chief. (Yes, this is a progressive liberal fantasy, but it's a formidably well-written one, and the vote-counting tension was reminiscent of the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election.)

Florida, you may or may not be happy to learn, went Vinick all the way. So far, no reports of chad abuse.

In a poignant blend of jubilation and sorrow, the episode also dealt with the unexpected death of vice presidential candidate Leo McGarry, played by the terrific John Spencer, who died after a heart attack Dec. 16. In typical WW fashion, the writers didn't show each character reacting to the awful news -- creator Aaron Sorkin and his disciples have always favored a ''less is more'' ideology -- but the stricken countenance of White House chief of staff C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and the absolutely shattered Santos campaign manager Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) conveyed a shocked, palpable pain.

The West Wing, once as vital to NBC as Lost is to ABC -- only with a lot more Emmys -- concludes May 14, ending the Josiah Bartlet/Martin Sheen era. It's fashionable now to say that you gave up on the show three years ago, after Sorkin bailed, even as it's equally fair to say the show's best episodes lay in its first years. Catch the first season's Celestial Navigation on Bravo reruns, and you'll see what I mean.

But what executive producer John Wells and his writers have accomplished in the past two years is amazing. They have re-created a series hemmed in by a limited time frame, and the campaign war between Vinick and Santos breathed a thrilling new life into the series. Sure, there was less screen time for regulars C.J. and disgraced former communications director Toby (Richard Schiff, whose story line hasn't quite been resolved yet), but Smits and Alda, such cool, seasoned pros that they even took on a live-debate episode, more than made up for any losses.

Casting Janeane Garafolo as an acerbic Santos strategist was equally brilliant, and the transformation of former assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) into a sharp political mind on the campaign trail has been fascinating. As for the (finally) erupting romance between Josh and Donna, there's only one thing to say: Thank you, writers. Just . . . thank you.

There are five more episodes before the series ends, more than enough time for a graceful departure. The Santos campaign will need to find a new vice president, and a slew of former cast members will be back to reprise roles: Mary-Louise Parker, Anna Deavere Smith, Emily Procter, Marlee Matlin, Gary Cole, Tim Matheson, Timothy Busfield, Annabeth Gish and, best of all, Rob Lowe as former deputy communications director Sam Seaborn. All fine reasons to consider this final season a victory."

From the Journal Sentinel:
"The electoral votes have been counted, and the next fake president of the United States is Jimmy Smits.

Smits' Matt Santos, a Democratic congressman, narrowly beat his Republican opponent, AlanAlda's Sen. Arnold Vinick.

This president's term will be measured in weeks, with NBC's "The West Wing" airing its final episode May 14, after a one-hour retrospective on the show's seven seasons.

Sunday's episode revolved not only around the climactic replacement of MartinSheen's President Josiah Bartlet but also around the death of JohnSpencer's Leo McGarry, who had been Santos' running mate.

In real life, Spencer died of a heart attack in December. In Sunday night's fictional version of Spencer's passing, word of McGarry's fatal heart attack came out with the polls still open on the West Coast and the results in doubt.

n the end, Nevada was the deciding factor in the election, with Smits' Santos winning his home state of Texas and Alda's Vinick taking his home state of California.

After the real-life long count in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, this make-believe version of national politics doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility.

Still, the final few episodes of "The West Wing" could have been especially fascinating if Vinick had been the winner. He was presented as a complicated figure, at odds with much of his party, although a Republican through and through.

But with the story told from a Democratic point of view from its very first episode, a Santos loss would have been more shocking than the death of Leo McGarry.

As the countdown to the end of "The West Wing" continues, familiar faces gather at 7 p.m. Sunday for McGarry's funeral."

From the Dallas Morning News:
"It may have been just a coincidence, an unplanned correlation between fiction and reality.

But in the very week that massive demonstrations put the national spotlight on the potential political clout of millions of Hispanic immigrants, the presidential election on a popular television show was won by a Mexican-American Democrat because he carried the Southwestern states with large Latino populations -- including Texas.

The show, of course, is "The West Wing," the NBC version of life in the White House, now nearing the final episodes of its seven-year run. The winning candidate, by a razor-thin margin, was Matt Santos, a congressman from Houston.

He achieved his narrow victory with a slim victory in Nevada, the final state to be settled. But his total of 272 electoral votes, two more than needed, included 63 from five states with growing Latino populations: Texas (34 electoral votes), Arizona (10) Colorado (9), New Mexico (5) and Nevada (5).

In the real world, all five of those states were among the "red states" that gave President Bush his 286-252 electoral vote victory in the 2004 election. But some Democratic strategists see all of them except Texas as potentially winnable as early as 2008 if their party can mobilize enough unregistered Latino voters.

To be sure, Mr. Bush showed in both of his presidential elections - and in his gubernatorial races in Texas before that - an ability to attract Hispanic voters. His fluent Spanish undoubtedly helped, along with his stance on immigration and other issues of interest to the large Mexican-American population in Texas.

But many experts feel that the current immigration debate, and the leading role taken by some Republicans in opposing any provision providing ultimate citizenship, could damage the GOP in the way that former Gov. Pete Wilson's hard-line anti-immigration stance hurt the party in California.

In Texas, many Democrats see the Hispanic growth as their way to overcome the current Republican majority.

In the real world, that's for the future, if at all. On television, it happened this week.

Of course, the producers of the show admitted they only made the election come out that way for entertainment purposes, fearing it would be too great a blow for the show's Democratic viewers if Mr. Santos lost on top of the death of the party's vice presidential candidate due to the real-world death of actor John Spencer."

From the Chicago Tribune:
" Far be it from us to boast, but in the 21st Century the Chicago Tribune is three for three in successful presidential endorsements. George W. Bush got our nod twice and the nation concurred. (OK, nitpickers. It was the Supreme Court and the Electoral College that put Bush over the top in 2000, not the majority of voters.)

On Sunday we scored again. Matthew V. Santos, the Tribune's surprise Democratic choice in the presidential battle against Republican Arnold Vinick, was formally elected by the scriptwriters of NBC's "West Wing" in a nail-biter that came down to a few thousand votes in Nevada.

For those who haven't followed the plot twists this season, here's a recap:

The race to succeed two-term incumbent Jed Bartlet pitted Santos, a congressman played by Jimmy Smits, against Vinick, a senator played by Alan Alda. Vinick grabbed the early lead. But the race tightened around the time that, as written into the script, the Tribune endorsed Santos.

"It's gotta be the Trib," declared Santos' running mate, Leo McGarry, when new polls showed that the campaign had whittled a 9-point Vinick lead in Illinois down to 4 points.

Sadly, that episode appeared in December just days before the actor who played McGarry, John Spencer, died of a heart attack. That real life tragedy factored into Sunday's election episode. Spencer's character suffered a fatal heart attack as voters headed to the polls.

This election was pure fiction. It's hard to believe presidential contenders locked in a razor-thin battle would come off as gentlemanly and conciliatory as did the Vinick and Santos characters. Both professed to be appalled at the prospect of a protracted, Bush/Gore-style legal battle. This is how idealistic Hollywood wants things to be, not how they are in the true snakepit of national politics. (Yes, we know. Hollywood? Idealistic?)

We're thrilled, if not humbled, by the election outcome. The Tribune rarely endorses Democrats for president. The last time was in 1872. But President-elect Santos--provided, of course, he continues to act in ways this page can abide--clearly has the makings of greatness.

Too bad we'll never find out how great the greatness. After this season, NBC cancels the show."

(Thanks, Colleen)

Recap from West Wing Continuity Guide

Commentary from Roger Catlin of the Hartford Courant.
Commentary from TV Squad.
Commentary from Blue Oregon.
Personal comment from Alan Sepinwall.
Bryce Zabel's blog
From The Tyee.

From the Seattle Times:
"Personal blogs are a pretty amazing way to take the nation's cultural pulse. These postings by anyone and about anything are up-to-the-minute, lively monitors of what people think, ranging from the significant to the sublime. A politician makes a mistake and the world instantly reacts. And much of it focuses on real ephemera.
For instance, minutes after the end of last week's "The West Wing" there were probably hundreds of postings about how Jimmy Smits should make Alan Alda his vice president."

Comments from other bloggers:
theonides' livejournal
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david gaw's blog (short comment)
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