Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Producer: John Wells, Debora Cahn
When creator Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing abruptly in 2003, many people wrote the show off. Sorkin imbued the show with his naïve left-liberal bias and scripted much of its glib dialogue, and his leaving seemed to guarantee an identity crisis. In fact, The West Wing was really nothing more than Sorkin's personal wish fulfillment: What if we elected a strongly moral liberal Democrat as president? Or to put it a different way, what if President Clinton (who was still president when the show started, in 1999) had been even more liberal, and not horny all the time? Sorkin's answer was Jed Bartlet, the imaginary president played by Martin Sheen. Bartlet is sort of a Ted Kennedy with gravitas -- a sententious, northeastern liberal Catholic who, because this is TV, is always right. (With John Kerry we actually had a chance to elect someone like Bartlet, minus the intellectual rigor, and not too surprisingly, the electorate didn't go nuts over him. Of course, Kerry was not as telegenic as Martin Sheen.)
Sorkin's exit was hard on The West Wing at first -- the same actors still rushed around the same faux-White House corridors, but their fast-talking wit was missing. But then a funny thing happened -- the series regained its footing, and even got better. Sorkin's liberal cant had gotten pretty far removed from reality during the Bush years, anyway, and the liberal agenda in general was hurt by 9/11 (along with a lot of other things), so it was probably necessary for The West Wing to reinvent itself.
The sixth season was one of the show's most entertaining, mainly because of the campaign to elect Bartlet's successor. The season's best moments were on the campaign trail, partly because the primaries pit some of the more appealing characters against each other, such as the good-natured political operative Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and his long-suffering former aide Donna Moss (Janel Moloney). The presidential campaign also took the place of the overly dramatic and contrived story arcs which were the show's worst post-Sorkin tendency (the president's daughter gets kidnapped, the president gets MS, the president has to defuse a nuclear showdown, an aide is wounded, etc.).
However, a few sixth-season episodes suffer from misguided storylines based on foreign conflicts which are seemingly written only to give more screen time to the most boring and unbelievable character, a CIA agent-turned-security advisor (Mary McCormack). It's hard to care about a made-up crisis in Turkmenistan when there are so many real flashpoints in the national news on a daily basis. (Don't they know that Americans prefer reality TV to TV that tries to imitate actual reality?) And the show occasionally backslides into preachy Sorkin territory, especially at the end of the episode "365 Days," in which Bartlet's staff reaffirms its commitment to save the world in one year.
Speaking of unreality, the two candidates that emerge from the primaries are both appealing personalities without obvious real-world parallels: an idealistic Hispanic Democrat played by Jimmy Smits (his name, Matthew Santos, is presumably a reference to his messianic saintliness -- after all, he is a Democrat) and a liberal California Repub, Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda with surprising conviction. Both are portrayed as having uncommon personal honesty and intellectual quickness, qualities which most real presidential candidates utterly lack. Campaign issues are thoughtfully presented and the candidates' positions are not quite as predictable as they would be in real life. For example, the populist Vinick supports abortion more strongly than Santos, who has moral scruples.
But nuance doesn't help ratings, and neither does a Sunday night time slot -- so viewers seem to have deserted The West Wing in favor of Commander in Chief, a knockoff with the ridiculous premise that the U.S. president is Geena Davis. Oh well, catch the last episodes while you can, and rent the sixth season to enjoy sharp dialogue, gorgeous sets (the season finale features an impressive mockup of a presidential convention), and strong acting. It's too bad that with the show's demise, neither of the imaginary candidates will get to be president. In the real world, Alda's Vinick would probably be corruptible, and his efforts to shrink government unsuccessful (no one even talks about shrinking government any more), but at least his plain talk would be a nice break from the posturing and prevaricating of both real-world political parties. Likewise, Smits' Santos would probably be a terrible president, but it's nice to pretend that someday, a normal, likeable person might run for the world's highest office again.