We're starting to be deeply concerned about Judge Diane Wild's fanatical devotion to this show, but at least she discusses it lucidly.
Our reviews of The West Wing: The Complete Second Season (published August 4th, 2004), The West Wing: The Complete Third Season (published November 24th, 2004), The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season (published March 1st, 2006), The West Wing: The Complete Sixth Season (published August 14th, 2006), and The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season (published November 27th, 2006) are also available.
The earnest West Wing:
The seriously silly West Wing:
The West Wing offers an ideal of America. It shows a presidency that acts not only in the best interests of the electorate, but in the best interests of humanity. It's an America that examines its flaws and works to repair them, that invites debate and dissenting opinion while striving to promote a humanitarian agenda. The show works against our cynical preconceptions about real-life politicians, while highlighting the real-life obstacles introduced by the political process. The United States of The West Wing is a world leader not just because of political and military clout, but because of a set of values embodied by a group of highly intelligent and moral civil servants and politicians. Here, the country is "like Mother Teresa with first strike capability," in the words of Communications Director Toby Zeigler (Richard Schiff, I Am Sam).
In short, The West Wing is an inspiring fantasy.
Facts of the Case
In previous seasons, The West Wing mastered the art of balancing season-long story arcs within largely self-contained episodes, and though it falters this season, it retains that balance. Individual episodes focus on Zeigler, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford, Billy Madison), and his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) getting stuck in rural America; Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney, The Hours) returning home to visit her Alzheimer's-stricken father; and the Ayatollah of Iran's son coming to the U.S. for a heart and lung transplant, for example. But the election to determine whether President Bartlet will win a second term occupies the first several episodes of the season (spoiler alert, for those who have been living in a cave: he wins, and the show began its long, slow, as-yet-unending death spiral the next season).
Another continuing storyline involves the assassination in Season Three of the foreign minister of the fictional middle eastern country of Qumar, which comes back to haunt the Bartlet administration in Season Four. The most compelling continuing story, and the one that allowed for the most explorations into moral and political ethics, is a coup in the fictional African country of Kundu that echoes the real-world civil war in Rwanda, except in the US government's response to it.
Complicating matters this season were behind-the-scenes dramas like Rob Lowe's decision to leave the show. The storyline that wrote him out of the series had his character, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne, seeking office in a byelection in order to fill in for a dead congressional candidate. Whatever was going on behind the scenes—and there was an odd war of words in the press between Lowe and Sorkin—this is an affectionate send off for Sam. It was a noble exit, but an unsatisfying storyline that didn't do quite enough to explain Seaborne's continued absence. It did, however, introduce the dead congressman's idealistic campaign director, Will Bailey (Joshua Malina, Sports Night), who would join the cast this season first as a speechwriter, then as Deputy Communications Director to replace Sam.
One of the less momentous but more fun arcs showed the attempts of president's aide Charlie Young (Dulé Hill, Holes) to win back the affections of the First Daughter, Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss, Girl, Interrupted), despite the fact that she's now dating someone else (Charlie: "He may be good looking and rich and well-schooled and French royalty, you know, and live basically in a castle, but…oh, God!"). Another followed Toby's suitably unromantic attempts to get his ex-wife to remarry him now that she's pregnant with twins (Josh: "And they're yours?" Toby: "Yah." Josh: "Both of them?!").
I think we've safely gotten past the point where television is seen as the poor cousin of film; those who dismiss television as a wasteland today haven't been watching the right shows. A season of The West Wing is like a fine 22-hour movie in its scope and production values, doing more and delving deeper than an actual film could, with acting and writing that often rivals Oscar-worthy big-screen contenders.
At one point, Sam explains the White House in terms of chaos theory: "there's order and great beauty in what seems like total chaos." This often explains The West Wing, too, whose episodes and arcs often have disparate threads that come together into a compelling and powerful resolution. Most rewarding are seemingly unrelated stories, like Toby's impending fatherhood, that end up having a poignant payoff within the cliffhanger ending of the season.
Creator and writer Aaron Sorkin, who left the show after this season, often experimented with structure in individual episodes by telling non-linear stories or using extensive flashbacks. Unfortunately, he does it less often and to less effect this season, losing that delightful sense of a secret being slowly revealed to the audience, and mostly forgoing the tautness of his best-structured episodes. Part of my slight dissatisfaction with this season is that the intricacies of national politics and the election campaign are not where my non-American interests lie—I wanted to see more of the issue-driven stories, but the Qumar and Kundu arcs were often dropped for extended periods of time, losing momentum over the season.
The episodes "Inauguration" and "Life on Mars" are probably the best examples of non-linear stories this season, with the former using some overlap in its time-jumping storyline to allow us our bearings, by placing us in the same scene we've seen before but from a different camera angle. The latter episode starts with the startling revelation that the Vice President is resigning, and works its way back to that point to reveal each clue like a great detective story.
"Debate Camp" is an example of playing with time, where we get flashbacks to before the President's inauguration. The women get bad hairdos to indicate a change to the past timeline, we see C.J. before she's perfected her act with the press, and we are shown the unimaginable: a married Toby, still grumpy, but almost happy. Like other episodes this season, there are some winks to long-time fans of the series, such as a Josh/Toby interaction that pokes fun at the show's stylized walk-and-talk scenes, patented by director and executive producer Thomas Schlamme (who also left at the end of this season). "Do you mind if I walk with you while we talk?" "We'd better get used to having meetings in corridors."
Further hurting the momentum this season are the stories that take us outside the White House into the personal lives of the characters—a rarity in previous seasons, but all-too-common now, with C.J. returning home in "The Long Goodbye" and extensive scenes of Toby and Donna's personal lives in other episodes. Paradoxically, this season doesn't quite have the heart-in-my throat excitement of previous ones for me. Previously, I couldn't wait to find out what would happen next, not because of a continuing storyline or cliffhanger ending, but because these characters had me captivated. They still do, but to a lesser extent—given high doses of character revelation at once left me feeling overdosed at times.
Besides the clever structure, The West Wing was always the kind of show where you had to pay attention to every line, because not only do they fly by, a seemingly throwaway line can be key to a later revelation. However, as this season went on, I found myself no longer hanging on each word. Sorkin hadn't lost his touch for witty and insightful dialogue, but his words had lost their place a bit as an integral part of the plots.
They didn't, however, lose their bite or their intelligence. Sorkin rarely felt the need to dumb down his dialogue, forcing many of us to run to Google to figure out just what Leo meant by his reference to Toscanini landing in the cornfield, for example, but feeling like we knew the secret handshake when we got another obscure, throw-away reference. In the context of the President deciding not to muffle his own intellectualism, we are told "complexity isn't a vice"—and again, the line of dialogue could be referring to the show itself.
In a series filled with rapid-fire dialogue, it's surprising to find that it's not afraid of silence, either. There are scenes of Toby and Will reading each other's speeches, for example, or families waiting anxiously with Leo for word on the fate of soldiers captured in Kundu, where words would be extraneous. Another wonderful scene, where Toby tells his colleagues that his babies have been born, in the midst of another national crisis, imbues their inarticulate reactions with more emotion than words could.
One criticism Sorkin endured was that his characters all sound the same—and it's hard to argue with that. Their speeches have a Sorkin rhythm to them, and odd pet expressions like "no earthly idea" pop up in nearly every characters' mouth. But since the dialogue is brilliant and entertaining, and the characters are distinctive despite the similar speech patterns, I find it hard to care.
One of my favorite, though low-key, examples this season of the plot payoff to seemingly random dialogue comes from the episode "Guns Not Butter." Josh is upset at a poll that shows the public are not supportive of foreign aid, when a key vote is coming up. Throughout the episode, he quotes the poll: "68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut." Finally, Will gives him the setup he needs to show what the real issue is.
Will: You like that stat.
The beauty of the show is that the point of the hysterical lament isn't simply that voters are ignorant. A recurring agenda of the Bartlet White House is the realization that they must educate the public, to make them see why doing the right thing is better than doing the politically expedient thing…why stopping genocide halfway across the world is worth a small percentage of the federal budget.
Coincidentally, I watched the next movie on my docket, Hotel Rwanda, while drafting this review, and it brought the painful African reality into the inspirational Kundu fiction. C.J. employs the actual semantic gymnastics used by the Clinton administration to distinguish "acts of genocide" in Rwanda from "genocide," as part of a carefully worded attempt to justify inaction in a nation where they had no strategic interests. The reality the West Wing writers are echoing is not just the 10-year-old Rwandan genocide, but later civil wars in other African nations, such as Sudan and the Congo. Knowing the reality of worldwide indifference and impotence makes the fictional Bartlet's response all the more powerful, and underlies the beautiful idealism that drives the show.
There's no easy answers even in this fictional world, though. To finally answer the question of why Bartlet should send American sons to Kundu, C.J.'s pithy response is: "Because those are someone's sons too." As the season progresses, more and more American lives are lost to save tens of thousands of Kundunese, but it's presented as the enormous sacrifice it should be, rather than a simple math equation.
If there's a theme to this season, it's that actions have their inevitable consequences. Events of previous seasons, such as the assassination of a foreign leader and the president hiding his multiple sclerosis, still have ramifications in this season. An article the president wrote and disowned long ago becomes the foundation for his radical shift in foreign policy. The West Wing is often about ethics, and it's at its best when it lives in the grey area. The assassination of the Qumari foreign minister, as much of a threat as he was, is never presented as a clearly moral choice. As one character asks, "How can justice that has to be served in secret be justice?"
In the double-length season opener, "20 Hours in America," Toby, Josh, and Donna get an opportunity to see what's important to their constituents when they accidentally get left behind on the campaign trail. As they finally find their way home, a domestic terrorist act leaves 44 dead and 100 injured. Even though the specifics are far removed from 9/11, which had occurred the year previously, the aftermath of this fictional incident has strong echoes of those real events. This episode starts the season on a high which, unfortunately, it would not be able to sustain. Pure West Wing, it made me laugh out loud and cry, and it commented on real life events without mirroring or trivializing them. When Bartlet makes a speech about the rescue workers and others who went back into the flames, there can be no doubt it is the writer's response to the World Trade Center tragedy. Even the episode's flaws—a tendency to get preachy at the end—is in the classic, overreaching West Wing style I'd come to love.
The individual characters and the dynamics between them—brought fully to life by an incredible ensemble cast—are what elevate the show even when the plots sag. C.J.'s banter with the press corps is always a highlight, and her relationship with Toby, especially, hits the perfect note of non-romantic, collegial friendship. Charlie finally kicks ass this season—pretty much literally—after fading into the background in Season 3. Lovably pompous Josh has his foil in goofy but grounded Donna, and their interactions contain a light element of affection and attraction (which hadn't at this point gotten to the "good lord, hook them up or stop it, already" point).
Even the regular supporting characters jump off the screen. Nancy McNally and Admiral Fitzwallace of the Joint Chiefs get some great zingers, and feel like familiar friends in their rare appearances. When First Lady Abby Bartlet (Stockard Channing, Grease) shows up, it's refreshing to see a long-term, loving relationship like this on television. She humanizes the president without sentimentalizing him, and Sheen and Channing crackle onscreen together.
Other familiar faces are brought back this season, though it sometimes seems a reach. Reporter and sometime C.J. love interest Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield) returns to spice up the Qumar story, pollster and sometime Josh love interest Joey (Marlee Matlin) returns briefly, therapist Dr. Stanley Keyworth (Adam Arkin) returns to get the President through his Qumar guilt, and Amy Gardner (Mary Louise Parker), sometime Josh love interest and gal-of-all trades has a fairly extensive role, ending up as the First Lady's Chief of Staff. The character has bounced around so much, it seems like they don't know what to do with Parker but wanted to keep her around.
A couple of crucial characters—Zoey's new boyfriend Jean-Paul, and Bartlet's Republican opponent in the election—stand out amid this smorgasbord of characterization for their appalling lack of depth. James Brolin is suitably dim-witted but charismatic for the role of Bartlet's opposition, but he's too obviously a caricature drawn by a Democrat.
Humor is essential to all the West Wing characters. When Bartlet finally decides to replace his deceased secretary, Lily Tomlin's character is obviously the only choice, because she's the only one who can go toe-to-toe with the President's humor. As an added bonus, the introduction of her Mrs. Fiderer provides more scenes for the wonderful, often underused Dulé Hill.
Despite the terrorism and war themes that run through this season, The West Wing is at its core an optimistic show. One of the best representations of its optimisms comes in "Evidence of Things Not Seen," where C.J. has a kooky theory—that at the exact moment of the equinox, an egg can be stood on its end (Toby, after doing a Google search to debunk the theory: "You gotta ask yourself, if no one on the Internet wants a piece of this, just how far from the pack have you strayed?"). Her faith in the theory is tied to her faith in the power of the people in the room, the civil servants and politicians she works with who are struggling to make the world a better place even as they are being attacked, politically and literally. The episode title comes from her quoting the Bible: she believes in "the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen."
After that note of optimism, the last two episodes, "Commencement" and "25," take a darker turn and start to tie all the threads of the season together into yet another cliffhanger season ender.
Three episodes, "Game On," "Commencement," and "25," have commentaries with Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme, and one or two other participants each. Recorded two years after the episodes were shot, and with the participation of two men who seem constrained about what they can or will talk about, they tend to be fairly dull. The most interesting revelation is how Sorkin's vision of the cliffhanger resolution differed substantially from John Wells' actual version, when he took over the helm for Season Five.
Other features are a few unaired scenes in their rough form, and two featurettes—one on the First Lady character, and another on speechwriters in real life and in the show. Annoyingly, even featureless discs in this six-disc Alpha case package have the Special Features menu, but there are Easter Eggs on the 2nd and 4th discs, featuring cast interviews about Joshua Molina's on-set pranks and Martin Sheen's inability to remember names. Go to these "empty" special features menus and left click onto the photographs at the left.
Audio and video quality are impressive, with episodes presented in anamorphic widescreen, showing off the rich color palette with no defects to mar the visual experience, and Dolby Digital 2.0, highlighting the fast-paced dialogue and scene-appropriate musical selections.
Season Four is the last of the Sorkin years, and though it's also the lesser of the Sorkin years, it's the final must-have West Wing set for me. It never hit the highs of previous seasons, but it didn't reach the lows, either. Some of the plots became more banal or credibility-stretching than before, but mostly it was an averagely great season of an uncommonly great show, with some of the finest acting, writing, and character development on television.
Not guilty…for now. But don't get me started on this series' future transgressions.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary on three episodes
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