Judge Adam Arseneau keeps cleaning supplies in his West Wing.
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 Fourth Season (published June 1st, 2005), 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.
An alternate title to this DVD set would be The West Wing: The Season When Fans Simultaneously Stopped Watching.
In some ways, Season Five was the beginning of the end for The West Wing; a show that, in its heyday, was the height of intellectual dramatic television, garnering numerous critical reviews, Emmys, and awards above and beyond all other dramas on network television. Despite being a rabid fan favorite and a ratings juggernaut for four seasons, most people have naught but harsh words to say about the series from Season Five on. Indeed, only the most dedicated followers of the Bartlet administration managed to stick around to see the show's ultimate decline into ratings obscurity and, at the end of the current season, cancellation.
But is Season Five really as bad as people say? Why all the negativity towards one of the finest dramas seen on network television in decades? Is the criticism justified? Let's find out.
Facts of the Case
Season Five begins right where Season Four left off: Zoey Bartlet is still missing, the Speaker of the House is in temporary charge of the White House, and the administration is in shambles. President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), still shaken from recent events, begins to see a decline in support from the public, while his administration, led by Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) struggles to keep control of an increasingly Republican-controlled Senate and House as he appoints a new vice president and Supreme Court judge.
Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), as always, tries to put a good spin on events and keep the wolves at bay, while Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and his assistant Donna Moss (Janet Moloney) struggle with an embarrassing gaffe, Lyman's political aspirations, and a tragic incident in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Deputy Communications Director Will Bailey (Joshua Malina), experiencing some job satisfaction issues, receives a tantalizing job offer from down the hall, much to the ire of his boss, Communications Director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff).
All 22 episodes from Season Five are included on this DVD:
• "7A WF 83429"
To say the fifth season sucks out loud would probably be an unfair and unjust accusation, but it is quite probable that it does some sucking in private. Err, in a non-sexual way. Wait, let me start again. What I mean is; were this season the first season of a brand-new show that nobody had seen before, it is quite possible that people would be decently pleased with this dramatic and gripping real-world presidential drama. Only those with four previous seasons of exceptional television experience under their belt would realize what an underachiever The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season actually is.
For the first four seasons, series creator Aaron Sorkin had an active role in writing, producing, and guiding the show's direction, not to mention cultivating the trademark rapid-fire, zingy dialogue that made the show infamous; a writing style which can only be described as "Sorkinesque." Prior to the fifth season, Sorkin bailed out from his brainchild, leaving the show rather directionless in terms of creative vision. His departure had an immediate effect on the quality of the show in regards to character development, plot, and dialogue…not to mention the Nielsen ratings. The most stalwart fans stuck it out and eventually the show regained its equilibrium somewhat, but only in the most trivial and lackluster sense of the word, for it never managed to recapture the spark and vibrancy that drove the show to critical and popular success.
What Sorkin brought to the table was subtlety, a delicate touch in character development, and interaction unrivaled by other television franchises. He understood that it wasn't simply enough to present interesting and complex situations in an ensemble drama…one had to listen to the characters reacting to them and let them suffer, mature, and cultivate within the created environment. On the surface, Season Five has all the typical West Wing fare—dramatic situations, tense standoffs with terrorists, political intrigue, scandal, etc.—but the characters simply solve the issues with a minimum of personal effort and fuss. The characters simply exist and do their jobs and the episode ends, with little character growth or development, and here is where one feels Sorkin's departure most of all. His writing gave the characters a direction and purpose, an arc to follow that transcended whatever particular political crisis crossed the presidential desk that particular day and, perhaps most importantly, a subtle nuance when dealing with one another. Certain dramatic sequences between characters in the Fifth Season make for good television, but simply feel wrong to dedicated West Wing fans, who know the characters like the back of their hands and realize they never would have said such things under Sorkin's reign. Without this direction, the characters are rather aimless; certainly capable of doing their jobs, but almost emotionless, like the spark has gone out of their eyes. Melodramatic sounding, I know, but any fan of the show could tell you instantly that something was wrong with Season Five, even if they had not heard of Sorkin's departure. The show had become, for lack of a better word, depressed.
Still, this is The West Wing, one of the finest dramas to emerge from television in recent years. It would be virtually impossible for anyone to sabotage the show completely and, given the situation faced by the writers and creative heads, they did the best they could. Under Sorkin's helm, the show had an uncanny ability to balance season-long story arcs and the new creative team helmed by John Wells (ER) tries its best to recreate the effect with moderate success, especially towards the end of the season. Middle East politics continue to play an ever-increasing role, as well as mounting pressures to cave under Republican demands from an increasingly hostile Senate and House, marking a decisively bipartisan shift for the notoriously liberal West Wing. The show still embodies all the ideological principals it once trumpeted, but the characters begin to run into resistance, illustrating the difficulties in passing fiscal and social reforms in an increasingly conservative America. In a sense, this makes the Fifth Season the most realistic and true to American politics yet, an attempt to find compromise between liberal and conservative ideology by making hard decisions and tough sacrifices. There are some strong episodes this season, like "Separation of Powers," "Shutdown," a two-part episode about the government shutting down after failing to pass an operating budget, and "The Supremes," perhaps the most Sorkinesque post-Sorkin episode created.
Of course, there's also "Access," which could very well be the single worst thing The West Wing ever did. Ever.
For a television show, The West Wing is shot exceptionally well, scored and filmed very similar to a full-length feature film, albeit a very dark one. The cinematography on Season Five is dark, hazy, and soft, even more than previous seasons, making the low-lit corridors of the West Wing almost impenetrable behind a deep, black velvet curtain of shadows. Though it is far too dim and indistinct a transfer for my personal tastes, I cannot deny the elegant cinematic effect, and the transfer is free from defect and damage, exhibiting minimal grain. Not bad. The audio, a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo presentation, does the job quite well, bouncing between clear dialogue and WG Snuffy Walden's sublime scoring.
Extras are on par with previous seasons, featuring two featurettes, three commentary tracks and some deleted scenes on three episodes. "In POTUS We Trust" features an examination into President Bartlet and interviews with cast and crew, while "Gaza: Anatomy of an Episode" goes into technical detail on recreating the Gaza Strip in the Salton Sea, each running about 15 minutes. The audio commentaries on episodes "7A WF 83429," "The Dogs of War," and "The Supremes" feature executive producer John Wells and directors Alex Graves, Chris Misiano, and Jessica Yu, and story editor Debora Cahn discussing various aspects of the episodes in a factual, if rather bland, fashion. All things considered, this isn't a great deal of material, but at least the DVDs have been consistent.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At the end of the day, Season Five is hardly the disaster that some fans made it out to be, but I cannot deny that the magic that made The West Wing such a fantastic show had definitely taken a hiatus. Like a shaky simulacra of its former self going through the motions with the same characters, The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season epitomizes the notion of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it does fall heartbreakingly short of its established potential and start the show on a downwards spiral that eventually cumulates in abysmal ratings and cancellation.
But on the other hand, The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season is still The West Wing, and that alone makes it superior to most television shows on the air today. Even a bad season of The West Wing is better than most shows ever manage to achieve. That definitely counts for something.
Despite what you may have heard, The West Wing: The Complete Fifth Season, all things considered, is not a debacle of epic proportions. The spark may be gone, but the show has enough gas in the tank to coast towards the goal line one more time. Die-hard West Wing fans might be tempted to stop collecting the show after the departure of Sorkin, but an equally compelling argument could be made to stick it out past Season Four.
Well, at least for one more season. After that, you're on your own.
Bittersweet, yes, but not quite guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "In POTUS We Trust: Presidential Profile of Josiah Bartlet and his Portrayer Martin Sheen" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2006 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.