Judge Daniel MacDonald likes to walk and talk, often at the same time.
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 Fifth Season (published March 1st, 2006), and The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season (published November 27th, 2006) are also available.
"I think you're drastically overestimating the political potency of my sex life."—C.J. Cregg
The West Wing: The Complete Sixth Season is both a return to nearly the level of quality present in the first four seasons, and a bold new direction for the show. The writers seem to have figured out how to make The West Wing fresh again, and to tell compelling stories in the series' world without Aaron Sorkin's strong guiding hand.
It's better than Season Five, but how good is it really?
Facts of the Case
As is often the case, this season of The West Wing begins with the White House in crisis: President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is holding peace talks between Israel and Pakistan, against the advice of nearly his entire staff, while Josh (Bradley Whitford) stays by Donna's (Janel Moloney) side as she recovers from injuries she sustained in Gaza. As the season progresses, Leo's (the late John Spencer) health problems force a new Chief-of-Staff to be named, Josh (Bradley Whitford) starts looking to the future, Toby (Richard Schiff) forms a love-hate (often leaning more toward hate) relationship with a new Deputy Press Secretary, and the President deals with the increasingly debilitating effects of his MS. On top of all this, Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda join the cast as Matthew Santos and Arnold Vinick, candidates running for the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively.
Bartlet, knowing he's got less than two years left in office, is thinking legacy—but can he separate wishful thinking from the world's reality?
Twenty-two episodes are included:
• NSF Thurmont
Season Five was a transitionary one—while still amongst the best shows on television, it floundered a bit after the abrupt departure of show creator and writer Aaron Sorkin and lead director Thomas Schlamme. Sorkin's unique voice was present in every episode during his tenure, and co-creator John Wells realized Sorkin had left some awfully large shoes to fill by leaving the show during its summer hiatus, especially in the middle of a four-episode arc dealing with Zoe Bartlet's kidnapping. Clearly the show would have to adapt, but to what? Slowly, over the course of the year, Wells tried to transition to something different, subtly changing the lighting scheme (it had gotten to be one of the most boldly under-lit shows ever), bringing in new characters like Kate Harper (Mary McCormack), and beginning a lengthy storyline involving President Bartlet's attempt to broker peace in the Middle East before his tenure is up. It was a good, but not great, season that left many wondering, especially after its relatively low-key season finale, just how long The West Wing would continue, and if it would end on its own terms.
Enter Season Six, and a newly confident writing team who seemed to know exactly where they wanted the show to go.
Here, the realization seemed to be that there could be life outside the White House, and so the stories opened up beyond those corridors—not to say the show abandoned its format, but it was refreshing to spend the first couple of episodes between Camp David and a German hospital, really giving the characters an opportunity to do something different. Not every series can pull this off—I stopped watching ER once they were frequently spending entire episodes outside of the hospital—but in this case, I think it solved the problem of where to take The West Wing without Aaron Sorkin.
Things really change up in "Opposition Research," where we follow the grass roots beginning to Santos' campaign in New Hampshire. While tonally consistent with the rest of the series, this episode marks a real departure from what we've seen before, successful in large part due to Jimmy Smits' performance. Other standout episodes include "Liftoff," "King Corn," and "Things Fall Apart." Both Smits and Emmy-nominated Alan Alda fit in well with the rest of the cast and add freshness to the proceedings. The aforementioned "King Corn" is my favorite episode of the season; it depicts Russell, Santos, and Vinick on the same day, dealing with the same issue leading up to a speech at the same venue, comparing and contrasting their campaign strategies at a breakneck pace. It's bold television, and it's hard to believe it was directed by series regular Alex Graves.
Further, the show has addressed one of my biggest complaints about the previous season: that, in Josh's words from an earlier season, "They forgot to bring the funny." Sorkin knew that strong melodrama could be balanced against character-driven comedy to prevent going into soap opera territory. Season Five was a largely humorless exercise, but here we have some truly funny material that breaks the unflinching seriousness and illuminates the characters' human nature.
Although this was the first year in the show's history that Allison Janney didn't get nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Emmy in her role as C.J. Cregg (although she deserved at least the nod), the season seemed to get the critics and audience back on the show's side, following the missteps of Season Five, a difficult and laudable task to be sure.
Acting is strong up and down the cast, with a highlight reel moment for John Spencer when his Leo McGarry has a shouting match with the President in the Oval Office, and lots of opportunities for Bradley Whitford to show his range.
The show is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, preserving its original aspect ratio. The slight softness in the picture that plagued previous seasons is here as well, with some of the darker scenes appearing not quite crisp. The audio is two-channel Dolby Digital Surround, doing a serviceable job, but not really standing out. Where's the 5.1?
The six-disc set contains only one additional featurette, that being "C.J. Cregg: From Press Secretary to Chief of Staff." The 15-minute piece mixes interviews with fellow cast members, directors, and writers, all waxing the car of Allison Janney for her portrayal of one of the show's most popular characters. While perhaps a bit fluffy, the featurette is sure to bring a smile to West Wing fans with its many clips of C.J. being saucy. And it couldn't have happened to a better character: C.J. Cregg is one of the most fantastic roles ever to appear on television, balancing strength and vulnerability in a believable and fully-realized performance. Often strong women are written simply as men with breasts, but not so with C.J.
Director/writer commentary tracks are available on three episodes: "King Corn," "In God We Trust," and "2162 Votes." As in previous seasons, these offer some interesting trivia about the episodes' creation, but also have quiet patches when the commentators are simply watching the show. Worth a listen, but not requisite.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I enjoyed this sixth season, I can't deny that it's not as good as the first four seasons. It's a different show than it used to be, and will never be able to return to that old glory. Although complex issues are tackled from multiple angles, not allowing the viewer easy answers, a few of the episodes also seem a bit single-minded: instead of having three or four simultaneous, earth-shattering storylines going on in the White House, sometimes there's only really one or two, making one wonder how running a country got to be so easy.
Further, I don't know why such a high-profile show gets saddled with a soft transfer, but it hurts me. Deeply.
The West Wing: The Complete Sixth Season is an easy title to recommend for those who have 1-5; it's better than the previous season, and is second-to-last in the series' run. For those disheartened by Season Five's shortcomings, I recommend giving this one a chance before abandoning The West Wing. It nicely sets up the final season, and provides solid entertainment with each and every episode.
I hereby acquit The West Wing: The Complete Sixth Season of all charges, save a misdemeanor for having a soft picture. I sentence it to attend a week-long DVD Transfer course and 30 hours of community service.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• C.J. Cregg: From Press Secretary to Chief of Staff
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