Judge Daniel MacDonald looks forward to West Wing 2: Even Wester.
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 Sixth Season (published August 14th, 2006) are also available.
"You know what I'm really going to miss? The Marine Corps Band. Those guys can really play."—President Bartlet, "Tomorrow"
After a solid six years of intelligent, literate, and somewhat melodramatic television, The West Wing reaches a natural conclusion in this, its seventh and final season. Chock full of ideas, and with some subtle references to its early years, Season Seven provides a fitting conclusion to a program that proved North American audiences would watch a political drama if the acting, writing, and direction were all superb.
Facts of the Case
Picking up where Season Six left off, Texas Senator Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits, Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith) and California Senator Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda, Crimes and Misdemeanors) are locked in an election battle that's too close to call. Episodes have about a 60/40 split between following the candidates on the campaign trail and the goings on at the White House with the current administration, headed by esteemed President Bartlet (Martin Sheen, Wall Street). There's romance, vicious political maneuvering, second-guessing, and little time to stop for a breath in both camps, making for a brutal gauntlet to run. Meanwhile, Bartlet and his staff try to balance final acts of governance with not putting Democratic candidate Santos in difficult political positions.
Myriad storylines are laid out: Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford, Billy Madison) sees his stress level rise and his sanity decline running his first campaign; an escalating tension between China and Russia must be mediated; Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney, American Beauty) is the prime suspect in an ongoing investigation of a leaked military secret; Leo McGarry (John Spencer, The Rock) struggles in the public eye as Santos' candidate for Vice President; and a nuclear accident in California shakes up Vinick's campaign strategy but good.
It's an ambitious season, balancing world crises with human emotion, all moving toward the inevitable final episode, Bartlet's last day in office.
Spread across six single-sided discs:
• The Ticket
The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season is about as satisfying a final season as one could hope for, and it is clear that the writers and producers knew that this would be it all along. Setting it in Bartlet's final year as president adds both a natural finality and an immediacy to the proceedings, with the fresh blood candidates Santos and Vinick drooling at the opportunity to take his place. Every decision is that much more intense, as it will be fresh in the memory of the American public when they think of the Bartlet legacy.
The same pressure falls on executive producer John Wells (ER) and his team, as loyal West Wing fans will heavily scrutinize this season. The reaction to that pressure: jam-pack every episode with as much plot, as many dramatic moments and unforeseen turns as possible, to create a massive dessert cart of policy discussion and human emotion. While no single episode ever quite reaches the heights that the best of the early Sorkin-scripted years did, taken on a whole this is a well-considered conclusion to one of the most original shows on television.
A lot of the credit for the season's success goes to the Season Six masterstroke of following Vinick and Santos in their respective presidential campaigns. There's no time to get stale when juggling the reactions of the Santos camp, the Vinick team, and the Bartlet White House on any particular issue, and it's fascinating to view the day-to-day machinations of a modern run at the Presidency.
Several standout episodes exist in this season, any one of which could have been a satisfying season finale. (If you want to avoid any semi-spoilery plot-point talk, it might be best to avoid this section.) Carrying over from Season Six, the White House is involved in an intense investigation as to who leaked the existence of a secret military space shuttle to the press, forcing the White House to use the shuttle to rescue stranded astronauts (including a Russian). A lot of dramatic tension is build up around the question of who did it, and when the person is finally revealed, it's both shocking and obvious. Episode six, "Here Today," which deals with the ramifications of a confession, is probably my favorite episode of the year. Later, a nuclear accident in California, with obvious overtones of how Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans was handled, has surprising ramifications for both candidates, and forces Bartlet to deal with a Sophie's Choice-level decision. And "Requiem" deals, tastefully, with the death of Leo McGarry; Emmy-winner John Spencer's untimely passing from a heart attack forced his absence from episodes leading to this one, and changed the character's planned arc, which certainly cast an unfortunate shadow over the last few episodes.
The most unique and ambitious episode, of course, is "The Debate," which was performed live for both West Coast and East Coast viewers. As the title implies, the entire episode consists of Santos and Vinick's televised debate, with the men challenging each other on the issues and baring their passion for the job they are after. It works on a number of levels. First, it presents a political aficionado's dream debate, where the candidates mutually decide to eschew the rules, come out from behind their podiums, and provide some straight talk to the American people. Of course a debate would never really happen that way in real life, and I doubt it would be well received if it did, but in the world of The West Wing it makes perfect sense. Second, it refocuses the characters on what they are after: the Presidency. Showing so much of the campaign trail, and the political games each side must play while on it, can start to imply that the battle between Vinick and Santos is more important that the job they are both chasing. This episode strips all of that away, and has a palpable affect on subsequent episodes. And third, it maintains a laudable amount of dramatic tension for what is essentially two guys talking for forty-five minutes. In the behind-the-scenes featurette for this episode, writer Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. rightly points out that success or failure lies squarely on the script, a formidable challenge that he managed to meet handily. While it's probably not the episode you'll most often be popping into your DVD player, it makes a statement that the show wasn't on autopilot for this last kick at the can.
There are strong themes running through Season Seven: the ongoing sexual tension between Josh and Donna (Janel Moloney) is matched by a sweet relationship building between Leo and his much younger handler Annabeth (Kristin Chenoweth, RV); tensions exist between the White House and the Democratic campaign, and between China and Russia over Kazakhstan; White House staff have as uncertain a future as their incumbents. Much questioning of principles and moral dilemmas ensue, familiar to fans but rarely predictable.
The outcome of the impending election is surprisingly difficult to predict (I don't want to give away who wins, but check out the IMDb trivia page for the show for an interesting, and illuminating, tidbit), making the two-part "Election Day" episode a real nail biter. And it is satisfying to have a few episodes after this to see the President Elect prepare for his new role, and the current staff look to the future; the writers manage to mine some unexpected material out of this territory.
Acting has always been one of the show's biggest strengths, and every performance is exceptional here. Although Alan Alda was the year's only Emmy winner for acting, this cast is a powerhouse rarely seen on television. Underplaying is the order of the day, with no one character ever stealing the spotlight for long. There are a few editions to the cast, including the witty Janeane Garofalo (Reality Bites), but they fit into the show's world seamlessly, and quickly seem like they've been around all along.
This Warner Bros. DVD presentation features seems to feature better video transfers than any previous season, with sharp, rich images finally doing justice to the remarkable cinematography. I was pleasantly surprised by the way this season looked.
The sparse special features are at least interesting, both focusing on the live debate episode. First, on Disc Two, we get "Live From the Director's Chair," which gives an insightful look at the directing of live television. We get to see director Alex Graves determine the timing of cuts with the snap of a finger, and the quiet and confident control room behind what we see, with the episode featured in its entirety. Then, on Disc Six is a behind-the-scenes featurette on the conception, planning, and execution of the episode, running for about 22 minutes and well done. I have to say, these are probably some of the best features on any West Wing box set; I only wish there was more.
Overall, The West Wing: The Complete Seventh Season gives fans of the show a big helping of what they love (including the brief return of Rob Lowe, Wayne's World), and wraps up the lives of characters with which loyal viewers have become so familiar.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are few missteps story-wise, but the biggest is in episode 8, where Communications Director Will Bailey (Joshua Malina, The American President) is forced to act as wedding consultant to the President's daughter when C.J. is tied up by an overseas crisis. I have a great deal of trouble imagining either the Chief of Staff or the Communications Director of the White House having anything to do with the wedding minutia Will is forced to deal with, and while it provides a few chuckles, it is below par for a show with such high standards.
Once again, the show is presented in two-channel Dolby Digital Surround. I am fairly certain that when The West Wing aired in high definition, it featured a 5.1 soundtrack, and if such a mix exists, why not include it here? Sure, it's a talky show, but sound design has always been important to its dramatic impact, and the choice not to go with 5.1 baffles me.
Finally, I expected more special features, this being the end of The West Wing. Perhaps a retrospective would have been nice, but at the very least let's have some commentaries or something. From a features point of view, this set feels a bit rushed.
Nominated for six Emmy Awards, winning two, this final season of The West Wing is easily a must-buy for fans of the show, especially if you have the previous six. And if you've never seen it, you could do worse than starting here. Highly recommended.
Having served its country and others, The West Wing is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Live From The Director's Chair
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