The West Wing: Season 3 — a review


Sometimes I don’t express my feelings as well as I want. Sometimes I don’t even know my own feelings about a television series (or whatever entertainment option I’m using to kill time) unless I think about it for a while.

With most television series, I experience a mixed reaction. All shows have their good and bad traits. When the bad clearly outweighs the good, that’s usually when I’ll quit watching. There are exceptions. I finished watching Gotham and Arrow because of that OCD completist thing. In hindsight, I probably should have stopped both when I still held a mostly-favorable opinion of the programs.

I know when I like a series a lot, though. These are the ones I look forward to watching every week, often straight through from beginning to end. My attention span continues to grow worse as I get older, and it’s rare that I watch anything, television series or movie, in more than fifteen-minute chunks. The shows that I like would be the ones I’d be tempted to binge-watch if I hadn’t imposed a no-more-than-two-episodes-per-week restriction after the five-episode-per-week stretch on Supernatural robbed me of some of my enjoyment of that series.

Out of ten viewing projects at the moment—nine television series and one movie—only three of them would fall into the “likes a lot” category. Chief among these, at the moment, is The West Wing. Season 3 was no exception.

Having said this, Season 3 has been my least-favorite season of the series so far. There was a tonal shift in the series, a shift towards darker subject matter, that was probably unavoidable. The September 11, 2001, attacks caused a delay in the release of this season until October 3, 2001.

The first episode of this season was written and produced in less than three weeks, and was the noncanonical “special” episode titled “Isaac and Ishmael.” It was terrorism-themed, of course. James Poniewozik, chief television critic for The New York Times, said the episode was condescending and preachy. He wasn’t wrong. Some of our favorite series characters end up lecturing school children about terrorism, about how it is extremist groups, not Muslims, who are the problem, and a bit of Bible study. Meanwhile, Leo is shown acting uncharacteristically racist towards a terror suspect. While I understand the intent of the episode, and found some of it enlightening, I’m still glad it isn’t considered part of canon. It was a little like seeing your favorite comic book superheroes trying to sell fruit pies.

If I had been watching this series back in the fall of 2001, I’d like to think I would have understood why I had to wait for the real season premiere to hear President Bartlet’s unsurprising surprise announcement that he intends to run for re-election. Here, nearly two decades later, it was a bit of a disappointment, and felt a little like bait-and-switch.

On Netflix, it happened again with the episode placed in the nineteenth position, the so-called “Documentary Special” that included interviews with Presidents Ford, Carter and Clinton, and real-life White House staffers from various administrations. It won a Primetime Emmy back in 2002, but I didn’t even watch the entire episode. I’ve allotted myself only two episodes per week of The West Wing. If I hadn’t moved ahead with “Enemies Foreign and Domestic,” I would have felt cheated.

These two episodes aren’t the reason this has been my least-favorite season so far—at least, not the entire reason. Nor is it because I got only 21 real episodes, instead of the 23 it looked like at first glance. While the show has dealt with darker themes before, and will certainly continue to do so, the real-life events of 9/11 cast a pall over this series as it did over so much of life at the time. This was most apparent when the series turned to terrorism-related plots.

In an October 2002 episode of Charlie Rose, Aaron Sorkin acknowledged these Season 3 problems, and said, “I didn’t know how to write it anymore. It was a constant search for what I wasn’t doing that used to make the show work. Maybe there was a way to make it work. There probably was. I wasn’t able to find it in twenty-two episodes.”

Not to split hairs, Mr. Sorkin, but it was 21 episodes.

Regardless, I think he was being a little hard on himself. I won’t say it was the worst season in the series because I haven’t watched all of them. I won’t even say it was a bad season. I’m just saying it’s been my least favorite. So far.

As I mentioned earlier, the season genuinely kicks off with President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) announcing his intent to run for re-election, which leads to friction with First Lady Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing) and to a Congressional investigation into whether the president committed electoral fraud by concealing his MS diagnosis. Political operative Bruno Gianelli (Ron Silver) is brought on board to help run a successful re-election campaign, and as an abrasive outsider Bruno clashes with the senior staff on occasion.

There still seems to be time to put romance on the agenda. Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff, emerges as a main character in the season, becoming romantically involved with a young Republican lawyer who, two episodes later, is part of the Congressional committee investigating the president. CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) also has a strong story arc in the season when she’s not becoming too preachy about the “Women of Qumar.” It turns out that she’s receiving death threats, and the Secret Service assigns Agent Simon Donovan (Mark Harmon) to protect her, and, of course, they develop a mutual attraction. Leo McGarry (John Spencer) begins to woo attorney Jordan Kendall (Joanna Gleason). Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) begins dating feminist pundit Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker). Even President Bartlet and the First Lady have to work on their relationship this season.

Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) and Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) seem relegated to the second string most of the time. Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) gets to do his moody, mumbling schtick and conducts some unnecessary psychoanalysis (my opinion) on the president, but not much else that I can recall. Ainsley Hayes (Emily Proctor) appears in a couple of episodes this season; she doesn’t do much, but at least she hasn’t moved to Mandyville yet.

I like a series with a large ensemble cast. Few series have a cast as accomplished and engaging as this one. The truth is a few favorites will emerge from the pack, and the viewer’s going to spend more time with these. President Bartlet—and his best friend Leo McGarry—are not only always at the forefront of the main story arcs, but are the glue that holds the entire team together. Josh and CJ are just fun to be around and tend to get the meatiest plots. Every other actor in the cast has to be a utility player.

The one overarching story line of the season concerns the Qumari defense minister Abdul Shareef, who has been secretly planning terrorist attacks against the US. President Bartlet has to make the decision whether or not to order Shareef’s assassination, an action that will naturally be quickly and quietly covered up. This was a compelling enough story line to conclude during the finale, one still echoing with the events of 9/11, and I enjoyed the premise that an American president would actually agonize over making such a decision. But, another tragic event was tacked on to the finale, one that I won’t spoil even this late in the game, which I don’t feel was necessary. It doesn’t even qualify as a cliffhanger in my opinion. Along with other minor missteps during the season, it left a slightly bad aftertaste.

Still and all, I enjoyed this season, and am only deducting half a letter grade.

Firewater’s Bartlet-Rules-America;America-Rocks;Therefore-Bartlet-Rocks Report Card: A


You weren’t honestly expecting a lower grade, were you? This is still great television.


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