The West Wing: Season 5 — a review

I’m going to let you in on a secret. I’m going to allow you to take a brief look at the real man behind the curtain here at Firewater Corporation.

I’m about halfway through watching Season 7 of this series as I’m typing this review of Season 5. It’s been about three months since I wrote my review of the previous season, I believe, but I haven’t been watching them that slowly. Netflix has announced that the series will be pulled from their streaming service on December 25 (Merry Christmas!), so I had to speed the process up a bit. Prior to the announcement, I was watching two episodes a week. Quite a bit more since then. I’ve watched eleven episodes this week alone because I was concerned I wouldn’t have enough time to complete watching the series before it was pulled. I am no longer concerned. I could watch only three episodes per week and make the deadline now.

I know, you don’t have to say it. I am a cheap man. I really, really don’t want to have to pay for an alternate method of watching this series. I don’t want to have to purchase the episodes at two dollars apiece from Amazon Prime. Cheap, like I said.

Anyway, from my lofty perch here in the middle of Season 7, I can tell you that The West Wing does indeed survive Aaron Sorkin’s sudden departure at the end of Season 4. Thomas Schlamme, another executive producer, left with Sorkin. We all know that Sorkin is a brilliant wordsmith. I love to hear his characters speak, and I’ve loved all his movies. Schlamme pioneered the “walk and talk” Steadicam shots for the characters walking the endless hallways in the West Wing while talking to each other, and probably a dozen other novel visual storytelling tricks that I know nothing about.

It’s safe to say that Sorkin and Schlamme would be missed. Schlamme continued to be credited as an executive consultant, but who knows what that means? He probably answered a couple of questions by phone.

John Wells had been executive producer and showrunner on ER back when I actually watched it. He was also the show’s head writer. He was involved in a couple of other series, then became the showrunner for The West Wing for its final three seasons. He also went on to help adapt the British series Shameless for a U.S. version, which is beginning its eleventh and final season on Showtime about now, I think.

What I’m trying to say is this: John Wells is no slouch in the showrunner/storyteller department either. The show was left in pretty capable hands, I think.

There are also adjustments that people have to make whenever the creative leaders of a project change. I’m going to use an example from the world of comic books. Read some of my other stuff and you’ll understand. When the artist John Byrne left The Uncanny X-Men and artist Dave Cockrum took over the penciling duties (resumed the duties, to be more accurate, since he was around before Byrne), my perception of the title was that it had changed, even though Chris Claremont was still writing the stories.

A television series has even more variables in play than a comic book. But, Wells inherited an all-star cast, and the production design of the series was already well-established. Wells may not have known the characters as well as Sorkin did, since Sorkin was also their creator, but he knew the characters, certainly.

Before going forward, I’m going to tell you that some SPOILERS are liable to pop out involuntarily. I’ll try to avoid it, but you know how it is.

Sorkin left us last season with one heckuva cliffhanger. Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss), the daughter of President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was abducted. The president invokes the 25th amendment and recuses himself from office during this ordeal, which causes the Speaker of the House, Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman), to become acting president. You’ll recall that we were without a vice president at the end of last season because John Hoyne (Tim Matheson) resigned over a sex scandal. Acting President Walken is a Republican, by the way.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Wait a minute. Apparently you can. Or at least John Wells can.

If the aforementioned crapstorm wasn’t enough, the full story about the Bartlet-ordered assassination of Abdul Shareef is revealed as well. As we enter into the season, these story threads virtually write themselves. We are in reactionary mode, and our first goal is to resolve the storylines that were inherited from the previous administration, then follow the new threads that branch off from there.

While I’m not going to ruin the cliffhanger resolution for you, I will tell you that you’ll get through it just fine. We get Bartlet back in the Oval Office, but Walken does an okay job, even if his leadership style differs from Jed’s.

Eventually, we are introduced to the only vice presidential candidate that could get approved by both houses of Congress, the unimpressive “Bingo Bob” Russell (Gary Cole), who will factor into all plots going forward, at least until Season 7. Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) ends up going to work for Russell, which drives a wedge between Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Will, who I had hoped would replace Rob Lowe as Toby’s most frequent scene partner. The way Malina’s role seemed diminished made me fear that he was heading to Mandyville to join Mandy Hampton, Ainsley Haynes and—dare I say it?—Sam Seaborn. That would have been a shame (no worries: Malina’s still around in Season 7).

Much of the remainder of the season is occupied with what I refer to as “crisis-of-the-week” or “message” episodes. While still somewhat serialized, these are the more episodic installments that help fill twenty-two episodes. I also call them “filler” episodes at times. Most series with more than a dozen or so episodes-per-season have filler episodes, so this isn’t meant to be a slam on The West Wing or John Wells. Not at all.

Here’s a list of some of the topics covered.

The possible defection of a North Korean pianist and the political ramifications. A conflict in the Ionian Sea. Federal budget wrangling and a government shutdown. Doctor-assisted suicide. Trouble in Saudi Arabia. Trouble in Iran. A White House threat lockdown. Former Vice President Hoyne’s book deal. Nominating a new Supreme Court judge.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? I promise that it’s better than it sounds, and John Wells does a good job weaving these genuinely global stories into an entertaining, if sometimes forgettable, melange.

We travel our way through the intervening episodes to reach the final sequence of the season, a bombing in the Gaza Strip that critically wounds Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) and kills one of my favorite characters, Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos). Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) rushes to be beside Donna’s hospital bed in Germany.

All exciting, emotional stuff. Taken as a whole, this was a successful season of the series. I will not join that chorus of so-called fans who talk about how terrible this season was. It wasn’t terrible. But, it was different, and none of us like change no matter how much we lie and say we do in job interviews or stupid staff meetings.

Before I talk about the things I didn’t like in the season, I wanted to make it clear that I liked Season 5. In fact, I liked it a lot, if perhaps a little less than Seasons 1 – 4.

But . . .

Things did change in the series. Sometimes subtly. Sometimes not. The West Wing staff always talked to each other, very quickly, and sometimes disagreed with each other, but this season saw the interpersonal drama kick up a notch. This seemed kind of abrupt in a series that always seemed to place personal issues as secondary to running the country. President Bartlet and C.J. Craig (Allison Janney) are suddenly not getting along, which seemed more unprofessional than anything I had seen on the show prior to this and genuinely hurt my feelings for Claudia Jean. Toby and Will are sparring. Abbey Bartlet (Stockard Channing) and the president are fighting.

Abbey, meanwhile, is terribly underused this season, a thoroughbred being farmed out for pony rides, as are Zoey Bartlet and Charlie Young (Dulé Hill). In fact, I would say the same thing could be said for many of our favorite characters in the show. They all seem either underused, or used in ways we’re not accustomed to seeing. While there are still good moments on the show, it begins to feel more like a soap opera than the story of a White House staff. I’ll never admit this to anyone else after this, but I also missed the Disney-eyed Sam Seaborn this season as well.

Still, the actors hit their marks and said their lines convincingly, and the stories managed to get told. I still liked the show a lot. But, I could tell the difference.

Firewater’s If-Zoey-Bartlet-Shows-Up-Dead-I’m-Gonna-Blow-the-Hell-Out-of-Something Report Card Grade: A-

Go with the flow, baby. There’s plenty to like here.

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