Some viewers hated Season 5 of The West Wing.
Not me. It has been my least-favorite season of the series so far, but I gave it a report card grade of A-minus. That’s respectable. Certainly not hate.
I think most of the critical backlash against the series was because of the departure of Aaron Sorkin. Television viewers have a kind of loyalty to show creators, even when we’re not exactly sure how much they contribute to the show after the concept and pilot. When Sorkin left, the show did change in certain ways, and some of these ways weren’t necessarily for the better.
That’s okay. We adapt. That’s what we do.
I’m happy to report that Season 6 is a better season. I don’t have to tell you that this is my opinion, because that’s what reviews are—opinions. I also don’t have to tell you that some critics, professional and otherwise, don’t exactly agree with my assessment. With some valid reasons. Perfection is a goal, not something that’s actually attainable. There are flaws in this season, and I will point them out to you in this review. But, these few issues weren’t enough to ruin my day or make me suddenly hate a series I’ve loved up to this point.
Now that you mention it, I have had this reaction before to another television series. Sort of. For a while, after I watched the finale of Lost—a finale I thought was weak and unsatisfying—I toyed with the idea of hating the entire series because of it. However, it didn’t stick. Lost remains one of my favorite television series of all time, in spite of the finale. Same deal with Star Trek: Enterprise. Weak finale, but overall a good Trek series. In fact, with newer series to compare it to, Enterprise may have been a bit better than good, and I still think it was a better series than Star Trek: Voyager. Not a popular opinion among many Trekkies, but I’m the one writing at the moment.
It’s also possible that I’m a pushover as a reviewer. I honestly want to like the things that I watch, and, in spite of a dominant sarcastic strain in my genetic makeup (that one I owe to Mom—Dad was quicker with his fists than with words), I still believe I am, first, a positive person.
Like the previous season, Season 6 showrunner was John Wells, who was also an executive producer and writer on the series. If you’ve watched television at all in the past quarter-century, you’ve seen his name on shows such as ER (which I watched some of in the early days), Third Watch (which was on for six seasons without my watching any of it—yet), and Shameless (which is airing its eleventh—and final—season as I type this). Those aren’t the only credits on Wells’ résumé, either.
I can hear what you’re saying. No, John Wells isn’t Aaron Sorkin. He’s John Wells, dammit! And that’s enough.
As always, we have to deal with the fallout from the previous season as we kick off the new one. First thing on the agenda: how to respond to the Gaza attack on U.S. officials. President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) is the person who has to make the momentous decision. The majority of Americans polled are in favor of immediate retaliatory military strikes, as are most of Congress, VP Bob Russell (Gary Cole), Secretary of Defense Miles Hutchinson (Steve Ryan) and the Joint Chiefs, and everyone on Bartlet’s staff except for C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) and Kate Harper (Mary McCormack). Bartlet is cognizant of his presidential legacy, and strongly desires to be seen as a man of peace. Over the strong objections of Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), President Bartlet is trying to arrange peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David. While his right hand is doing this, his left chooses one of three suggested military targets and orders a strike.
This is where I learned that the official military name for Camp David is NSF Thurmont, which was also the title of the premiere episode. John Wells, who wrote this episode, won the Humanitas Prize for his efforts. This is the trophy given for film and television writing that promotes human dignity, meaning and freedom. Barbara Walters once described the Humanitas Prize as being what “the Nobel Prize is to literature, and the Pulitzer Prize is to journalism.” In other words, a pretty big deal.
While all of this high drama is going on, Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) is in Germany at Donna Moss’s (Janel Moloney) hospital bedside. Donna’s recent foreign beau, Colin (played by a very-pre-Star Trek: Discovery Jason Isaacs), questions Josh’s feelings for Donna. In this, he’s a stand-in for the viewer. We all know that Josh’s feelings for Donna are much more than he’s let on to this point.
The peace talks happen at Camp David, and an accord is reached, a defining moment in any president’s tenure in office. In the process, however, President Bartlet ends up firing Leo McGarry, who ends up having a massive heart attack due to stress of the peace talks and also due to fighting with his best friend.
This is one of the issues I wanted to point out. I suffered along with Leo—emotionally, not physically, thank God—during these scenes. I would go as far as saying that I hated how I felt while watching these scenes unfold. Other people have pointed out the fact that this sort of personal turmoil didn’t happen on Sorkin’s watch. All of the enemies to Bartlet’s inner circle were external, not internal. There was no real in-fighting above the level of playful banter. As we get further into President Bartlet’s second term in office—the so-called lame duck term—that seems to be changing. We’re seeing interpersonal drama and tension in ways we’re unaccustomed to experiencing.
I can’t speak to the work John Wells did prior to The West Wing (I was a casual ER viewer, at best—”sporadic” is a better adjective), but this type of drama is consistent with Showtime’s Shameless. Maybe Wells does deserve some of the criticism levelled at him on this series. However, conflict is at the heart of all drama, and during a president’s second term in office, with reelection no longer an option, it seems realistic that the staff would become less cohesive. Their jobs are almost at an end.
In my personal experience, that’s the way it works in reality as well. As a retail manager, I opened, or help open, many different stores, with three separate companies. While I would guess that the amount of stress and pressure I experienced during these projects doesn’t compare to that of a presidential administration, I can tell you that it’s easier to keep personality conflicts to a minimum when everyone has too much to get accomplished and extraordinary time constraints. At some point after a grand opening, when you begin to feel like you have time to take a breath again, that’s when the petty bickering and arguments start. I’m not trying to justify this change in the character relationships we’ve grown to love, but these developments don’t ring entirely false to me.
Leo McGarry’s heart attack was troublesome for another reason, though. Like most people, I knew that John Spencer passed away while the series was still on the air. For a moment—just a moment, mind you—I thought this was when it happened and it was written into the show. I wasn’t sure how they managed to capture Spencer acting his ass off while suffering from the heart attack, but thought they could have used body doubles and pieced together other scenes, or used special effects or something.
Not to worry, though. Leo doesn’t die during this season. If that’s considered a spoiler fifteen years after the fact, then so be it. However, since I know it’s coming, that made these scenes more macabre.
In order to keep from spoiling anything else for you, first-time viewer, I’m just going to hit a few highlights from here on out. C.J. Cregg takes over as Chief of Staff while Leo recovers from his heart attack. The always incredible Kristen Chenoweth joins the staff as Deputy Press Secretary Annabeth Schott, and she takes on the task of grooming Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) to do the White House press briefings. Former VP John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) asks Josh Lyman to run his presidential campaign, but Josh places his bet on Representative Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), who was going to quit politics until Josh talked him out of it. Meanwhile, the Republicans nominated California moderate Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), who seems like a good guy as well. Much of the drama in the season is dedicated to the presidential campaign. Since we just went through that in real life (truth being stranger than fiction in this case), this might not initially appeal to you. Just trust me that it’s handled in an entertaining way.
There are several of The West Wing‘s version of “monster-of-the-week” filler episodes. Call them “issues-of-the-week,” I guess. Political gaffes, saber-rattlings, a rather weak Cuban subplot that gives Kate Harper something to do, the usual assortment of distractions and stuff about the president’s MS. Penn & Teller and James Taylor stop by the White House to entertain us briefly. I saw P & T’s flag-burning trick in person at the Rio in Las Vegas, years ago. It’s good here, too.
This happens, then that happens. Leo McGarry doesn’t return to his old job, but does become a vice-presidential candidate. I won’t tell you for whom.
Then, it’s revealed that someone on the White House staff leaked information about a secret military space shuttle in order to save three astronauts who are running out of oxygen on the International Space Station. The guilty party is facing ten years in a federal prison for releasing classified information. This is the cliffhanger that we conclude the penultimate season on.
I hope I didn’t reveal too much or ruin the viewing experience for you. There’s a lot of good stuff here that you’ll have to watch in order to get the full effect.
No, I didn’t like the strife between Leo and President Bartlet, or his sudden removal from his position on the staff. I didn’t like how Josh had to leave the White House to run Santos’ campaign. There is an underlying feeling of what had formerly been a tight-knit team coming apart at the seams. Again, I believe this still has the ring of truth.
As usual, some of the political stuff makes me angry, especially when politics doesn’t seem to be about doing the right thing. While this may be an accurate portrayal of the political process as well, there are some facets of reality I would prefer not to see in this show. In spite of the differences from the Sorkin Era, it feels like John Wells has found more sure footing this season, which makes me look forward to the final one.
Firewater’s Tell-Me-How-This-Ends-Leo Report Card: A
There are reasons why people still talk about this series. See for yourself.