Monday, May 15, 2006

So long farewell: The West Wing

You've got one more day to vote in the best-of-TV survey. I imagine I'll get the results up over next weekend, so if you send in a late ballot, I won't be upset.

The West Wing was probably always a show that was doomed to flame out spectacularly. And flame out it did (spectacularly), but while it was on, it was one of the finest dramas in TV history.

And after it was done flaming out, it pulled itself together and made itself into something serviceable. Not perfect or even particularly great, but a fine example of political drama.

But let's begin at the very beginning. The West Wing debuted in the fall of 1999 as Aaron Sorkin's new series. His first season of Sports Night had been a fine piece of work (and the second season of that much-lamented show was about to begin). So most critics were anticipating The West Wing (and most of them gave it favorable reviews). But what was most surprising was when the show debuted to surprisingly high ratings (in a tough time slot no less).

The show seemed to speak to a certain need that American television viewers didn't even know they had. They didn't want to be talked down to. They wanted stories about intelligent people, doing interesting and important work. They wanted TV that would engage them, educate them.

What was so great about The West Wing was that it was a dramatized civics lecture when it was on. There wasn't a political topic the show wouldn't tackle. Gerrymandering, filibusters and getting legislation passed were all grist for the mill. And this was stuff Americans hadn't had to think about since high school, so it made people sit up and pay attention. This was a show that not only felt important -- it WAS important.

But there was also a tension within the show. It was realistic, yet deliberately stagy. It wasn't afraid to dramatize the political process in a way that embraced verisimilitude, but it gave its characters impassioned monologues.

Eventually, these two warring impulses were going to split the show in two.

And they did.

The first two years of The West Wing are well-nigh perfect. There's a dull episode here or there, but Sorkin turned the workplace drama on its ear with vivid characters and gorgeous writing. The story arcs work as well, even if the emotional resolutions can be a bit tidy (Josh seemingly manages to work through his anxiety about being shot thanks to one extended therapy session). All in all, though, this was stellar television.

And it started to erode in season three. Part of this was because the romantic and realistic impulses at the show's heart started to war with each other. And part of this was because Aaron Sorkin began to traffic too heavily in a world of clearcut heroes and villains.

But a lot of it had to do with Sept. 11.

I hate arguments that say that Sept. 11 changed everything for the world of American culture. Because it didn't. Our culture is just as shallow as it ever was. To be sure, there are works of art that attempt to engage that event (and many of them succeed), but the event that was supposed to create the end of irony has seemingly drenched us in even more of it (the whole "earnest is good" movement has essentially netted us Lord of the Rings and Everwood).

So while Sept. 11 didn't change our culture as a whole, it DID change The West Wing. Suddenly, the show had to deal with terrorism to be realistic (one of its goals). But to deal with terrorism realistically, the characters had to stop being romantic idealists. Still, Sorkin continued to write them as romantic idealists. But there's nothing romantic about guerilla warfare (which is what a war on terror ends up being). So the whole show grew darker and darker and. . .

And Sorkin just couldn't keep up anymore. He was exhausting his bag of tricks. So he left (or was fired, depending on who you believe) at the end of season four.

And then the show really fell apart. Season five was its absolute nadir, a season full of writers trying to be Aaron Sorkin (which no one can do) and piling on contrived plot twist after contrived plot twist (though, to be honest, Sorkin had painted the writers into a corner with the fourth season cliffhanger).

For seasons six and seven, the show turned to the one thing that it hadn't yet explored in the world of politics: an election. And it stopped trying to be Sorkin's West Wing, settling instead on being a show very much like Sorkin's West Wing, but not quite to that level. The election storylines restored interest to the show, but it was clear that it could never be what it was.

But that's okay. We got two great years and some other good stuff out of the show. And it proved that romanticism can work on television, that idealism can be a believable philosophical basis for a show.

I just think sometimes of the show that could have been. And that's a show I would have reveled in.


Anonymous said...

So I'm reading rumours that ABC is going to pick up the West Wing for next season. I am very skeptical, but it IS true that WW's ratings improved toward the end of the year, and it IS true that ABC dropped Commander-in-Chief suddenly, and it IS true that NBC canceled the WW retrospective at the last minute and did virtually nothing to promote the series finale, and it IS true that Jimmy Smits is under contract with ABC for next year, and every actor save Bradley Whitford is available. So who knows?

Todd VanDerWerff said...


That won't happen.

Sorry to say so, but the show is over.

Where are you reading these rumors?

Anonymous said...

Some unreliable message board. Like I said, I doubted their credibility, but wondered if you had heard the same. It seems like they ended at a good time.

Edward Copeland said...

I agree -- 9/11 changed it. When they did their Afterschool Special episode, that's when I was done. Janel Moloney helped to drive me away too, especially in the introduction to that episode where all the actors talked about getting back to the stories after this one episode and ended it with Donna giddily saying, "And I get a boyfriend!" That's when I checked out of that show for good.