Friday, May 28, 2004

In memoriam: 'The West Wing'

—Originally published 5.28.04

In honor of Memorial Day, Bravo is running a fan-favorite marathon of "The West Wing" comprised of 10 episodes chosen by voters in an online poll.

I guarantee it will be a great 10 hours of television, because no matter what political background you come from, there's no denying "Wing" is one of the best series to ever hit the small screen. Matter of fact, it is now the standard by which all other presidential dramas are judged -- in television or the movies.

However, Monday will also be a reminder of how fast and far this Emmy-winning show has fallen since its surprise smash debut in 1999.

"The West Wing" was already on the downslide before series creator/producer/writer Aaron Sorkin left after the 2002-03 season, but this past year it quite literally fell off the table when John Wells, already an executive producer, took the reins permanently.

Wells is also executive producer of NBC's mega-hit "ER," and he drove that drama right into the ground with more and more outlandish plots and increasingly shrill characters. The same has happened to "Wing."

Sorkin is the David Mamet of television -- it's all about the dialogue. Wells has no such craft. Instead, he uses massive tragedies as a cheap substitute for carefully-constructed drama.

In the old days, "Wing" only needed an amendment or a committee vote to make an hour of television interesting. During the past year, however, the president's daughter was kidnapped, the White House went into lockdown (again) and one of the best supporting characters, Adm. Percy Fitzwallace, was killed in a Gaza bombing. In one year, mind you. Yeah, that all sounds very realistic.

I watched a grand total of four episodes this season. After the first two, when President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was finally returned to office upon the recovery of his daughter, I realized the series is basically dead -- it just isn't the same, the most glaring omission being Sorkin's knack for dialogue. I came back for the last few and, while the lines were marginally better, the "Wells Effect" was still in play: The big "cliffhanger" left staffer Donna Moss (Janel Maloney) in an EMERGENCY ROOM of all things. How original.

Extravagant circumstances and poor writing aside, the characters themselves are another mark of new -- and poor -- leadership in the production room. Though I disagree with most of their politics, I still like the Bartlet staffers. Or, at least I did. Their most redeeming qualities -- a fundamental affection and respect for one another -- are seemingly gone now that Sorkin left the series. In the past, the arguments and debates were done in the correct spirit. Press Secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) could tell Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) she'd shove a pole up his butt during a verbal tussle, but then they'd walk to a party together like the friends they are. There was a definite separation of life and state.

Now, when they snipe at each other, it goes deep and has nothing to do with policy issues. I don't want to watch these characters I've come to love tear each other apart. They started doing that on "ER" years ago, and I turned the channel.

Other than Sorkin, "Wing's" biggest loss -- and probably the biggest reason for this turn toward negativism -- was Rob Lowe, a.k.a. Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, during Season 4.

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) is probably the show's heart and Josh probably its most prominent personality other than the president, but Sam brought the innocence and passion that made all of the others look better. His combination of humility, charm and strength were the necessary points of balance for a show filled with extremely high-strung characters.

Most dramas peak early and slowly decline (as opposed to sitcoms, which tend to look like a bell curve). "Wing" has fallen faster than most, but maybe only because it went higher than most. Sorkin, I guess, saw this coming and has been deemed right to want to end the show.

His legacy will be in plain sight Monday on Bravo. I had trouble picking out my favorites because I remember specific scenes rather than entire episodes. But, for the fun of it, I'll go with:

• "Celestial Navigation" (Season 1, Episode 15) -- Here Josh is stuck as a guest lecturer at a college forum while Sam and Communications Director Toby Ziegler try to get Judge Roberto Mendoza out of jail.

• "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen" (Two-hour Season 2 premiere) -- Yes, this assination attempt counts as an "event" episode, but it also showcases the love these staffers have for each other (or at least they used to) with the added bonus of a look back at the Bartlet for America campaign.

• "Noel" (Season 2, Episode 10) -- Told in flashback, this is probably my favorite episode of all, as Josh spends an entire day talking with a therapist. Whitford shines in this hour as Josh tries to sort out his problems following the near-fatal shooting a few months earlier.

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