By J. Walker
There’s a scene in one of the final episodes of The West Wing that perfectly sums up the situation the producers had found themselves in just a few years earlier. The two Presidential nominees have left the campaign trail to visit the White House’s current resident in the Oval Office. President Bartlet informs them of a treacherous situation in Asia on the brink of deteriorating into violence; in response, he’s about to commit US troops on the ground, a commitment that will clearly have to remain in place well into the next administration. The candidates are horrified: while they both respect the President and his decision, they know whoever wins the election will spend his first year in office dealing with this. No matter what they do, they will be judged as stewards of this President’s mess, a mess they had nothing to do with creating.
Aaron Sorkin may have created The West Wing out of deleted scenes from his script for The American President, but he turned it into a television masterpiece. It won four consecutive Emmys for Best Drama series, and was one of the last great network TV prestige dramas before HBO and cable took up the mantle. And it was largely Sorkin’s responsibility: in a time before the term “showrunner” was a household word, Sorkin dominated The West Wing, writing virtually every script and infusing every scene with his trademark banter. In every sense, the show was his, and it was no secret.
That is, until the end of the fourth season. After a dispute with Warner Bros., Sorkin—along with fellow executive producer and frequent director Thomas Schlamme—left the series. With year five, The West Wing set out without its dominant central voice. John Wells was rather abruptly shoved into the role of showrunner, forced to corral the four years of continuity and story-building Sorkin had left behind, along with cleaning up the game-changing cliffhanger Sorkin had written in his final script.
It was a recipe for disaster, clearly. No matter what Wells and the newly empowered writing staff did, they would be judged against the bar Sorkin had left for them. Failing to clear it was probably inevitable. A catastrophic failure, however, was not, and that was what came to pass: a miserable slog of a season, one that piled failure atop disaster atop calamity, until the entire enterprise virtually collapsed.
The biggest failure came in misjudging the engine that drove Sorkin’s show in the first place. The West Wing often came under fire for Sorkin’s overly optimistic and sentimental view of the political process, but those complaints—while not without merit—often failed to see the larger picture. Yes, the characters were often virtuous to a fault, but their efforts met with defeat just as often as they did with victory. The White House staffers found themselves outsmarted and outmatched by cagier opponents in Congress and in the press, and episodes frequently ended with a character or two dealing with the bitter reality of the American political system.
A good example comes in the second season episode “The Portland Trip.” During a cross-country flight, the President’s top aides throw out a completed speech on education, determined to improvise a brand new, revolutionary program that will fix the country’s schools in one fell swoop. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Deputy Chief of Staff tries to broker a compromise that would prevent the passage of a bill that would eliminate recognition of same-sex marriages at the federal level. While the staff gives both of these efforts their all, both attempts fail. They are forced to admit they have no grand solution for education reform, and the passage of the Marriage Recognition Act has become inevitable. It’s a down ending, but one that affirms the characters’ faith in the political process. They may have lost these battles, but on The West Wing, it’s always made clear that such defeats are simply the result of a functioning democracy, and not a cause for despair.
Several of the show’s best episodes hinge on this same idea. Sometimes, the President wins a fight; sometimes he loses; often, he’s forced to an ugly middle ground solution that leaves no one happy. But that’s the cost of doing business at the White House, and even while losing, the series maintains its most basic optimism and faith in the system itself.
But something happened when Sorkin left the series after the fourth season. Perhaps the increasingly contentious real-world political climate—this being soon after the start of the Iraq War—started to bleed into the scripts. Maybe Wells and the writing didn’t share Sorkin’s optimism. But however it happened, the fifth season quickly descended into a quagmire of despair and misery from which it never recovered.
To start, year five is an unending litany of failure. Bartlet’s first order of business—replacing the Vice President, a plot complication having taken care of the last one— is a fiasco, and he ends up stuck with an awful, laughable Vice President everyone openly hates. But unlike “The Portland Trip,” this defeat isn’t chalked up to a game well-played and a reminder to stay the course; it’s just a defeat, an ugly, depressing defeat that sours everyone on their jobs. In the very same episode, a North Korean piano virtuoso attempts to defect, but the President must turn him away to preserve upcoming peace talks… peace talks which, at episode’s end, are revealed to have been a complete waste of time.
That episode is titled “Han,” a word which the President describes as a Korean “state of mind” that means, roughly, “a sadness so deep no tears will come.” That ache permeates the entire season. The President chooses not to pardon a prisoner for political reasons, and the prisoner commits suicide. The Press Secretary tries to use her position to raise public awareness of the dangers of corporate monopolization of mass media, only to discover that no one—including her bosses —cares at all. The Chief of Staff learns his oldest friend and war buddy has become a corrupt lobbyist and probably a felon. On and on like this, and it’s not just the defeats—even the victories can’t escape the swamp of misery. In “Slow News Day,” Toby and the President save Social Security forever, but it’s still delivered with a sad, shrugging sigh after credit for the win goes to someone else.
The nadir comes in the episode “No Exit,” which drops all pretenses and simply locks the characters in various rooms and has them argue with each other for the duration. It’s a pit of loathing and rage, and nothing is cured by the episode’s final reveal, in which the crisis—a chemical contamination at the White House—turns out to have only been a Secret Service drill. This leads into the season’s final episodes, which continue the slide into sadness. Things don’t get much better at the beginning of season six, either. The President solves the Israel-Palestine conflict (!), but in the process shatters his decades-long friendship with his Chief of Staff, who proceeds to stumble into the woods by himself and have a massive heart attack. The icy, lugubrious tone continues for a good stretch.
But then… something practically miraculous happened.
For reasons known only to them—and probably having to do with the length of the actors’ contracts—the show decided that an entire year had passed without notice, and it was now time for another Presidential election season. They brought on Alan Alda to play the Republican nominee, Jimmy Smits to play the Democrat, and slowly but surely turned The West Wing into two very different shows: one, a morose and sentimental drama about how sad it can be to work in the White House; and the other a brisk, exciting examination of a hotly contested Presidential election.
The balance is squarely in the favorite of the former in the sixth season, but by the seventh, the show had largely reinvented itself, to the point where long-time principal cast members go for stretches of ten episodes without appearing. But with the focus on a new cast of characters, the writing staff could finally get out from under Sorkin’s oppressive yoke and tell their own stories. The seventh season of The West Wing may not rise to the level of the first four, but it’s a highly compelling collection of episodes, one that once and for all leaves behind the sorrow and dread of the previous two years.
So what’s the lesson? Well, it’s one that should be obvious: it’s impossible to replace a writer’s voice. Maybe the mistake was unavoidable, but trying to duplicate Sorkin’s West Wing was never going to work. In trying, they only left themselves open for catastrophic failure. But in converting that failure to success in the final season, perhaps they kept alive The West Wing‘s original spirit: defeat should be a reason to quit, but a reason to keep fighting.
After all, when describing the concept of “Han,” President Bartlet notes that while it does mean a crushing sadness, that sadness comes tinged with hope. May we always keep that in mind should our favorite shows lose their way. No matter how daunting the task, someone can always find the way out.
Previously on Same As It Ever Was?: Saved by the Bell Gets Real (By Turning All the Characters into Jerks)