Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The West Wing -- Season 5

TV fans are a funny folk; we have a tendency to revere certain writers and producers to the point where they become infallible. The worst of this bares itself out when should the writer/producer not continue to write for the show they helped create – and that show continues to produce new episodes under the guidance of another producer – we completely dismiss the show’s new voice. Perhaps I am describing you – I know I am describing me; it’s one of my biggest faults when it comes to getting invested in a television show. Perhaps I am not describing you, but it does seem that this does, to some extent, describe the fan of the Aaron Sorkin-penned/produced seasons of “The West Wing.”

What is easily one of the great television runs in modern history, Sorkin’s first three seasons (and part of the fourth) of an idealized, Capra-esque White House – and the staff that inhabited it – was always funny, rapid-paced, capable of sparking great discussion, and highly dramatic. Season one contains one of the great television theses on the death penalty (an amazing fete in how Sorkin tones down his liberalism and considers the hot-button topic from an array of points of view). Season two and three were so packed with great episodes that I often go back and forth deciding which season stands as my favorite. In season four, however,  Sorkin would write and produce (let us not forget about Thomas Schlamme who was just as important) his last season as his differences with the production company (read: Sorkin had a tendency to go over budget and take forever with his shoots) were getting so divisive that even though Sorkin cited season four as “a return to form,” he and Schlamme decided to split – leaving one of the best written shows in the history of television in the hands of the more-producer-than-writer John Wells. 

Normally, this is where I would go on a rant about how awful the fifth season of “The West Wing” is because Wells is no Sorkin and lacked the necessary skill to write for characters that all inhabited some aspect of Sorkin (specifically Sorkin’s avatar Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford, wouldn’t be the same under Wells until seasons six and seven). And if you follow this stream of conscious and you’ve tracked with me so far you’ll see that I’m clearly leading to a giant “BUT” here. And here it is: but lately I had the urge to re-watch “The West Wing,” and when I got to season five I thought about skipping it altogether so that I could just get to the much better seasons six and seven; however, I decided to pop the DVD set in and much to my surprise I found myself really enjoying John Wells’ first stab at running “The West Wing.”

And that’s really the most important distinction to make here: it’s not that show was bad, by any means, it was just different. Under Wells – a television pro, to be sure, with the success of “ER” which was probably NBC’s most watched drama at the time – the show became a very predictable, prime-time NBC drama; it focused on minor, relational problems around the oval office instead of the intense debates by characters filled with conviction about an issue. Most notably hurt by the departure of Sorkin was the relationship between Josh (Whitford) and Donna (Janel Moloney) and the character of Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff). Rapid-fire banter between Donna and Josh that was akin to something out of Sturges or Cukor had been reduced to a slower style of conversation that really seemed to accentuate just how different the dialogue was and how different the approach to how the characters relate to one another would be under Wells. Again, not bad just different, and lest we forget (and I know forgot about this until my recent re-visit with the show), John Wells knew how to produce good drama. Sure the show may not have stood a hard line on certain issues or knew how to write the kind of dialogue that played to Schiff’s strengths as he passionately argues his convictions, and sure that characters during this seasons spent more time asking each other about personal/relational things in the White House than in the previous four seasons combined. But it was still 40 minutes of great drama, and considering the state that Sorkin left the show in, it’s a miracle that Wells was able to salvage as much as he did in his inaugural season as showrunner. 

When Sorkin and Schlamme knew they were leaving the show, I’m convinced that their displeasure with the production company (they really didn’t have a problem with NBC) led to them coming up with one of the most asinine cliffhangers in modern television history. The kidnapping of the president’s daughter – Zoey Bartlet (Elisabeth Moss) – is eye-rollingly awful that it can kind of be enjoyed on the level that one enjoys a story thread from something like “24,” but in the canon of “The West Wing” it comes off as contrived and nothing more than a giant middle finger to Wells (and the audience that followed these characters over four seasons) – a kind of “try and fix this, jerk” gesture – who was left to pick up the pieces of a major storyline that really hindered the series. I will say this for Wells: his television savvy more than made up for him not being Sorkin – which was really the biggest hurdle he had to get over; if he could just convince people to like his show even though he wasn’t Aaron Sorkin, then they would probably like what they see. Wells easily disposes of the kidnapping plot two episodes into the season, and the remainder of the season – and the next two years of the show – is better for it; it’s essentially Wells apologizing to the fans, providing some closure as quickly as possible, and then saying, “let’s move on from this; here’s my version of the show.” It takes a little getting used to, but once one can see season five through the proper lens and without the mindset that just because Sorkin is no longer involved doesn’t make it worth watching, there’s really a damn fine drama to behold. 

The role of showrunner is the most important – especially when you think about a controlling figure like Sorkin – because all of the show’s ideas (good or bad) are filtered through that one person. In modern television one can think of Larry David (“Seinfeld”); David Simon (“Homicide” and “The Wire”); David Milch (“Deadwood” and “John from Cincinnati”); Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”); Mike Schur (“Parks and Recreation”); Amy Sherman-Palladino (“The Gilmore Girls”); the myriad of people running shows on HBO and AMC,  and an array of “Simpsons” producers like Al Jean, David Mirkin, or Mike Scully, as people who more or less control everything we end up seeing on television. In short, even though they may not write every single action or word, everything that makes it to the screen reflects the personality of the person running the show. This is why when someone like a Sorkin or a Larry David (on a smaller scale, my wife loves “Gilmore Girls” and I watch it with her a lot and really enjoy the early seasons, but when Sherman-Palladino left the show over a dispute – very similar to Sorkin’s situation as she also seemed to sabotage the person taking over the show after her – the quality in the dialogue dropped significantly, to a point where the show was dead just one year later) leaves the show, people notice (this is the issue right now with fans of “Community” dealing with departure of Dan Harmon). When Larry David left “Seinfeld,” the show became less misanthropic and more cartoonish; in short, it reflected Jerry Seinfeld – the new showrunner – and not Larry David. 

All of this is to simply say that the fifth season of “The West Wing” is not Sorkin’s version of the show; it is a show that reflects its new showrunner, Wells, and even though it takes more than a few episodes to warm up to the idea of this new voice and vision for the show (and then loses some momentum again towards the end of the season before ramping up again with a great trio of episodes to end the season on): these are indeed the same characters – this isn’t some bastardization of a once-great show – they just talk a little differently now. In fact, one thing that becomes clear throughout the season is that once the Zoey storyline is quickly resolved and dealt with, Wells seems interested in beating the characters down – tearing them down to their very nadir – in order to rebuild them in his own image (the only superfluous character is an aide played by Jesse Bradford who is about as annoying and worthless as Moria Kelly was in season one). Whereas with Sorkin, many of the characters – particularly Josh – rarely tasted defeat; Wells was interested in showing an administration that was having a hard time getting out from under the funk of a second term. Everything about the Bartlet White House’s second term has the feeling of wheels spinning, and so it becomes frustrating to watch at times because it’s all at once Wells trying to figure out how to run the show and the characters trying to figure out how to get the President’s approval rating up. Again, this is not “The West Wing” as filtered through the point of view and ideologies of Aaron Sorkin; this was John Wells’ “The West Wing” and for better or worse, this was the light the audience would now see these characters in.

Two episodes in particular allow one’s mind to wonder how they would’ve played had Sorkin written them; however, Wells and his staff are more than up to the task in creating vintage-feeling “West Wing” episodes with “Han,” “Talking Points,” and “No Exit.” In the season’s fourth episode, “Han,” Wells creates a feeling akin to something from the first season of the series as the president and his staff struggle balancing global politics with their ethics when a renowned North Korean pianist – an invited guest of the White House – slips the president a message during a photo-op stating that he wishes to defect. The show is paced like an episode during the Sorkin era complete with staff debates about the right thing to do and a contemplative president Bartlett at episodes end wondering what in the hell he could have done to help the musician. It has the feel of vintage “West Wing:” an episode that doesn’t necessarily end on a happy note, but it ends on the right note as the characters – handcuffed by foreign policies and global politics – realize they messed up but understand the reality of the situation as well. It’s a delicate mix that often allowed the show under Sorkin to be preachy without feeling dogmatic; “Han” hits that note perfectly. 

The other two episodes appear at the end of the season (the actual final two episodes, “Gaza” and “Memorial Day (a helluva finale, to be honest),” work really well has cliffhangers/season-enders) as “Talking Points” and “No Exit” again feel the most Sorkin-y of the season without feeling like bad attempts at emulating the series’ creator. Wells and his staff again spin these stories into their own vision while giving long-time fans of the show hope for the subsequent seasons. “Talking Points” (directed by Richard Schiff) feels like a lesser version of similar themed, ideals-centric episodes like “Let Bartlett Be Bartlett” where the staff desperately seeks to get back on point and on track in light of the administration spinning its wheels (Josh in particular has a rough go of it in this episode).

The real highlight of the season – and again one wonders what this episode would have been had Sorkin been around to oversee it – is the Sartre-titled “No Exit.” In this episode, the oval office is on lockdown thanks to a virus scare and the staffers are paired up with people they’re at odds with. Each pairing provides some good laughs and interesting dynamics (I particularly like CJ and Donna tip-toeing around how they really feel about the men in their life), but the best part of the episode is the long-overdue pairing of Toby and Will (Josh Malina). Malina joined the cast in season four (having a previous in with Sorkin thanks to his time on “Sports Night”) and was a natural fit. The debates he and Toby would have in season four were some of the season’s highlights and were always perfectly acted by Schiff and Malina. In season five – in another attempt to reshape the show in his image; this one backfiring in my opinion – Wells decided to quickly break apart the communications team of Toby Zeigler and Will Bailey as Bailey leaves his duty as Deputy Communication Director – and partial voice of the president – to become the chief advisor to newly appointed vice president Bob Russell (the always reliable Gary Cole). This is a point of contention throughout the fifth season and comes to a head in “No Exit” as Will and Toby are forced to be in the same room for 40 minutes during the lockdown. Toby resents Will’s speech that he wrote for the vice president for the Correspondent’s Dinner while Toby’s speech for the president relied heavily on jokes. It’s a common theme that runs through the season as Toby is continually frustrated at his role and his lack of voice – and the administrations lack of convictions – in the Oval Office. As the two verbally spar in Will’s old office, Toby slowly begins to realize that he’s actually a little jealous of Will because he gets to do some real advising and write genuine speeches filled with that conviction that Toby so deeply feels is lacking. It’s a great moment in a season that didn’t always have them; it’s episodes like these that gave the viewer hope that the series wasn’t in the crapper.  

A lot of this post stemmed from me just wanting to admit that I was wrong about the fifth season of the show. I was one of those people that never really gave it a chance because I had it in my head that nobody could do what Sorkin did with those first four seasons. The funny thing of it is, I actually kind of prefer parts of season five over season four – which is a schizophrenic season filled with some real highs for the series (I’ll always love the episode where CJ visits her father) and some real lows (the last two episodes).  Yes, the fifth season is flawed – it’s too plodding and lacks the energy of the Sorkin-ran years – but it’s also still some damn fine television drama.

I will say that even though Wells struggled with the most Sorkin-y characters (Josh and Toby), he really knew how to write CJ (well, that’s not entirely true as there seemed no earthly reason for CJ to have a boyfriend that she could never make time for other than to show her never having time for him; it’s an annoying, underdeveloped subplot that keeps popping up at random times throughout the season), and Allison Janney proved this season more than any other that she is arguably the most valuable actor of the ensemble because even in the shows that are still finding their voice and pretty awful, she makes them watchable. This is especially evident in the episode “Access;” a poor attempt to try something new with the aesthetic of the show. Yes, the episode was a complete failure, but it was all about CJ, and Janney just simply knocks it out of the park – making the episode bearable (and earning herself a well-deserved Emmy in the process).

Just as “Simpsons” fans would do every time a new showrunner would take over or just as “Seinfeld” fans did when Larry David no longer ran the show, it’s in our nature as geeky TV fans to obsess over who is running the show and why that makes all the difference in the world, but the truth of it is, “Seinfeld” still produced some all-time classics after David left even though they weren’t as consistently brilliant (like all of seasons three, four, and five); “The Simpsons” still produced some great comedy – some of the best, in fact – after Al Jean and Mike Reiss handed it over to David Mirkin (my favorite of the showrunners from the glory years) and after he handed it over to Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein and after they handed it over to Mike Scully (one of my favorites and certainly the most underrated) and, yes, even when he handed it back to Al Jean. And so it is with “The West Wing:” yes, it’s not the same (and really, thank God because Wells trying to ape Sorkin would have been a disaster), but different doesn’t automatically have to equal bad, and the kinks that Wells worked out in his rookie year as showrunner, and the bad shows we got because of it, was all worth it for the way the show re-invented itself outside of the oval office in its final two seasons.


  1. It's been a while since I've seen Season 5, so I'm struggling a bit to remember all its little details. I will say though that I think you're wrong and right on the kidnapping part: right in that it's very 24-ish and thus a departure from the show's usual spirit; right again in that it was smart to resolve it swiftly and not let it carry out over several episodes; but wrong in that the kidnapping episode itself is actually very well constructed (as I recall), to the point that I find it difficult to resist as drama/suspense, even while I love to resist anything that resembles 24. I guess my point is this: I think it's fair to question whether the show should have gone there, but at least when it went there it did it well. (Although maybe my memory is faulty.)

    1. Well, I think I thought the same thing you did about the kidnapping episode until I watched it about a month ago. Yeah, it's paced well and pretty good television in the sense that you're never bored watching the episode, but it just seems so out of place in that universe. There are some moments within in those last two episodes (especially the moments with John Goodman) that are just laughably bad, and I guess the point I was hoping to make was this: I know I gave those episodes a pass because they were Sorkin's last and because I was someone who believed that Sorkin could do no wrong (not to mention I came to the show late on DVD, so I had already heard about the well-documented gripes between fans of the series and John Wells' version of the show...which no doubt clouded my judgement a little). I found myself upon recent viewing not caring at all about those last two episodes and kind of seeing them for what they were: Sorkin blowing up his show on the way out.

      Even if Sorkin hadn't left, the kidnapping storyline pales in comparison to his three other season-ending cliffhangers he wrote for the series.

  2. Nice article. I started watching The West Wing in Season Five so I may be less harsh than others in judging it. You're right that it works as a straight drama. Personally I'm quite fond of The Warfare of Genghis Khan, which a) provides an in-depth view of a pressing issue, b) has more humor than the rest of the season combined (Leo's jetpack speech is hysterical), c) allows underused characters like Will and the Vice President something substantive to do. Han, The Supremes and Shutdown are also favorites.

    That said, Season 5 had plenty to irk me. Access was a terrible gimmick show, and unlike you I found No Exit a contrived way to force characters to work out their issues. Wasn't there an episode where Josh and Toby came to blows? I definitely recall Josh yelling at the Capitol Building and Charlie getting bitch slapped in the Oval Office by a girlfriend. Too much absurd melodrama and off-base characterization, only accentuated in the subsequent seasons.

  3. You said that Season Five might be not so bad but just different. In my opinion it's both. One other fact that seems never to be mentioned, and bothers me, is that the video itself is dark, with the colors muted. This in itself seems to sap the energy and any humor from the show.

    To this day, I've never been able to finish this series. I've watched Seasons One through Four several times, determined each time through to continue on through Season Seven. But by the middle of the fifth season my determination always falters. I find myself no longer able to pay attention. I need to keep rewinding to see what I've missed, but it's never worth it. While in the first four seasons each episode flies by, after that I can only watch about ten minutes at a time before boredom sets in.

  4. For me season five just doesn't have the heart the first four season had. I'm six episodes into season five and I'm really not liking Leo or the president thus far. Both have become really hard with few hints of the compassion that made those two characters stand out in the first four season.