Change and Decline in US TV Drama: The West Wing

Part 2: The West Wing

Spoiler Alert

Crossing over to the other side of American television drama morality, and to a show which couldn’t be more different, we have Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. The Sopranos and The West Wing were fierce rivals from 1999-2006 (the duration of The West Wing, while the former finished its run a year later), to the extent that even their producers spoke a little hostilely about each other.

Categorically unlike its rival, The West Wing was a patriotic drama about a fictional ideal White House administration, its president and its staff. It started off as a goofy, comical and unrealistic show in which all of its characters were faultless, quasi-puritanical, and their natures and reputations were both squeaky clean. In this ideal White House, the president spoke fluent Latin and had previously wanted to become a priest. All the major characters came from different states and different backgrounds. They ranged from an immigrant Jewish family in the working-class streets of Brooklyn to a rich home in the suburbs of Connecticut, but everyone was one big happy family who loved each other deeply. To some extent, it was the reasons for its success. The writing of every episode but for two was credited to Aaron Sorkin in its first four seasons, and it was a writing that was snappy, educated, quick and fun to listen to.

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Then in 2003 and at the end of its fourth season, creator Sorkin and his fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme left, citing financial and artistic reasons. The details of these financial and artistic reasons never did become apparent, but one thing was for sure: a change was now both evident and necessary, and yet the fan base also needed to be kept. The third executive producer, John Wells, took over by himself, and the fans became hostile. It became known as “The Wells Wing”: The West Wing post-Sorkin. The dialogue was slower and less snappy, the camera moved differently, the fans took the show to little pieces with their criticism, and The West Wing never gained an “Outstanding Drama Series” Emmy win again. After four consecutive victories, it was finally beaten by The Sopranos.

And yet the criticism was unfair. If you asked contemporary American television audiences to name series which had faced terrible decline at the end of their run, The West Wing might be somewhere near the top of the list. And yet, for all its ‘notorious’ decline, this simply wasn’t the case. Not only did The West Wing still continue with a very strong quality after Sorkin’s departure, on some levels it even improved. One of the issues for viewers looking for some drama with the Sorkin West Wing was its degree of sub-reality. It was all very well that this was a sphere where everyone loved each other – despite it being the seat of power of the Western world; it was all very well that all the characters were adorable and comical, but sometimes the jokey dialogue would just get a little too much. A conversation about why Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman was wearing a particular suit at a breakfast meeting – and whether this was to impress the gorgeous Joey Lucas whom he had a crush on, or whether it was a ‘regular Tuesday suit’, and what a ‘regular Tuesday suit’ meant, was indeed very cute and likeable for viewers, and to some extent made us love the characters more. But this kind of banter, when frequent, was simply unrealistic in a show about the people who ran the Free World. And, in doses that were too large, one might say, it became a little irksome.

Upon Sorkin’s departure the dialogue did suffer a little, it goes without saying. The West Wing lost its idiosyncratic “Walk-and-Talk” filming characteristic wherein, rather than have characters converse sitting down, many of the major discussions were filmed following the characters walking in the White House corridors, usually rushing, usually speaking at a very quick pace.

But on the other hand, the level of drama increased, and “The Wells Wing”, as it was called, cannot in any way be reprimanded for a lack of tension, with the exception – as always – of a few episodes. Seasons 5 to 7 of The West Wing without Sorkin included an episode guest starring Glenn Close as a chosen nominee for Chief Supreme Court Justice; a defecting Korean pianist who sought asylum in the States; a federal government shutdown; one of the show’s major characters, Donna, being critically injured when her car was bombed by terrorists in Gaza and the consequent peace talks between the U.S., Palestine and Israel which led to a division of Jerusalem, not to mention the promotion of most major characters.

The sign of decline in The West Wing, however, was not the absence of the “Walk-and-Talk” or snappy dialogue, the loss of which the viewer had already coped with. It was the influx, in Season 6, of around twenty new characters, none of whom ever became liked by the audience. This was largely because, bit by bit, the favourable administration of the fictional President Bartlet fell apart. Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman left to find a new president for the upcoming election, and suddenly half, and sometimes more than half, of every West Wing episode was occupied by characters not only new to the audience, but whose surnames we never found out.

At the same time, of course, less attention was being paid to the long beloved characters, about whom we wanted to know something. The man who eventually became President-Elect in the final few episodes, Matt Santos, was a thoroughly unsympathetic character, even if the writers tried to make him favourable; he didn’t appear to be charming, or have any original ideas as a President, or even be a loving father, or have much affection for the public. This was not the ideal President Bartlet with his limitless knowledge and fluency in Latin. As a result, many episodes in Season 6 and 7 were simply wasted on the public.

Not only had unknown characters – the entire team behind the Santos presidential campaign – overtaken our series, but our beloved characters who’d been there since Episode 1 had now changed. All of a sudden, Josh was a self-important, dictatorial, ambitious politician, and not the goofy, clumsy, boyish figure he had once been. C.J., probably the most charming of all the West Wing characters, was still loveable and still had good intentions, but her promotion from Press Secretary to White House Chief of Staff meant that she became more serious – as one would in the face of trying to stop India and Pakistan from annihilating one another – and there was less opportunity for her to have humorous scenes. The moral and principled Toby Ziegler, Director of Communications, performed a deed totally out of his character when he betrayed the President by revealing classified information regarding the existence of a U.S. military space shuttle – something which infuriated actor Richard Schiff, who was still insisting in interviews years later that this was something that his character would “never have done in ten million years.”

But we came to the end of The West Wing and found an unmatched quality of drama. Yes, the series had changed; but what hadn’t? If The West Wing started out as unrealistic because everyone was one huge happy family, then it ended on a lifelike, Chekhovian note. The nucleus of West Wing characters that we had come to know and love – C.J., Josh, Toby and Donna, not to mention the President and Leo, who sadly had to die when actor John Spencer passed away before the final episodes, split and fell apart, and everyone went their own way. It was sad, and it was maybe not what Sorkin had in mind at the beginning – but it was also effective, relatable and understandable. In real life, especially in groups of colleagues who feel affection for each other and work as a team for many years, these teams don’t carry on existing once their work time has ended. And so it was that the West Wing finale, “Tomorrow”, became one of the most melancholic, nostalgic and bittersweet series endings to ever grace the screen, and the most unlike its Season 1 beginnings – but it was also the greatest.

Next time Sophia concludes with Desperate Housewives and Mad Men.