As is often the case with presidential terms, the Bartlett administration ended with great pomp and little circumstance. There were no last minute crises, cliffhangers, or Constitutional questions to be resolved. Just the orderly transition from one president to the next.
Which is fitting for The West Wing, the most convincingly “realistic” political drama in tv history. The series finale seemed almost anti-climatic, given all the personal and political turmoil the series has provided over the last seven seasons, but it was true to the stated objective, to show the White House “behind the scenes.” As outgoing staffers packed up belongings and prepared to leave, they were told to move their cars from their assigned spaces to make way for the new crew, who walked through the titular wing looking aptly awed.
The West Wing
John Wells Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television
Warner Bros. Television
Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Rob Lowe, Moira Kelly
The newbies were already familiar to viewers, having been introduced over the last two seasons as the series shifted its attention away from the daily operations of the White House to the selection of a new president. The final season focused on the presidential campaign, true to U.S. political culture, as the lame duck administration is habitually cast aside in favor of its replacements. In Arnie Vinnick (Alan Alda) and Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), the show devised two worthy candidates: if only the Republicans and Democrats could come up with such levelheaded and intelligent choices, either being preferable to the man occupying the office currently.
In the fiction’s end, Santos emerged the victor when a nuclear power plant accident sank Vinick’s campaign (the metaphor might seem overstated, but the series set him up as a vocal supporter of nuclear power). In real life, it was the death of actor John Spencer, who played former Chief of Staff and VP nominee Leo McGarry, that did in Vinick. Producers had originally planned to put the Republican in the White House, after eight years of Democrat Jeb Bartlett (Martin Sheen). But they thought it would be too much to have Santos lose his VP and the election both, so they altered the outcome. It was a fitting legacy for Leo, always more influential behind the scenes than in front.
Though it was surprising that Vinick agreed to serve as Secretary of State in the Santos administration, the move extended The West Wing‘s penchant for pretty-to-think-so fantasies (not so long ago, rumors circulated that McCain would run with Gore).
Even as it looked forward, the last season attended to its company of beloved characters. Toby (Richard Schiff) was convicted of leaking classified government information (for the noblest of reasons, of course, to save the lives of astronauts stranded in space) and was pardoned at the last minute by the outgoing president. Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Maloney) finally hooked up and emerged as a bonafide power couple when he became President Santos’ Chief of Staff and she took the same position working for Mrs. Santos (Teri Polo). C. J. (Allison Janney) gave in at last to the pursuit of reporter Danny Concannon (Timothy Busfield), leaving public life to do humanitarian work for a Bill Gates-type tycoon.
Amid all this plot-resolving for current staff members, the series took a minute to bring back Sam (Rob Lowe). Following Lowe’s much-publicized departure from the series in 2003, Sam returned this year as Santos’ Deputy Chief of Staff. Other returnees included Joey (Marlee Matlin), Amy (Mary-Louise Parker), and my favorite WW character, Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter). Even series creator Aaron Sorkin, ousted by NBC after the fourth season, came back as an extra at the Santos inauguration. This parade of familiar faces was less plot-driven than nostalgic, equal parts frustrating (for viewers who cared to see their favorites come back) and uninteresting (for those who didn’t).
But for all this conventional looking back, the last season was about change—at least as far is this might be imagined in U.S. politics, however idealized. After six seasons of examining the scheming, aspiring, and avenging that go on in the White House, The West Wing ran short of new storylines. The reality is that much government work is repetitious; each year, new and old players fight the same battles over budgets, foreign policy, and turf. The campaign provided a jolt of energy, plus a few dilemmas that confront candidates, like where and when to sell their souls.
By spotlighting the difficult choices and compromises both candidates made, The West Wing sent Josh, Donna, and media consultant Annabeth (Kristin Chenowith) out of the White House and on the campaign trail, where the pace was faster and the possibilities not always well-known. It also introduced campaign advisors—acerbic Louise Thornton (Janeane Garofalo) and sensible Sheila Brooks (Patricia Richardson)—whose function in politics today is as likely to involve policy as promotion.
Best of all, in its final season, The West Wing recovered its sense of humor. Much missed after his departure, Sorkin’s wit and brisk dialogue were replaced by angst and melodrama (remember the kidnapping of the president’s daughter?). This past year, while discussing his potential pardon with a self-righteous Toby, C. J. observed, “You don’t need a pardon. You need a frying pan upside of your head.” And presidential secretary Debbie (always amusing Lily Tomlin) warned her successor, “At some point, the president is going to ask you to suspend his wife’s [Oval Office] walk-in privileges. Don’t do it. No matter how much he begs.”
For Bartlett, that was sound policy, as his wife Abby (Stockard Channing) remained his strongest ally and advisor. She also articulated a sentiment felt by most viewers of The West Wing, because Bartlett regularly embodied its best hopes and most profound insights. As the president contemplated his legacy, Abby reminded him—and us—“You did a lot of good. A lot of good.”