The West Wing

In its sixth season opener, The West Wing picked up from last season’s cliffhanger ending, in which a terrorist bomb in the Gaza Strip killed the President’s National Security adviser and a member of Congress, and gravely injured White House staffer Donna Moss (Janel Moloney). The need to tie up dramatic loose ends forced the episode into an impossible position: while focused on anti-climatic resolution, it must also hook both old fans and potential new ones. Premieres so situated usually reel from banal confessions to melodrama, especially when they pride themselves on the topicality of their raw material. The West Wing premiere was no exception.

This predictable debut involved Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) discovering, beside Donna’s hospital bed, that he’s in love with her, and she with him (cue low lights and sensitively parted lips). Meanwhile, President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) faces cries for vengeful military destruction of the bombers from Congress, the press, and his White House team. Because he’s a fictional liberal and fictional liberals don’t resort to arrant violence without endless suffering and soul-searching first, he rejected this option. Although the originality of its material has never characterized The West Wing, this episode hit a new low, exposing its intrinsic weaknesses more brutally than ever before.

First, the show has locked itself into philosophical stasis, determined to air its liberal credentials via Bartlett and his staff yet equally determined never to challenge the status quo (both within the show and the viewers’ U.S.). Its pattern of responses to hot-button issues became clear during the first season, making climactic scenes for long-running and single-episode storylines predictable. Second, while its appeal has rested on its talky consideration of how decisions are reached, rather than the decisions themselves, The West Wing‘s characters haven’t developed substantially over the last five years. The Oval Office is still a cozy boys’ club, where C.J. (Alison Janney) still struggles for credibility. And third, the absolute decline in script quality continues. True, the show maintains genuine strengths, its consistently prickly, lucid acting accentuated by low-light intensity and imaginative framing and cutting. But its failings highlight the fact that class and style can’t carry a series.

In this season’s premiere, Bartlett is one part wish-fulfillment and one part wishy-washy. He refuses to act on slender intelligence tying Iran to the Gaza bombing, despite the urging of his National Security Council (and everyone else in America, it appears). If only this were the real world! But at the same time, he cannot justify his decision to his staff or the bipartisan congressional delegation that visits him (he stalks out of the room after accusing the delegation, illogically, of “playing games”). Neither can he envision any workable alternative, as evidenced by his summoning of the core team, with the addition of Deputy National Security Adviser Kate Harper (Mary McCormack), and goading them to offer him off-the wall ideas to avoid losing the terrorist leader suspected of planning the Gaza bombing and initiating U.S. military action.

Here the camera pulls high above the Oval Office, peering down, in a jaggedly cut sequence, on the pinpoint people below, as their voices fade in and out with suggestion after rejected suggestion. The shot works perfectly in context, on multiple levels: it creates tension, symbolizes how the “America” that seems so decisive in the wider world is reducible to a tiny kitchen cabinet, and suggests an endless passing of time. But it all amounts to nothing, for when the camera returns to ground level, and Harper offers her “really crazy” suggestion, it turns out to be where a logical analysis of the problem would have started (and probably ended), by going back to the pre-bombing plan: the Palestinian Authority will arrest the chief terrorist and hand him over to the Americans. Such trust in viewers’ suspension of disbelief is touching, but ill-advised.

Though the President’s attention to Harper looks heartening, regular viewers know not to be too excited when a new female character seems about to join the charmed male circle. Female attrition runs high on The West Wing, with departed actresses including Maura Tierney, Mary Louise Parker, Emily Proctor, and Marlee Matlin. The guiding storyline of the upcoming season, the presidential election for Bartlett’s successor, appears to leave little space for a female Deputy National Security Adviser beyond a walk-on when crises require her. As this year’s new cast members are both men, Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, that pattern of marginalizing women continues, with C.J. remaining the lone woman of power.

Yet, despite her five years advising the President and handling the press mob, the men still treat C.J. exactly as they did at the beginning of the series, when she was new to the job. As she wittily fields the aggressive questioning of a bloodthirsty White House corps near the beginning of this episode, Bartlett asks Leo (John Spencer) how she’s doing, as if she were a neophyte; Leo says, “Pretty good,” as if slightly surprised. Towards the end of the episode, she realizes Bartlett has left Leo behind in Washington to act on his behalf. When she asks Leo what’s happening, he snaps that he’ll tell her when she needs to know, and briskly turns his back on her. The camera lingers on C.J. looking both helpless and miffed, an expression Janney has had plenty of opportunity to refine during her tenure on the series.

Yet, The West Wing still offers incidental pleasures. Sometime during the night, as the post-bombing crisis unfolds, C.J. and Toby (Richard Schiff) share the last cheese crackers left in the vending machine, suddenly bringing life as high acolyte to high office alive, as this mundane subtext to crisis, finding something to eat and catching up on backlogged work to fill in the hours between potentially world-changing moments. Such moments were once the strongest attraction of The West Wing, revealing characters in details. But they too have thinned out as the show relies more and more on crises.

This focus, post-9/11, is not surprising, especially on a show premised on its approximation of a recognizable, contemporary Presidency. The problem with using crisis as plot point is that Bartlett solves them all in the same way. Though he, C.J., Toby, and Josh repeatedly discuss liberal solutions, Leo’s subtle realpolitik usually prevails. This pattern was as clear in Bartlett’s handling of a young North Korean pianist’s request for asylum (turned down as it would jeopardize the greater good), as it was in Barlett’s decision to follow the law, and not his intellectual and moral opposition to death penalty, in Season One.

This repetition actually turns The West Wing into one of the most conservative shows on television. Bartlett regularly acts as a conservative, under the pressure of overwhelming external exigency, whether expressed as diplomatic necessity, the obduracy of Congress, pork barrel interests, lack of budget, or the exigencies of electoral politics. In effect, the Bartlett crew says, “We’d like to change the system, though the system won’t let us. But hey, our hearts are in the right place.” The West Wing reflects the political deadlock at the heart of today’s Western democracies, where policies of elected politicians on the left are virtually indistinguishable from those on the right, and only the rhetoric of justification varies.

Perhaps this constantly thwarted struggle for change accounts for The West Wing‘s waning popularity (it has dropped from 17.2 million viewers in 2001-02 to 11.8 million viewers last season). When I reviewed the first season , I thought its appeal derived from viewers’ nostalgia for a more stable-seeming political moment. But both the U.S. (and the world) now face increasingly brutal crises, which, as they did in the late ’60s and ’70s, make themselves felt in the U.S. body counts that lead the nightly news. For that crucial 18-49 demographic, where The West Wing audience has dipped most drastically, a show that valorizes the impotence of earnest human endeavor against a global network of vested interests could be too close to reality to be bearable.