Something is Off in the White House
The West Wing: Seasons 4 & 5
And here is where the show starts to go right off the rails. Any show that is on the air long enough runs the risk of losing its own thread, of pushing to keep the drama up and raising the stakes such that it eventually becomes a parody of itself. This is often called "jumping the shark" and it's in the fourth and fifth seasons of The West Wing that it feels like the shark comes for the White House. Some of this can be attributed to a change of leadership behind the scenes, as Aaron Sorkin was replaced on the show by John Wells at the start of fifth season, but even before then the show was starting to lose its way.
Don't get me wrong, the show was still compelling in many ways, always powered by the strength of its cast and the momentum of past seasons, but starting with fourth season something certainly felt off. Plot lines started to repeat themselves, characters started behaving in strange ways (as if they all were slowly being replaced by their versions from an alternate episode, such as "Issac and Ishmael"), and the show just became... wrong. It was still The West Wing in appearance, but the soul of the show was somehow missing, or at least distorted and wrong.
There were two dominant storylines through these two years. Fourth season focused on the reelection campaign of President Bartlett, from the moment that Robert Ritchie (James Brolin) became Bartlett's direct foe in the election, up through the inauguration. Then, at the end of fourth season, Zoey Bartlett is kidnapped, which sets fifth season with Bartlett stepping down as President (via the 25th Amendment), the newly appointed President Allen Walken (John Goodman) using the federal resources to track down the kidnappers and save Zoey, and then Bartlett assuming office under this new age of terror.
In concept these plot lines are solid, but in execution the show was missing something. For starters Ritchey never felt like a real opponent for Bartlett, and that's because the show hardly ever featured the Republican. The total number of appearances of the character was two, that I counted, which doesn't make for a strong villain or foe. Not to get ahead of ourselves but when we watched season seven, and we get to dive into the campaigns of both the Republican and the Democrat running for the presidency, that serves as an idea for how fourth season should have done it. It should have made Ritchey into a compelling character in his own right, not just a name that's bandies about occasionally without any context or care.
This is the same issue I had, really, with the kidnapping plot line in the fifth season. Zoey getting kidnapped is a big deal, yes, and it should have been a major focus of the show, and within the White House of the series it was. But we never see the investigation from outside the walls of 1600 Penn, never get into what the FBI were doing or learning how tough their job was. There was a compelling story going on here, but it existed outside the myopic view of this show. Hearing character tell us about the investigation was far less compelling than actually seeing it, in any form, first hand.
I mean, I get it, the show has only so much of a budget it can spend on off-site filming while reusing the same basic sets over and over again is cost effective. But when the show can spend two episodes following Josh and Toby around Indiana for the start of season four ("20 Hours in America" parts 1 and 2), it's clear it can do off-site filming. If the show could have done a little more of that, to follow up on its storylines from a different perspective and make them more compelling, that would have really helped to raise the stakes, and the drama, for these seasons.
The characters, though, also don't really feel like themselves, and this is especially the case in fifth season. Leo seems harsher, Josh feels angrier, and Toby... okay, Toby was never a nice character on the show, grumpy and acerbic, but even he feels like he's sunk deeper and deeper within himself. Much of this can be attributed to Zoey's kidnapping and all the staff struggling to recover from that and regain their feet, but we still have half a season where the characters don't feel like themselves, where they aren't acting like we expect them to at all. While the back half of season five rights itself a little, it's still clear the show is edging for internal strife over consistent character moments.
Not that all the characters are bad, mind you. One new addition is Kate Harper (Mary McCormack), brought in near the end of season five as the Deputy National Security Advisor. She's an interesting and compelling character, a woman serving in this role (in, as she acknowledges, a largely male-dominated organization), but she does it with wit. She has an edge to her, from her time in the military, but she's also got style and substance. It's a solid performance from a new player in the show, and much more interesting than some of the things they do with other characters.
The think the character that suffers the most in the fifth season is Joshua Malina's Will Bailey. When we meet him in fourth season he's an idealistic political operative working a losing campaign because it's the right thing to do. But then, in fifth season, he ditches his job as Deputy Press Secretary to become the Chief of Staff for new Vice President, Gary Cole's "Bingo Bob" Russell, an empty shirt politician who's likely to be the Democratic nominee in four years simply because of the position he's given. This doesn't feel like something Will would do, to align himself with a candidate without real bearing or ideals, not the Will we knew from the previous half season we saw him.
And that's the real issue with these two seasons, especially once we veer off into the John Wells years. The show looks the same, seems the same, but isn't the same. The characters are all played well, but the words coming out of their mouths just don't seem right. They take actions that seem wrong, they do things that are far outside their characters, and eventually it just feels like The West Wing is no longer The West Wing.
The show does pick up energy as it finds new characters to focus in its last two seasons, but these two years certainly mark the low point for the show. It's never truly terrible, but it's also not the show we all expect it to be. If the actor had been recast, it would be hard to tell that this was supposed to be the same show at all, really. It's like "the darkest timeline" for the show, but thankfully it does get better from here.
Best Episode of Season 4
Episode 6: "Game On"
Here we finally get one of the few moments of Bartlett and his foe, Ritchey, going toe-to-toe, and it's in the one and only debate of the season. This is a great episode, with solid performances from all the players, Plus, the debate itself (what we see of it) it strong, with a lot of sparks to it. It is still too weighted towards Bartlett (he gets all the good lines and bon mots), but it's still strong enough in the story it's telling to make it the outstanding winner this season.
Worst Episode of Season 4
Episode 13: "The Long Goodbye"
And then, just a little while later, we get one of the worst episodes of the season. C.J. goes home to deliver a speech at a high school reunion, and we spend the entire time with her, in Dayton, OH, as she deals with her father (played by Donald Moffat) who's suffering from Alzheimer's. Part of what makes this episode bad is that it's so depressing -- yes, it's a tragic tale, no mistake, but that doesn't make it compelling. Plus, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the issues C.J.'s father experiences aren't really typical of Alzheimer's. and feel more like a version of the disease written by people that don't know what the disorder actually does. Sanitized, then, for the screen.
Plus, frankly, C.J. doesn't act like herself here. She's too passive, to easily led along by her obviously sick father as he puts himself in danger. It's like a dour version of Mr. Magoo and the C.J. we know is too smart to let her dad do any of this. This is supposed to be a pivotal moment for the character, but it just falls flat.
Best Episode of Season 5
Episode 8: "Shutdown"
A turning point for season five, here is the moment where the White House starts to regain its feet after the struggles from Zoey's kidnapping. The Speaker of the House and the White House had agreed to a deal on a continuing resolution for the Federal Budget, but then at the last minute the Speaker changes the deal. So the President shuts down the government. We then get an episode of power plays back and forth as both sides try to turn this to their advantage and gain the upper hand in negotiations. And, of course, the President comes out on top.
This episode is great because it has a lot of momentum and energy. Plus, frankly, it finally feels like the season figures out how to write President Bartlett properly, with all his fire and smarts and tactics at his disposal. This episode is so much better than the seven that came before this season, but it's also (sadly) one of the best of all the rest to come.
Worst Episode of Season 5
Episode 11: "The Benign Prerogative"
Well, this episode is a total mess with a bunch of storylines that go nowhere. Toby is upset because polling says the way the President gives the State of the Union matters... and then nothing happens. Charlie falls for a girl, Meeshell Anders (Gabrielle Union), who he finds out later will be working at the White House as a reporter... and then we never see her again. The President struggles with his staff to figure out who to pardon and who needs to remain in prison, a deal that could have big ramifications on his legislative agenda... and then nothing comes of it afterwards.
The episode uses a weird framing device, showing us a scene between Charlie and Meeshell before jumping back a few weeks so we can get a development on all these storylines, but there's no energy here and no reason for the framing device. There's nothing here, a flat, dead collection of stories that setup nothing and do even less. This is a fill episode that, if you deleted it from the season completely, you wouldn't even notice.
Characters Sent to Mandy-ville
The biggest and most obvious character sent to Mandy-ville is Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe), who took up a run for Orange County, CA's open seat in fourth season, only to lose that election. The series plays it like he'll be back eventually, but the reason the character was written into this plot line was so Lowe could go off and potentially headline a new series. If the pilot paid off, Sam was written away. His series, The Lyon's Den was picked up, but it only lasted a single season, as did his next show, Dr. Vegas. Sadly the void left by Sam was never really filled, which is part of why he reappears, for a couple of episodes, in the last season of the show.
Amy Gardner, Josh's on-again/off-again girlfriend, also ends up going to Mandyville for a while. After getting fired from the Women's Alliance (or whatever), she eventually gets hired to be the First Lady's Chief of Staff, but then butts heads with the President, quits, and disappears from the show until around the seventh season. Another time share bought in Mandyville.
There's also Jordan Kendall (Joanna Gleason), a lawyer and love interest for Leo. She appears as his defense lawyer when he has to appear before the Senate, then shows up again to guide the West Wing through international law after the assassinate the Quamri Foreign Minister. Oddly, when the story of the assassination finally breaks, Jordan is nowhere to be found and she's never mentioned again.
We also have the Speech Writing Interns, a group of girls that show up for a handful of episodes before Will Bailey, Deputy Communications Director, gets hired to be the Vice Presidents Chief of Staff. At that point they disappear never to be mentioned again. Oddly, the same fate befalls Will's sister, Elsie Snuffin (Danica McKellar), who also disappears when Will goes to work for the V.P.
Then there's Rina (short for Marina, played by Melissa Marsala), a random assistant that starts getting regular screen time as she works for Toby Zeigler. Then, with no explanation, she vanishes and never appears again. Sad, because she was a good character.
Finally we have the story of Joe Quincy (Matthew Perry), a Republican hired by the administration to fill the role vacated by Ainsley Hayes. He's supposed to be the same kind of character, gets to help get rid of the old Vice President (on his first day on the job), appears once more in fifth season in an episode dealing with the Supreme Court, and then vanishes as well. This place really burns through lawyers, apparently.