Out with the Old, In with the New
The West Wing: Seasons 6 & 7
As I noted in my last article, the fifth season of the West Wing felt off, not like the show it was supposed to be. This was, in large part, due to the fact that Aaron Sorkin was removed from the show and replaced, as show-runner, by John Wells at the start of fifth season. Wells didn't have the same understanding of the characters as Sorkin (in large part because Sorkin had an overwhelming hand in the scripts for the show), such that anything produced in the fifth season felt like a cover of the show by someone else.
The solution in the sixth season, and all throughout the seven season, was the find a new cast of characters to follow. While the White House, and it's West Wing staff, were still a major part of the sixth season, and played support roles throughout the seventh, the parts off the show that came alive were the ones that focused first on the Primary Election (6th season) followed by General Election (7th season), the race for the President of the United States. Whatever qualms were had about the direction of the inside-the-White House stories -- and they are still pretty bad here -- are laid aside anytime the show moves outside those hallowed halls and gets down in the dirt with the new characters.
On the one side we have Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), the senior Senator from California, a centrist Republican who, you would think, would be a long shot for the Republican nomination, but the show tells us he's such a good campaigner that he'd actually be a hard person to beat. On the other side we have Congressman Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits), Democrat from Texas, and centrist as well, and he has to fight two other guys for the nomination: Vice President Bob Russell and former Vice President John Hoynes. It's a tough hill to climb, but one he's set on by Josh Lyman, who comes on board to run his campaign because Josh doesn't think either of the two contenders have what it takes to be President.
There can be no doubt that this change in perspective revitalizes The West Wing in a lot of ways. For starters, we get a new cast of characters to learn about, ones that haven't been written by anyone else so they can be fresh and new and not feel like weird copies of themselves. The Santos campaign is populated by people we've never seen before (other than Josh) so we don't already have preconceived notions about their characters, who they would sound, act, or be in any given situation. Yes, it feels like a whole new show in some ways (almost as if a back door pilot for a series took over a series), but at the same time it has such energy, and such promise, that you don't really mind.
For what we see of Vinick, he's also a pretty interesting character. Obviously this series has always been from the Democratic perspective, with two terms of a Democratic presidential administration. Any time the Republicans were mentioned, it was as a foil, someone to defeat and not as characters we could actually invest in. That changes with Vinick as actual episodes are devoted to him so we can see his battle against Santos, get a feel for his campaign so we can see how both sides operate.
This was the kind of plotting I was looking for, and something I've been complaining about this whole time. The show doesn't give enough perspective to the "opposition", to let us know who they are, to understand that. A good villain is one you can know and understand, and while I'm not saying we should necessarily view Vinick as a villain, it does help us understand him as a character so, whether we want to hate him or not, we can get into his shoes, and it helps the series so much.
That said, the show still struggles to build it's left/right dynamic to a point where you really wonder if Vinick or Santos is going to win; clearly the show is in the back for Santos. In the primaries we don't focus on the other campaigns. Bob Russell is the front runner but we really only see him, and his campaign staff off Will Bailey and Donna Moss, in the context of how they bump up against the Santos campaign. We see even less of the Hoynes campaign, maybe a couple of brief appearances from the contender himself, and that's it. As much as the show itself tells us Santos is the underdog it never feels that way.
Things are worse over on the Republican side, and by that I mean there really isn't a Republican side for the most part. Aside from Vinick, who's only seen a few times in sixth season before becoming a stronger presence in, we see nothing of the other Republican contenders. There's no sense, ever, that the nomination could go to anyone other than Vinick. He seems inevitable, and the show never shakes that sense, and honestly that hurts Vinick's cause more than you might initially think.
Because we don't see Vinick fight his way to the top of the Republican contenders we don't get to see him earn his win. If we had, we'd probably care more about him. We feel for the Santos campaign because we see them fight their way up the ranks, but Vinick doesn't get that same rags-to-riches storyline. The show tells us he has to fight his way up, but we don't see it so he never earns it in our eyes. If we did, it would make Vinick far more interesting and vastly more difficult foe for Santos.
Also, there's a bit of fantasy politicking in these seasons, and it's all about Vinick. He's a senator from California, which is about as unlikely as state to vote in a Republican senator as anyone. Worse, the likelihood of a centrist Republican getting the nomination in these modern times is slim. Hell, just look at the 2016 election when the centrist with name recognition, Jeb!, was defeated by a seemingly unelectable candidate, Trump, because Trump went about as far right as they could go. Vinick wouldn't stand a chance.
This is why we need more time with Vinick. That's especially the case in seventh season because, even with us spending time with Vinick we still spend the lion share watching the Santos campaign fight their way against Vinick in a kind of "David and Goliath" story. Being a centrist Republican from California, Vinick completely shakes up the Democratic electoral map and that changes the dynamics putting the election clearly in Vinick's favor. The Santos campaign has to do everything they can to win. We need to think the fight is fair, we need to think either man has a chance to win, and we don't get that because it's clear that the show is in the bag for Santos.
It's odd because the producers stated that due to complications late in the season (namely the death of Leo McGarry star John Spencer), they changed their minds and decided to have Santos win the Election instead of Vinick. But watching this season, it's pretty clear Santos is going to win (just by the conventions of storytelling). In fact, if Santos had lost, I could have seen people complaining just as bad as they did about the ending of the eighth season of Game of Thrones. It would have gone down as the worst ending possible for this series.
You may notice that I've spent a lot of time talking about the election and very little about the West Wing staff and that's because once this campaign starts the White House becomes an afterthought to the season. We do have a couple of check ins, but most of the meat of the West Wing storytelling is in the first half of the sixth season. Outside of that chunk, though, it's all elections all the time. It's really weird, and seems like a strange place to take this show for it's last seasons, but that's how it went.
Over the years I've enjoyed watching The West Wing over and over, but I have to admit that going through this whole series again, there are flaws, most of them occurring in these last three seasons. Fifth season is certainly the worst, but sixth and seventh have their flaws. That said, I do enjoy these seasons for the story they tell. The election is a strong storyline on its own and the show does a lot to make the Santos campaign compelling. I still wish the series had done more to balance these two campaigns, Santos and Vinick, but the series does it's best to sell this storyline as well as it can within its own limitations.
I think, if the show had been willing to run the election as a spin-off, a side series that covered Santos and Vinick while The West Wing continued to focus on the main characters we know and love, that would have been fantastic. It does split a lot off its time, and the fact that the main characters we watched for five-plus seasons become afterthoughts is a knock against the show's late seasons. A spin-off that eventually lead to Santos taking over the main series would have been great, and when the show comes to a close I'm always left saying, "man, I wish there was a season or two of the Santos administration. That's a show I want to watch."
The West Wing is not a perfect show, losing steam in its last seasons. It is, however, a very strong show even in its weaker seasons, and there's a reason it lives on in the minds of its fans. If they ever decide to do a revival of the show, especially with Aaron Sorkin back in charge, I'd tune in instantly.
Best Episode of Season 6
Episode 15: "Freedonia"
There are a lot of good episodes in this season, especially when the show focuses on the campaign (and, as it does, ignores the White House). "Freedonia" does stand out as a solid winner, though, because it shows how hard a campaign really is to run. With the New Hampshire primary five days away, Josh has to find a way to get his candidate, Santos, noticed so the campaign can live on (and doesn't flounder after just two states). Meanwhile, Santos had to figure out if he's really running to be president or just to get ideas out there before calling it quits.
There's an energy to this episode, as the Josh works his goofy magic to try and fight the other candidates while Santos struggles with being Presidential, that shows politics isn't easy. No one always has the solutions. Plus, this episode ends with a pretty good bit with Santos, recording his own campaign ad, that still works really well.
Worst Episode of Season 6
Episode 2: "The Birnam Wood"
Seriously, there's no way Israel and Palestine are going to find a peaceful solution over the course of a long weekend of talks. But that's the premise of this episode as the Bartlet folks have the Israeli and Palestian governments meet a Camp David to really talk it out. Somehow a solution is devised and, while even the show acknowledges it will take effort to keep the peace going, they play it like it's still possible.
That's naive, to say the least. The show wanted to set out a road map of hope, to say, "this needs to be done!" It's admirable, but it's not realistic and the show, over the course of this episode, never sells it as plausible at all. If anything, Leo (who spends the episode on the outs, yelling at the President that it'll never work, being castigated as the bad guy for speaking the truth) is the only voice of reason. The show plays him as the villain, but Leo was right.
Note, the show does again later in the season, with "Ninety Miles Away", where they also try to say we can have an easy resolution with Cuba if only we just talked. Yes, talking is part of the peace process but that's not the end of it and past wrongs don't just go away.
Best Episodes of Season 7
Episode 16 & 17: "Election Day Parts I & II"
As if I could pick anything else for this. After a year and a half of build up we finally get to Election Day and the show plays it just right, keeping the suspense going as long as possible over who would win, Santos of Vinick. Yes, it feels like an inevitability that Santos would win when you watch all these seasons back-to-back, but in the moment, when these episodes were aired weekly, you just weren't sure. The show played it just right.
Of course, these episodes also mark the point where Leo dies, from a second heart attack, and this plot point was introduced because real life actor John Spencer and the show didn't want to just ignore that. So there's elated highs and emotional lows. It's a sad moment to lose an actor that's been a part of the series from the beginning, and the show handles it admirably. Really well done.
Worst Episode of Season 7
Episode 7: "The Debate"
When this episode aired it was pretty cool. A live debate, done as a real life episode of The West Wing. It was novel and fun, in its own way, plus it was cool to really see these two figures debating each other (instead of just snippets of the debates like the show had done for all previous events). I appreciate what the show was going for.
But now, viewed after the fact as part of a series binge, I don't much care for this episode. It's clunky, not well paced, and neither of the characters really come across as Presidential. Alan Alda handles the live broadcast much better than Jimmy Smits but, frankly, neither of them are at their best in this live setting. Watching it now, I don't think I'd vote for either of these guys based on their performance here. Or, as my wife put it after the episode ended: "next time we watch through this series, let's skip this episode entirely".
Characters Sent to Mandy-ville
This is the season where a bunch of people (except for Mandy) all come back: Sam, Ainsley, Oliver. Characters we haven't seen in years all appear again, having been released from their "we forgot about you" prison to live freely, once more, among the main characters (even if for only a few brief scenes).
However, this show does still manage to forget about the occasional character so we have do have a few cast members that manage to get ejected in season seven never to be seen again even after you'd expect them to. For starters there's Need Carlson (Evan Arnold), a character that had been part of Congressman Santo's office before joining up with the campaign. He, apparently, had been with the Congressman for years but, as we see, he just couldn't keep up with a Presidential election. He was sent back to the congressional office with the promise of a job in the administration... and is then never seen again.
There there are a few characters who are prominent in the campaign -- Edie Ortega (Diana-Maria Riva), Lester (Cress Williams), and Teddy (David Ramsey) -- all of whom you'd expect to be part of the administration. Hell, a few of them say as such. But then, when it comes time to actually staff the offices, these characters are all gone. Sure, maybe they prefer running campaigns, but they never mention that and it's just a little weird for them all to vanish, off to Mandyville to fill the recently emptied houses.