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“Today’s priority is not world peace.” Sep 24

The fifth season of The West Wing is not its best. While such assessments are by their nature subjective, I suspect most fans of the series would agree that the show’s fifth season is its weakest.

I noted when I wrote about the first season that some of the dialogue, while very good, seemed less subtle than we were used to from subsequent years. As Aaron Sorkin settled in, the writing became (even) more sophisticated; with Sorkin gone, it is as if someone has pressed a reset button on the writing staff, the institutional memory lost. Even so, the same process does eventually take hold again: the new writers acclimatise and the standard returns to the excellence we expect.

Where is there left to go after four years though? We’ve had a presidential election, albeit almost tokenistically at times; we’ve had presidential and vice presidential scandals; the administration has assassinated a foreign diplomat; white supremacists have put the president in hospital; every kind of international crisis has reared its head. The production team don’t seem to know the answer, and as a result season five meanders – slowly and still often entertainingly – until it settles finally on leading up to the most tragically tedious conflict in the world, between Israel and the Palestinians.

First, though, to where we left the series at the end of season four. John Goodman’s President Walken is in charge following the abduction of Zoey Bartlet. While there is a certain amount of mileage from President Bartlet’s powerlessness – developed in the rest of the season – the knowledge that he can return to office at any time of his choosing does lessen the tension. We see the new White House residence kitchen set that will provide the background to the season’s domestic dramas. The first episode unfortunately subjects us to another mawkish montage of sequences accompanied by an awful song.

Zoey is recovered at the end of the second episode, allowing the President to return to office. It’s a relief that the series can get back to normal, although it’s sad to see Walken leave with so little time on screen, and does leave us wondering whether the contrived sacrifice of John Hoynes was really worth it. However, the loss of the Vice President does bring the reward of the process of finding his replacement.

The administration’s chosen successor to Hoynes is Secretary Berryhill, a character mentioned numerous times over the years but never before seen. He’s played by William Devane who’s most famous for Knots Landing and is, as far as I can ascertain, the only West Wing actor to have been in an Alfred Hitchcock film.

The second episode also introduces us to Josh Lyman’s new intern Ryan Pierce, played by Jesse Bradford, who, the Internet Movie Database depressingly informs me is a week younger than me. The Laws of TV dictate that Ryan should be a dreadful character, like the young heroes of kids’ shows who say “I’m a genius” as if that endears them to the audience. He’s rich, arrogant, and only working for Josh because his uncle’s an influential senator – he should be insufferable. Instead, through a combination of light writing, regular putdowns from Josh and an understated performance from Bradford, and by restricting him to only nine episodes, Ryan becomes useful comic relief and gets several good scenes, the most notable of which is his getting Josh to pretend to fire him in “Full Disclosure”.

The third episode, “Jefferson Lives”, includes a good example of the less subtle writing on show in this season. Several times a flashback is used to a scene where Zoey is riding her horse at the Bartlet’s farm in Manchester. It’s intended to demonstrate, through moody closeups and careful cutting, that she isn’t holding up well following the trauma of her kidnapping but is putting a brave face on for her father. Its clumsy storytelling, though, ramming the meaning down the viewer’s throat rather than allowing us to work this out from the dialogue and the actors’ performances. The first mostly good episode of the season, but let down by scenes like this, which leaves the job of being the actual first good episode to “Han”, not least for the mocking speech in which Toby and Will take out their frustrations over the choice over underwhelming new Vice President Bob Russell (no, not that Bob Russell):

“In a triumph of the middling, a nod to mediocrity, and with gorge rising, it gives me great nausea to announce Robert Russell – Bingo Bob himself – as your new Vice President.”

“Constituency of One” is a nice little episode, yet another where a hubristic Josh makes a bit of a cock-up. It’s also one of a few West Wing episodes to mention “clean coal”, which Ming Campbell drops into his environmental speeches every now again. Everything I Know About Clean Coal I Learned From The West Wing, so I always flinch when I hear Ming mention – because here’s what CJ Cregg has to say about it:

“Clean coal’s like saying healthy botulism, child-safe plutonium.”

Nice. But, hang on – where’s Sam Seaborn? Nope, still so sign, and no explanation. Still, here’s Terry O’Quinn as the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the episode “Disaster Relief” which has its moments, but in which CJ is given what must be termed a “Bring Back Sorkin” speech. That sparkle is still missing in “Separation of Powers”, but it’s the best episode so far, helped along by the brief return of Matthew Perry and a strong performance from Duran Duran (no, really) as Roy Ashland, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Ashland’s confrontation with Bartlet in the Oval Office is suspiciously similar to the President’s meeting with the retiring Justice Crouch in “The Short List” in season one.

“Separation of Powers” also benefits from a particularly classy finale, leading directly into “Shutdown”, another new high for the season. Bartlet faces off with new Speaker of the House Jeffrey Haffley, played by Steven Culp off of Desperate Housewives. (Pop fact: Culp played Robert Kennedy in Thirteen Days; Martin Sheen played JFK in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy.) Haffley is the first recurring antagonist lined up as a regular enemy, providing a proper opponent for the administration. He may be the political equivalent of a pantomime villain at times, but he does provide a useful dramatic target. In “Shutdown”, Josh redeems himself by running rings round Haffley, suggesting the President’s iconic walk to Capitol Hill.

“Abu el Banat” is a nice little episode, and is followed in “The Stormy Present” by a welcome return for President Walken and an appearance from film actor James Cromwell as another former president. Josh almost gets a girlfriend in the form of a NASA administrator and CJ gets some good scenes against abrasive new talk show host Taylor Reid, played by Jay Mohr. Mohr’s Go co-star William Fichtner who, along with Glenn Close and Star Trek: Voyager‘s Robert Picardo, appears as a possible new Supreme Court judge in “The Supremes”. Close and Milo O’Shea give particularly memorable performances in this episode, which vies with “Shutdown” for the title of season’s finest.

The year’s experimental episode is “Access”, told in documentary form, shot contemporaneously but transmitted once the Bartlet administration has left office. It’s got a fresh feel to it, with lots of handheld video and new characters, but the underlying plot doesn’t really live up to the effort. Built around C.J. Cregg, it boxes the series into a corner plotwise with its closing narration, telling us that:

“[C.J. Cregg] remains the only woman to have served two terms as the White House press secretary.”

As we will see, this is proved wrong in around seven episodes’ time.

“No Exit” sees the White House once again locked down and is a fun episode with a sting in the tail. “Gaza” launches a series arc tackling the Middle East crisis, the most tediously and repetitively depressing conflict in the world – so quite a challenge to turn into interesting, balanced drama. “Gaza” goes out of its way, successfully, to be balanced towards both sides, but it’s less engaging than you’d hope and the storytelling device – Donna emailing Josh – is as stilted as when it was used way back in “The Stackhouse Filibuster”. It also suffers from an Irish character with a less than convincing accent (the actor, Jason Isaacs, is better known as Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter).

The final episode, “Memorial Day”, is better than I remembered, with Josh playing the spy and Bartlet struggling to pitch a ball. There are nice flashback scenes to the days after Bartlet’s election as president, building to the breakdown of Bartlet’s relationship with Leo down, Bartlet symbolically leaving him behind in the final moments of the season.

Some of the production team’s confidence appears to have returned by the finale, but the show’s storytelling is still a little jumbled. Fortunately, that’s about to change.

Look out for: Toby singing; a character called Dr Milkman; the comparison “more mind-numbing than a Radiohead concert”; Bartlet, in flashback, annoyed with his predecessor for saddling him with a war in the Phillipines – he will do something similar to his successor.

Six degrees of Alan Dale: Lewis Berryhill is played by William Devane, who went on to be Secretary of Defense in 24. Michael Hyatt, who plays Democrat operative Angela Blake, also appears in an episode of 24 Day 4, as does David Andriole from “The Stormy Present”. We are introduced to Fitzwallace’s replacement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Alexander, played by Locke from Lost. Joaquim de Almeida, who played villain Ramon Salazar in the third series of 24, flirts with C.J. as the Argentine ambassador in “Slow News Day”. Carlos G√≥mez, who plays Admiral McGill in “An Khe”, plays Luis Annicon, the Districit Attorney assigned to Salazar’s case, while also in Day 3 and “An Khe” is Brian Catalano. Day 1 villain Andre Drazen, Zeljko Ivanek, appears as a Walken aide. Maz Jobrani – Prince Bitar in “The Stormy Present” – is in 24 Day 2.

Albie Selznick, the documentary maker in “Access”, appeared in a couple of episode of the fourth series of 24. Like a perhaps unsurprising number of Middle-Eastern-looking American actors in The West Wing, Zina Zaflow, Navid Negahban were also in 24, as was Endre Hules from “Memorial Day”.

Tony Lee provides this season’s best connection: he plays pianist Jai Yung Ahn in “Han”, Sun’s friend Jae Lee in Lost, and is in one episode of the second series of 24.

Best episodes: Shutdown, The Supremes