It is conventional wisdom that The West Wing jumps the shark at the end of season four with the departure of writer and creator Aaron Sorkin. There is a case to be made, though, that the rot sets in a little earlier, with the sense that season four itself is where the series began to lose its way. It picks up as the season progresses, but we must call in evidence the opening two-part story, “20 Hours in America”. A road trip in which Josh, Toby and Donna get themselves stranded in Indiana and attempt to get back to Washington D.C., it’s probably the worst of the series to date. Here I have to repeat the caveat that even bad West Wing is still fairly good TV, but these episodes really only have one element worth watching, and that’s scenes featuring Lily Tomlin as Debbie Fiderer – oh, and Alan Dale‘s in it! Extra points are deducted for the use of a Tori Amos cover of I Don’t Like Mondays.
“College Kids” isn’t a great improvement, but it features a very classy tracking shot and a nice little situation room scene between Leo and lady friend/international lawyer Jordan Kendall. “Debate Camp” is this season’s flashback episode and not hugely enthralling, but it’s followed by “Game On”, a much better episode, which has some nice handheld shooting and one of my favourite teaser sequences of the entire run, in which Bartlet and co. gang up on Toby. It’s the big election debate, though whether the Republican election candidate, dumb Southern governor Rob Ritchie, is a cipher for George W. Bush is left to the viewer to decide… The episode also features the return of Albie Duncan, one of those minor characters who stick in the mind despite only making a few appearances. He flirts gently with CJ: “I like you. You’re the one I like.”
“Election Night” comes and I don’t think it’s a surprise, mid-season, that Bartlet wins. There’s a brief hint of an MS attack, although it’s not followed up on this year, and a lovely scene in the following episode where Bartlet mixes cocktails in the residence for himself and his wife, dabbing alcohol amorously behind his ears. Christian Slater turns up as Donna’s brief love interest but most of the plot involving the character manages to take place without the actor.
Skipping on past some OK-but-nothing-special episodes, we reach “The Long Goodbye”. This is a departure from standard West Wing fare and sees CJ returning home for a school reunion. It features Donald Moffat (Edgar Halcyon from Tales of the City) as CJ’s father, who has Alzheimer’s, and film actor Matthew Modine as an old school friend. It’s a nice enough little episode, and experimentation is welcome, but it’s also a bit of a trial and, I’m afraid, not really what I tuned in for.
The inauguration two-parter (oddly split into “Part I” and “Over There”) has its moments, and then we get “The California 47th”, in which the Bartlet administration inadvertently does everything in its power to scupper Sam Seaborn’s run for Congress. This is a fun episode, full of amusing gaffes. It’s a good episode too for slightly annoying new character Will Baily, who has to turn White House interns into speechwriters overnight – an enjoyable subplot, although not an entirely realistic one. “Red Haven’s On Fire” then waves goodbye to Sam Seaborn – or, rather, doesn’t, as he simply falls off the radar, with hardly a mention after this episode and no explanation as to why he hasn’t returned to the West Wing as a newly-promoted senior counsellor to the President.
We lean towards the home strait with “Privateers”, another good episode with lots of fun to be had around Amy’s first day as Mrs Bartlet’s Chief of Staff and a particularly silly scene featuring a woman accusing the First Lady’s ancestor of being a pirate. “Angel Maintenance” continues the run of better episodes, as does “Evidence of Things Not Seen”, which introduces Matthew Perry’s pivotal minor character Joe Quincy.
Then we have “Life On Mars”, with possibly the most dramatic teaser in the whole run. Most of the episode is told in flashback, so we’re presented at the very beginning, out of the blue, with the resignation of the Vice President of the United States. It’s a top notch episode, helped by the presence of Tim Matheson as Vice President Hoynes, demonstrating how quickly things can change in politics (compare it to the slow revelation of the President’s multiple sclerosis that followed “17 People” in season two).
And then the big climax – the kidnapping of President Bartlet’s youngest daughter. One school of thought says that this is so absurd and unlikely that it undermines the series’ realism (as if Zoe’s boyfriend’s rubbish French accent wasn’t already doing that). I buy into that a little, but I have more sympathy for the second case: that since, thankfully, we’ve never seen this sort of thing happen in the real world, The West Wing can use its role as fiction to examine the hypothetical issues that would arise if it did. John Goodman was an excellent choice for President Walken and makes his mark despite only being in charge for three episodes. The season cliffhanger: President Bartlet is no longer President…
This was weakest season so far, but still with plenty recommend it. It covers surprisingly little of the election campaign, and finally picks up once the President has been reinaugurated. But now the creator has gone for good: “You’re relieved, Mr Sorkin.”
Look out for: The episode “Arctic Radar”, in which the US Ambassador to Bulgaria who was sacked in season one is referred to as the ambassador to Brazil, and in which Josh has a little rant about Star Trek fans:
Let’s list our ten favourite episodes. Let’s list our least favourite episodes. Let’s list our favourite galaxies. Let’s make a chart to see how often our favourite galaxies appear in our favourite episodes.
Also look out for: A character asking “What kind of day has it been?” – the title of the last episode of season one; Megan Ward from Dark Skies, who has a small role in “Guns Not Butter”; from Alan Dale and Harry Groener, who had previously played cabinet members, returning briefly in “25”; Donna comparing herself to Tippi Hedren when a bird (possibly a Tappy-Head Wren) pecks the window repeatedly. OK, don’t look out for that, it was just an excuse for a bad pun. Do look out for the suggestion of Leo as the new VP, which (inadvertently, I suspect) foreshadows the end of season six.
Six degrees of Alan Dale: where we pick out actors in The West Wing who also appears in Lost or 24. James Morrison, who plays Bill Buchanan, the best head of CTU in 24, is the pilot of Air Force One in “Angel Maintenance”. Bernard White, who plays the surgeon in “Swiss Diplomacy”, is an Imam in Day 2 of 24. One of the chaps at his mosque in that episode, who appeared in a different role in Day 4, was Faran Tahir, who appears in two episodes this season.
Tobin Bell, a villain in the Saw movies, plays Colonel Whitcomb in “Process Stories” and in the villainous Peter Kingsley in the second season of 24.
Nick Jameson is an excellent find: he has a small role in “Game On” and “Process Stories” as the panellist who asks the first question in presidential debate, but he goes on to appear as the spooky Australian psychiatrist Richard Malkin in Lost, and as the Russian President in the fifth season of 24. Oh, and, of course, there’s only Alan Dale himself. Jim Robinson in Neighbours; some bloke in The O.C.; Vice President
John Jim Prescott in 24; Desmond’s rich potential father-in-law in Lost; and the Secretary of Commerce in the first and last episodes of this season of The West Wing.
Best episodes: Game On, Election Night, The California 47th, Life On Mars
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