The West Wing

Tuesday, August 17, 2004 by

Apropos nothing whatsoever, Press Secretary CJ Cregg interrupts a conversation with Communications Director Toby Ziegler to reveal she misses the “husky voice” of some person called Ben she recently lived with for six months. She’s not been returning his calls. Later, Josh Lyman marches off to a meeting shouting, “I’m going to the Hill.” “What’s on the Hill?” enquires a pushy intern, seconded from out of nowhere to shadow the Deputy Chief of Staff for no one knows how long. “Some buildings and a big statue of a guy with a beard,” yells Josh’s assistant Donna, passing conveniently in the opposite direction.

President Bartlet’s White House used to be a place you’d have longed to be able to work in. Now it’s more likely somewhere you’d happily run a mile from. The West Wing‘s sincere, coherent, meticulously mapped-out storylines and characters, executed and sustained with audacious, sometimes neurotic, precision, have been almost completely junked. Taking their place have come abrupt excursions into somebody’s hitherto irrelevant and deeply boring private life, or poorly-delivered smug one-liners. Simultaneously the number of combustible set-piece crises have been stepped up, increasingly taking the guise of an unsubtle cliffhanger clumsily tacked on the end of an otherwise staid and uneventful episode. Virtually all the show’s long-term trademark themes and obsessions have also been ditched: the President’s all pervasive and once-worsening MS never mentioned, a recent illegal assassination of a Middle Eastern potentate and subsequent US military occupation seemingly ancient history, the Vice-President’s resignation from a sex scandal forgotten forever.

Instead, we’re now faced with a world where people act in totally contrary ways from one week to the next, contradict themselves through their words and actions in the space of one episode, and look as if they all hate each other and the very place they fought their political lives to occupy. From this, a terrible sense of insignificance has come to infect the bones of the show. After all, if even The West Wing‘s cast and crew don’t seem able to take things seriously anymore, the programme’s not worth sticking with even – as proposed on OTT this time last year – out of routine, let alone respect.

It probably makes for a jumbled mess to the casual viewer, a thorough rubbishing of everything for the long-term fan, and no small nonsense all round. But if the present series of The West Wing, the fifth in its history, is vying for the title of worst to date, sizing up whether it’s happened by chance, or conspiracy, is even more depressing. Because there’s a strong case for laying blame not with the programme’s numerous battery of script associates, consultants and staff writers, but the executive hierarchy of Warner Brothers, specifically the ones who engineered the resignation, or sacking, of key personnel Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme.

Sorkin had created The West Wing, penned the bulk of its scripts, and was executive producer along with Schlamme (who also directed the majority of its episodes) and John Wells. For reasons best known to themselves, Warner endorsed the departure of the pair, and at a vital moment in proceedings: the end of the fourth series, one that had seen The West Wing struggle through superfluous plot strands and character overload to climax in an ambitious storyline involving the kidnapping of the President’s daughter. As ever, the exact circumstances surrounding the exit of Sorkin and Schlamme were and still are a mystery (Sorkin’s brush with the law over cocaine abuse supposedly a factor), but the removal of two of the three people who played the most part in setting and sustaining the programme’s agenda and tone was always going to portend change. And doing it in a manner suggestive of panic, and at a point when you’d have thought the show’s big guns were needed more than ever, was always going to portend trouble.

So John Wells has been in sole charge of this series, and it’s sorely tempting to accuse him of letting his preference for emotion-led, visual stunt-based drama, patented in his other job as executive producer of ER, run amok. Certainly a sense of things playing out in real time, and of revelations having real consequences which made themselves felt in a deeply resonant way through a neatly-constructed subplot or a slow-burning quirk in a character’s personality, has all but disappeared. The kidnapping, which had prompted a constitutional showdown leading to John Goodman taking temporary charge of the White House, was laughably wrapped up in five minutes and has been barely spoken about again. Ironically Goodman’s tenure in the Oval Office, advance news of which had carried an air of desperation, was quite good fun, not least because he displayed the kind of bravado and intensity Martin Sheen used to bring to the role of the President but is now all too scarce.

Yet it’s this question of character portrayal that also exonerates John Wells of complete responsibility for The West Wing‘s prevailing poor form. Virtually all the seasoned cast have been turning in appallingly lazy, will-this-do performances this series. Perhaps it’s disillusionment with exchanges like “You think James Madison ran this Presidency off a message calendar?” “Yes.” It’s unlikely anybody could bring a sense of excitement to lines like “The First Lady’s got some last minute budget requests.” Even still, there used to be a conviction to the way the central characters carried themselves on camera, one that made all those signature fast-paced conversations buzz and crackle, and in the process rendered even the lamest of dialogue forgivable. That’s gone now, replaced with a bunch of people behaving as if they’re tired with their roles, lapsing into cliché at the first opportunity and, most irritating of all, content to wander in and out of context with each passing scene.

Ultimately we’re left with a group of decidedly mean-spirited, jaded-looking caricatures who it’s impossible to like, engaged in a free-for-all exchange of abuse and outlandish plot twists. Everyone was nasty in this week’s episode – a dramatic strategy not in itself a crime by any means, but one made to look hollow and pointless due to it happening for no reason, completely without precedent, and representing an ill-explained inversion of the characters’ entire history and motivation. “She has to be here to want things – and you don’t have to be here at all,” the President snapped at his wife’s assistant. “Are we surprised our polls are down?” wailed CJ. “How many months are we going to spend making calendars?” moaned Toby’s deputy. Grouchiest of them all was the usually sage-like Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. “We are here to serve the country,” pleaded CJ, to which Leo hissed, “We are the country.” A TV programme like this, with no heroes, not even anti-heroes, is simply not worth bothering with.

Once this show illuminated and celebrated politics and the business of democracy. So far this year it’s ridiculed, abused and generally disowned those pursuits, in the process mocking much of its own past and serving notice on its own future. Next week we’re promised the sight of Josh yelling hysterically at the imposing façade of Capitol Building, “Do you want a piece of me?” It could once be claimed that, to paraphrase, if The West Wing looked like changing anything – either to do with politics or television – someone would abolish it. Now it’s perfectly happy to see through that particular task by itself.


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