The West Wing

Friday, July 28, 2006 by

It’s always tempting, when a long-running TV show that’s not as good as it once was, lumbers into the finishing straight amidst a flurry of eulogies and reminiscences, to stop fighting and just give in. To overlook the faults and the flaws. To selflessly forgive and hastily forget. To submerge yourself in a warm reverential bath of: remember this? Remember that? And what on earth – ho ho – was that all about? Then switch off as the final credits roll and sigh to yourself: well, it was never really that bad.

Admittedly most shows make it easy. Whatever dross and nonsense has gone before, more often than not things somehow tend to come together for a last, definitive hurrah; one that rustles up wisps and traces of everything that was damn great about a show, as if to reassure you: look, we’ve still got it! We never completely lost it! Such a theory holds good for everything from One Foot in the Grave to Frasier to Upstairs, Downstairs to Press Gang, while for others a snap resolution of an epic, unwinding back story musters enough closure by force alone – see any number of “Didn’t you know, the war’s over?!” endeavours from Colditz and M*A*S*H to ‘Allo, ‘Allo.

But there are some shows that wilfully, frustratingly, despairingly, seem to go out of their way to remind you, even in their last dying moments, that yes, it really was that bad. In fact, it was dreadful. And as for all the stuff that was so utterly joyously thrilling about when the show first started? No, we won’t be bothering with any of that. Well OK, we’ll get a much-loved character from those halcyon early days to make a brief cameo, but then give him only one line of any note, and make it a really crap throwaway one at that.

“Home sweet home,” murmured Rob Lowe, stepping over the threshold of the White House for the first time in four years. No it wasn’t. This was a totally different home to the one from which his character, Sam Seaborn, once fled in haste and precognitive panic. Everything was different. The mood, the chatter, the personalities, even the once-famous, once-ubiquitous camera tracking shots: all long gone. And didn’t this final episode of The West Wing go out of its way to remind you as much.

For this, sadly, was no heroes’ send off, more a kind of poorly-attended garden party-cum-church fete. Nothing shocking or dramatic happened. Not even everyone bothered to show up. And a jaded air of simply going through the motions ran right from the opening moments (President Bartlet being counselled by his wife that he had, indeed, done a good job) through the endless sequences of people exchanging mawkish goodbyes, all the way to the closing moments with the President gazing out of an aeroplane window and being asked by his wife what he was thinking about. His baked-bean-of-an-ending reply: “Tomorrow”.

If The West Wing were still the show it used to be, Bartlet would have muttered something incorrigibly enigmatic (“I’m thinking of what they’ll be thinking of me”), or pithy (“I’m thinking of how much time I’m now gonna have for thinking”), or acutely confessional (“I’m thinking … I could have done more”). Instead his epilogue was as hollow and contrived as, funnily enough, much of the entire last series turned out to be. Even at its moment of demise The West Wing couldn’t help but be tiresomely predictable.

For a show that had once not merely conceived of but made a thrilling virtue out of the idea of treating a suite of offices as a de facto racetrack, both dialogue and visuals careering round corridors, up and down staircases, even – for a time – in and out of boiler cupboards, it was depressingly astonishing to realise how little of such genius invention survived through to the final episode.

In fact, this might well have been the most boring installment of The West Wing ever. For much of the time the experience was akin to watching a politely-staged, everso-earnest documentary on the procedures behind the appointment of a new US President, such was the absence of, well, anything much in the way of pace, imagination, and even a decent plot.

It might have been a use of dramatic cliché to see Bartlet’s last day in office derailed by some last minute revelation or startling denouement, but that’s surely missing the point. Decent drama should, by definition and duty, amplify the ordinary into the extraordinary, decorate the mundane with the magisterial, and enhance our appreciation of the everyday through carefully stylised touches of the preposterous.

And this was what The West Wing used to do, and do with unashamed aplomb, when it first began. Yet all such methodology evaporated, as already catalogued on OTT, somewhere into the fifth year of the series, when creator Aaron Sorkin was fired and ER‘s John Wells turned proceedings into his own personal exhibition hall of recycled emotional hokum.

Wells penned this last episode himself, and it showed. Here was all his trademark clunking dialogue, the inane expressions of belief dressed up to pass off as historic soundbites, the ponderous heavy-handed attempts at character nuance, the terrible feeling of the whole thing being obsessed with itself and its own supposed brilliance. Wells also deserves special mention for, over time, so mercilessly stripping bare all layers of credibility in which the cast were once cloaked that, as they stepped out of the White House for good, it was almost impossible not to care about a single one of them.

Once, it was all so different. Once The West Wing crackled with a unique energy and compassion. Once it was a place you couldn’t wait to return to, week after week. Once it was peopled with exhaustively-shaped, plausibly-flawed characters you couldn’t wait to learn more about. Once it was something that pulled off the magic formula of being able to both educate and entertain simultaneously, with neither subtracting integrity from the other.

But that was long ago. It was another country, and they did things different there. Less than 24 hours after airing the finale, More4 broadcast The West Wing pilot. The gulf between both episodes in vitality, exhilaration, wit and fun was as wide as the Atlantic. Still, as with the ocean itself, there are and always will be a choice of two sides upon which to fix your flag. And for as long as those early, exemplary, breathtaking episodes of The West Wing are in existence, the choice, fortunately, should be obvious.


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