I marathoned “The West Wing” about three summers ago, and started rewatching it last Christmas by accident when it became available on Netflix. I decided I would watch a couple episodes from somewhere near the beginning of season one – I think I actually started with episode four. The reasoning was, if I didn’t start the show at the beginning, then I wouldn’t feel compelled to watch it all the way through, right?
Over the years, I’ve matured as a consumer of culture, media, and politics, and it’s made me better equipped to approach “The West Wing” from a critical perspective. Of the shows I’ve discussed on The Completist so far, it is the one that suffers most from a complete rewatch.
In my quest to document the shows I watch, “The West Wing” has acted as a palate cleanser – like that slice of ginger you eat between bites of sushi. It was my go-to show when I couldn’t watch more than a few episodes of “Breaking Bad” or “Charlie Jade” in a row. In a TV culture dominated by male antiheroes, it brought me much-needed levity.
I admit I don’t know much about showrunner Aaron Sorkin’s portfolio, other than the fact that Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino must have been born on the same fast-talking planet. “The West Wing’s” wall-to-wall dialogue and impeccable timing lends great rewatchability to the first four seasons. (See my favorite scene from 01×05 below.)
Sorkin was the lead writer for all but one episode of the first four seasons. But by focusing his creative efforts on the scripts, he wasn’t much of a showrunner or producer, leading to episodes being over budget or submitted past deadline. Though no one reason was given for his departure, it is speculated that budget constraints, declining ratings, and Sorkin’s personal problems all played a role.
After he left, the show suffered tremendously.
Most of season five is unwatchably bad. The show gets dumber, slower, and less funny, with more emphasis on the politics than on the characters, who themselves become unrecognizable. Will Bailey, who replaced Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) in season four, was originally sharp, idealistic, and a natural fit for the team. Unfortunately, the show hustled him into taking a job as the chief of staff to the antagonistic vice president, re-writing Will as a petulant and opportunistic hypocrite.
President Barlet also suffered – losing the richness and wisdom that made him a liberal dreamboat, and become dour and uncooperative. Seasons five and six attempted to address themes of youth, age, and disease, but hamhanded dialogue made it impossible to take seriously.
Another major fault of the show you really notice with marathon viewing is the frequency that important characters vanish and plotlines are dropped. Characters are often introduced for multi-episode or multi-season arcs, in roles you’d imagine we would revisit, and have a tendency to suddenly vanish without ever officially leaving.
Notably and despite having a title-card, Sam Seaborn leaves the White House to take a stab at a congressional seat in California (which he loses) but is never given a proper send-off from the show. Quirky Republican legal assistant Ainsley Hayes (one of the more interesting female characters on the show) is also forgotten after becoming a fairly visible cast member, and in season four is given an offscreen promotion to explain her absence. *Note: Many forgotten characters return for the finale.
You might not notice these dropped plot threads week to week, but after sitting through a season in a week and a half, you start to ask yourself, “Where did Mandy go?” and “What happened with Toby’s kids?” and “When did Charlie and Zoey break up?” and “Weren’t Charlie and Zoey supposed to get married in season seven?”
It took me weeks to make my way through the first four seasons. It felt like months to push through season five. This makes it pretty easy to pinpoint the worst of the show – season five through the first half dozen episodes of season six, after which the pace picks up notably with the start of the 2006 presidential election.
Mostly, the seventh season succeeds because it returns to the tropes from the first three seasons, bringing back beloved characters, attempting to address forgotten plotlines, incorporating a high-intensity election campaign, and building character drama through scandal and subpoenas. They even put Will Bailey back on the President’s staff as Communications Director/Press Secretary (seriously, can that White House not hire anyone to fill vacant senior staff positions?)
While it ultimately won me back, I am honestly amazed at how much I started hating “The West Wing.” It’s probably the only show that I’ve loved so hard in the beginning, but only continued watching out of sheer obligation so I could write about it on this stupid blog.
Rewatchability: Season 1-4, high. Forget everything else.
Marathonability: See above.
You’ll like it if you like: Witty character dramas, liberal DC fantasies, Sorkinisms