I haven’t enjoyed a season of The West Wing this much since Sorkin left. Whether the season (particularly the 2nd half) would have been as good if they hadn’t been given a free hand by the cancellation no one will ever really be able to say. While I think it’s moderately idiotic to cancel a show just as it’s about to re-invent itself I am at least glad that NBC gave it a chance to finish, rather than just stop, and gave it the budget to go out in style.
Season 6 tried to cover both the White House and the campaign with an equal hand and consequently felt rather patchy to me. Season 7 however is all about the campaign with the White House definitely taking a back seat. Bartlett’s White House is gradually dying, having lost Josh and Leo in Season 6, they now also lose Toby and all that’s left are the Bartlets, CJ and the ‘fill-ins’ of Will (mini-Sam) and Kate (Nancy McNally-lite), who I honestly don’t really care about. There are a couple of episodes in the season focusing on CJ and they are beautifully scripted and acted to show her trying to hold it all together and denying that the end is coming. I was left a bit cold by the whole Toby story, it all made sense, but it seemed a rather sad, yet inevitable end to the character’s story.
Life on the campaign trail shows us an entirely new side to American politics and the lengthy focus on a moderate Republican is new for The West Wing too. The casting was inspired – the hugely charismatic Alan Alda, paired with the sympathetic Patricia Richardson and the familiar Ron Silver as Bruno Gianelli made for an intriguing and engaging trio. It was never likely that the Republicans would win the election, but they still managed to make the race interesting and exciting. In many ways Arnie Vinick is a lot more like Jed Bartlett than Matt Santos is, he’s more academic, he’s the statesman and the experienced hand, all things being equal he probably would have won, the nuclear thing seemed a bit of an act-of-god intervention.
The Democrat campaign meanwhile is largely the Jimmy Smits and Bradley Whitford show for the first 1/3 of the season and that makes pretty good tv in my book. Santos is the epitome of words like youthful and energetic, he seems to have no respect for the way things ‘should’ be done and this drives Josh nuts, and Josh is always most entertaining when he’s nuts. Josh seems to flounder a bit this season, he seems to be continually fighting his candidate, without the support of his old friends at the White House and without Donna he loses confidence and becomes isolated. However eventually the writers decide to change gears – suddenly the supporting characters in the campaign develop personalities, Donna returns and it’s a whole new ballgame. While the Republican campaign is full of ‘grown-ups’ the Democratic campaign is youthful and energetic and fun! Janeane Garofalo is brilliant taking no crap from the candidate or Josh and keeping things on track, it takes a while for the other minions to distinguish themselves but during the election and the transition they find their niches and claim them, bringing back some idealism and naivety to the otherwise somewhat jaded cast. Teri Polo and Janel Moloney both play it perfectly as the “other-halves” of the two powerful men, not taking any crap and being amazing characters in their own rights, the two pairings are written and played absolutely perfectly never forgetting the long histories involved.
No matter the rest of the season the highpoint was always going to be the election and following the death of John Spencer the writers decided to combine the high with the horrible low of Leo’s death. The two part episode was absolutely amazing, hitting so many emotional notes that my house-mates must have thought I was insane as I laughed and wept at the screen throughout the whole thing. Kristin Chenoweth breaking the news to Josh was just heartbreaking and if there was an Emmy for most amazing 5 seconds acting she would be the winner in a very tight race with Allison Janney and Martin Sheen for their scenes in this episode. These two episodes were just about the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen on tv.
The final episode on the other hand was far from perfect television, there wasn’t really anything spectacular about it, some nice acting and some beautiful locations, but nothing outstanding. Unless you’re a West Wing fan, then it was cram packed full of perfect moments and brilliant references. I cried through the whole thing. Bringing back so many of the old characters, even if just for a moment was brilliant – I bounced in my seat when Ed and Larry appeared, I squealed as Ginger delivered a line for the first time in years, I cheered at Ron Butterfield and Steve the reporter, I did a double take when Aaron Sorkin was lingered upon at the inauguration and laughed when Bartlet told Nancy (played by Martin Sheen’s daughter) that he was looking forward to seeing her mother again. And Mallory’s gift to the president? That required even more tissues. It was so sweet to see everyone where they should be – Sam in the White House at Josh’s side, Donna in a big shiny office and with Josh, CJ off to California with Danny, even Toby – pardoned but not forgiven was exactly where the character should end up. It was pure sap and I loved every minute of it.
Season 7 may not be the best season of the West Wing, it really is a completely different structure and idea to the early seasons making it hard to compare. It is however a very good example of how to close down a show in a satisfying way. I think it would have made a good springboard for a spin-off/sequel series in the Santos White House, but we’ll never know.