I've been watching a lot of The West Wing
over the past couple of months. I had
basically given up in disgust at the end of season five, on the grounds that the show had become a pale shadow of its former, Aaron Sorkin-helmed self: less nuanced, more sensationalist. But grahamsleight
was braver than me and bought the season six DVDs, and watched them, and said they were a return to form. So when he lent them to me, I watched them as well.
It wasn't a return to form. Not really. The plotlines had all the hallmarks of John Wells' fondness for melodrama. The president has an MS episode! But that's not enough, so he has it during a foreign visit! But that's not enough, so he has it during a visit to China! But that's not enough, so he's paralysed from the waist down! And so it went. More importantly, the heart of the show, the stories about the processes of government and democracy, were still missing.
Around midseason, however, the show starts to change dramatically. Not in quality--at least, not at first--but in format. Faced with the reality that US presidents can only serve for two terms, the writers started laying the groundwork for the next presidency. The Republican primaries we didn't see much of, and what we did was straightforward; there was a clear frontrunner from the start, California Senator Arnold Vinick. The Democratic primaries were dealt with in much more detail, not least because half the existing White House staff somehow ended up involved. The eventual nominee was never really in doubt: Congressman Matthew Santos, from Texas. But getting there was, increasingly, fun.
It still wasn't The West Wing
; the show alternated between episodes set on the campaign trail and episodes set in the White House, and that latter group were for the most part pathetic. But you can see why. Aaron Sorkin wrote virtually every episode of the first four seasons of The West Wing
, and those he didn't write he at least had a hand in breaking or editing. Nobody else on the writing staff could write like he did; nobody else could write to the format he created. So it's not surprising that the episodes in the new
format, with new characters, were better. They simply allowed the writers to play to their strengths. By the end of season six, The West Wing
wasn't back, but it was at least watchable again.
So now we come to season seven. And I think I might be addicted.
Season seven discards the old format almost entirely, and the vestigal remains are still pretty embarrassing. In its place, we get a story about an election campaign--from the point of view of both
camps. It makes you realise how little of Bartlet's re-election campaign we saw in season four. Not that that's a bad thing--it was right for Aaron Sorkin's show. But the shift in focus now has given the show its dynamism back. It is that rare thing, a format reboot that works.
The reason it works is largely because both candidates are interesting and well thought-out characters. It helps that the actors playing them are Alan Alda (Vinick) and Jimmy Smits (Santos), but more than that it's the differences between them that sell the campaign. The Democrats' original reaction to Arnie Vinick, in season six, amused me mightily, because basically it boiled down to "we're fucked, aren't we?" There's a scene where Leo, gloomily, tells Josh they've got nobody who can beat him; that he'll go into the town halls and blow them all away "and seem smarter and more honest than any Republican they've ever seen--because he is." And that's about as far as they get with their planning. I love the idea that the Democrats just don't know how to deal with a Republican just because he makes sense. And Vinick does make sense, on a lot of things; he's a moderate, and even when you disagree with him the writers let him argue his position with some intelligence. The contrast to the straw-man Dubya clone that Bartlet ran against couldn't be clearer.
Santos, meanwhile, is the idealistic, somewhat inexperienced liberal. But he's also the candidate who's served in the military, and continues to be listed in the reserves. He's the candidate who believes that life begins at conception; he's not against legal abortion, but he wants it to be much rarer than it is. He's the candidate that goes to church
. The result is a campaign where neither candidate has a lock on support from their own base, and the battlelines are far more fluid than they usually are--where everything is up for grabs. (That the Santos campaign hires Janeane Garofalo as a staffer Does Not Hurt.)
And then comes the seventh episode, the one I've just watched. 'The Debate'. Now, I loved the previous debate episode, 'Game On'. I bounce with glee to see Bartlet trounce his opponent ("… I'm supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: can we have it back, please?") And the setup for this one--a live episode--sounded more than a little like a stunt. But in the event, although neither actor is perfect (Smits stumbles more than Alda) as a piece of television, it is utterly brilliant. And as a piece of The West Wing
it's not bad either, because it's got that old idealism, that old championing of debate.
The candidates walk on stage, and the chairman spends five minutes explaining the rules. Then Vinick suggests that they junk them, and have a real debate. No two-minute speeches followed by one-minute rebuttals; just a moderated debate. Santos agrees--he'd have to, but you suspect he does it because he's raring for it too. And they talk about … everything, pretty much. Education. Healthcare. The death penalty (perfectly). Third world debt. Climate change. The value of liberalism. And you find yourself agreeing with one or the other, or disagreeing but at least being able to see why
they think that. During his preamble, the chairman asks for the audience to be quiet, saying that at the end they can give democracy a round of applause. At the end, you want to. That's what The West Wing
has always been about: and if they can keep that spirit, even with new characters, even in this new format, I'll keep watching.
I suspect they won't be able to, of course. They're dragging the campaign out, running it in slower than real time, and you have to suspect that one of the reasons they're doing so is that they know they're on to a good thing, and they're not looking forward to going back to the old format. Because after the election, what else can they do? It's a sobering thought. And even in the meantime, it's not as consistent or sophisticated as Aaron Sorkin's show was; the first three episodes of the season are stellar, but the second three are all fairly seriously flawed, in various ways. But by and large it's a show worth watching, worth talking and thinking about--a show that once again feels aspirational, that makes you wish the world really worked this way--and by and large, that's enough.
(And I'd vote Santos, but it's a harder call than you might think.)