So, Bartlet’s term ended last night on More4 and a new candidate was sworn in as the show bowed out.
The West Wing did something unusual in its second term: it got good again. Not good as in as good as the original series, but it improved – season 7 was far better than the poor showing that was season 5. It did it by becoming a different show.
When it started out, and when it was at its best, The West Wing (written, almost entirely, by Aaron Sorkin) was an office drama that just happened to be set in the White House. It wasn’t about campaigns or politics, it was about the people. The fact that it appeared on our screens so well formed is unlikely to be a coincidence. It wasn’t just an office drama, it was a particular office drama: Sports Night. As evidence, I offer:
Strong Principled Authoritarian Isaac Jaffe/President Bartlet
Confident Competent People Manager Dana Whitaker/Leo McGarry
Young (Excitable) Talents Casey McCall & Dan Rydell/Sam Seaborne & Josh Lyman
Nerd Played by Joshua Malina Jeremy Goodwin/Will Bailey
And I’m sure there are others…
The West Wing changed the setting, and tweaked to format (running as a drama at double the length) but it really has the same feel to it. However, Sports Night finished when it was fresh. By its fourth season, Sorkin’s The West Wing was beginning to show the cracks.
The trajectory of a show’s success is well documented. Most shows start out with promise, take a little time to bed in and get better and better until they jump the shark – you can often clearly see when it happens. It’s a success and everyone involved has a stake in keeping it going, and in fairness it may still be better than most else that’s on (The West Wing‘s season 5 is a case in point) so it limps on for a season or too until the audience or the advertising revenue declines to the point where the network decides to cut its losses.
The West Wing became a different show. For one season, the characters seemed like puppets, with someone pulling their strings, as the new show, steered by ER’s John Wells, emerged. Now concerned with story developments and political drama, the focus shifted away from an ensemble piece, successfully introducing a range of new characters and instead of including a storyline for each regular lead focused on particular stories and just the characters involved. Although I still don’t think it was as good as it used to be, if the show had new title I’d think it a great new series. In fact, it was basically a West Wing spinoff, with some of the same characters but a host of new ones in a show with a different production team.
Other shows have tried this – The X-Files springs to mind, with its attempt to shift the emphasis onto Doggett and Reyes after Mulder left. They’d have done better if they’d knocked the old series on the head and made it a spinoff; every episode you were reminded how superior the old show was, and how it had jumped the shark.
Having said that, last night’s episodes neatly linked back to the old show, with dozens of old regulars and guest stars popping up in a beautifully written conclusion (Sorkin was offered the chance to write the show; he declined and it’s understandable why – it wasn’t his show anymore – but he does make a cameo appearance). The only strange thing was the flash-forward from the start of the season was never referred to, never wrapped up. Given how lucky they were not to get burned on that by the death of a leading actor there was no reason…
Meanwhile, for those of us who rewatching old Sports Night and Sorkin era West Wing DVDs, More4 will be showing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the same show again, this time set behind the scenes of a TV show, and once again featuring many Sports Night and West Wing regulars. Let’s hope C4 treat it better than they treated The West Wing and show it sooner rather than later.
Update: I just watched The West Wing – The Stackhouse Filibuster which uses the letter writing device of Sports Night – Dear Louise. A number of other overlaps are listed at The Unofficial West Wing Continuity Guide.