Tuesday, May 16, 2006

West Wing, RIP

Sunday night's episode of West Wing, entitled "Tomorrow," was the last of the series. Based on running conversations I've had with friends and colleagues over the years, I must be one of the few (if not only) conservatives out there who can say, with all sincerity, I will miss the show.

No other television series in history won more Emmy Awards for Best Drama.

No other television series in history ever came as close to portraying what actually goes on at the highest levels of national politics.

No other television series in history found a way to regularly show the ongoing conflict between principled idealism and cold, hard, nut-cutting realism.

When the show first began, seven years ago, it was a television show driven by its writing -- to a fault. No one single person, let alone an entire cast, could ever really be as on-the-spot brilliant with the devilish ripostes as were the characters who wandered the halls of WW. But it sure made for good dialogue.

Over the years, though, it was the acting that took over. Martin Sheen, Stockard Channing, John Spencer, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Rob Lowe, Dule Hill, Janel Moloney, Josh Molina, Mary McCormack, Kristin Chenoweth, Lily Tomlin, and Emily Proctor -- among the show's regular cast -- created characters who were believable BECAUSE they were flawed, each in his/her own special way: Bartlet the pedantic knowitall, Leo the reformed alcoholic, Josh the overachieving realist, Toby the condescending moralist ...

I, for one, do not count myself among those fans who, in the last three years of the show -- dated to the departure of series creator Aaron Sorkin -- thought that it had suffered greatly. In fact, I think some of the highlights of the last three years stand up very well to the highlights of the first four.

Which is what made Sunday evening's series finale so terribly disappointing.

A friend who knows of my fondness for the TV show IMed me on Monday morning. "So, did you cry last night over West Wing?"

"Yes," I replied. "I was bored to tears."

Granted, the show's writers were in a box: there were an awful lot of loose ends out there that needed to be tied up. Because the final year began with a scene that showed us where everybody was three years from now, the final season had to move along a story arc that would set the stage for three years from now: Toby as a professor of political science at Columbia, CJ and Danny married, Charlie in law school at Georgetown, Will as a Member of Congress, etc.

But still ... the show seemed to move along at a glacial pace. It was as if the writers were determined to focus on just one or two of the key transition cliches -- the tradition of the outgoing press secretary, for instance, penning a note to the incoming press secretary, to leave in the flak vest that's traditionally handed off; the personal letter from the outgoing President to the incoming President; etc.

And then ... then there was the most colossal screw-up I've ever seen on an episode of WW: to wit, the pedantic knowitall President's response to his wife when she asked who was the numbskull who came up with the idea of an outdoor ceremony in January. "Franklin, Adams, Jefferson," or something to that effect was the President's response. In fact, from 1789 through 1937, the Inauguration of a new President took place on March 4 of the year following the election; in 1937, just in time for FDR's second inauguration, the 20th Amendement to the Constitution kicked in, and Inauguration Day was moved to January 20. How that one got by the technical consultants escapes me.

And then that screw-up was followed by another major clunker: As she leaves the White House for the very last time, and walks out onto Pennsylvania Avenue, outgoing chief of staff CJ Cregg is approached by a man and his child, tourists who apparently unaware of the big goings-on of Inauguration Day. And why should they be aware? After all, there are no bleachers erected on Pennsylvania Avenue, no marching bands, no horses, no tens of thousands of people lining the parade route -- at the EXACT moment when Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House should be jammed with wall-to-wall people, there are but a few tourists meandering about.


Even with these screw-ups in the final episode, though, WW was the best thing on television.

Except for, maybe, The Sopranos. Which, of course, is also at its heart a character- and writing-driven drama about ... politics.


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