I am very late to watching The West Wing, and subjected you a couple of months ago to a few thoughts on the brilliance of the show, at least through the first couple of seasons. Many commenters expressed the dual opinions that they loved the show but that after Sorkin left it became terrible. I attributed this to the usual winding down of a show, thinking most in particular of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which clearly hit its peak in the second and third seasons, fell off the rails in the fourth, and managed to find itself here and there for the last three seasons. That show was never as good as it had originally been, but it still was at its heart a good show. It was still the “Buffy” we liked, even if it was less of what we liked.
That was anything but the case for The West Wing.
The first few episodes of that Sorkinless fifth season were a bit off, cracks showing, and the quality plummetted from there. By the end of the first disc, I was grumbling that they really needed to find their way back to where Sorkin had been going. By the end of the second disc, I was openly yelling at the television through half of each episode. By the end of the third disc, I had dropped the rest of the series from my Netflix queue.
This was not a series that got worse, or a simple matter of bad writing in comparison to Sorkin’s inspired writing. It wasn’t that the moments that made the show great were fewer and far between, it was that this was no longer the same show. If this had been the first season of the show, I wouldn’t have made it to the second. The fifth season of The West Wing is bad television, terrible plots, and abysmal dialogue. Everything mesmerizing about the first four seasons was gone in a moment, the writers left behind by Sorkin apparently not just terrible at writing, but completely incapable of understanding what had made the show brilliant on the level of story.
Of course I assumed that there would be less flourish to the speeches and monologues. Sans Sorkin, the legendary monologues like in Two Cathedrals would be few and far between. But that’s just the flash in the pan, as awe-inspiring as they still are even out of context in grainy YouTube clips.
No, the real problems that erupted in the fifth season run much deeper than that. Take out the thunder of Sorkin’s dialogue, and the show was still a fantastic meditation on the way our government works. But what remained after Sorkin’s departure was not simply a less eloquent version of the vision, or even a hollow shell, but a caricature constructed of familiar characters, propping up an entirely different understanding of government.
The first hint of this malignancy was in the first episode of the season, when dealing with the cliffhanger of the previous season. The motion of that cliffhanger gilded over the problems, but one stuck out in particular anyway. Josh and Toby immediately begin plotting to convince the president to take back the reins of power, literally only minutes of real time after they had realized how necessary the action was in the final episode of the previous season. Their panic goes so far as to rant that the Republicans were going to use this opportunity to push through every element of far right wing agenda imaginable. By god, to listen to their conversation, one would think that the moment Republicans controlled the Presidency that it would be conservative armageddon. That there would be no political consequences to them pushing through abortion bans while the President’s daughter was missing?
It’s as if the writers who found themselves in charge of the show could not understand the nuance of the cliffhanger that they were handed. And so they just wrote crayon over the existing situation in order to generate conflict that they could understand.
The betrayal of Josh in the first few episodes when a situation gets out of hand and a senator switches parties was the second hint. These characters were not acting as they have for four seasons. Taking away all of Josh’s work in a passive-aggressive detonation of petulance? This is a man whom Bartlett has referred to as his son, one of the inner circle who has been there since this candidate was talking to empty rooms in rural New Hampshire. The arbitrary rewriting of characters in order to generate conflict approaches the pathological in this half season of television. Characters who have systematically demonstrated both magnificent competence and rock solid relationships with each other act like foot-stomping children with all the political saavy of a junior high class treasurer.
And yet the redemption of Josh is no better written. What is intended to be a grand moment, Bartlett walking to Congress, Josh walking with him, and then Josh’s bright idea that after sitting there for a few minutes they should leave, are all played up as breathtaking insights of political strategy. They are not. They are the sort of idiotic political theater that has hardened the electorate into cynical detachment. What was once a show of words demonstrated that it had become a show of empty images.
The back-breaking episode though was the one in which Social Security is fixed completely in forty minutes. That description in and of itself illustrates just how laughable the show became so quickly. Politics? Oh we can fix the biggest political dilemmas of the 21st century with a couple of sound bites and off the screen negotiation, that will free up time to ensure that the dating lives of every character are covered in precision.
In the first few seasons of The West Wing I noticed a particular quirk that quickly became endearing. Personal issues would come and go completely off screen. Charlie and Zoe breaking up? It happened off screen and was only ever referenced many many episodes later in passing. In a normal television show, personal issues are followed step by step, while work issues are referenced in passing or never at all. The West Wing was about the work though, so it was the personal that was treated in passing. But in the fifth season this was inverted.
And returning to the notion of fixing social security in an hour with commercial breaks, there is a naive belief, most people hold it at some point in their lives, usually when they are young enough to have not had their idealism burned away just yet. It is that everyone generally wants the same things and that if they just sat down at a table, and really honestly worked with each other, they would be able to find a compromise. The reality is that entrenched political differences tend to be the result of mutually exclusive views, of the fact that some people want the world to be categorically different than other people do. And so in a democracy we work at it, we spend decades trying to convince each other that our vision is the right one, because when two visions are mutually exclusive, compromise is simply impossible.
Sorkin got that. His replacements did not.