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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.)
I really enjoy your analysis here. West Wing is not a show I've ever watched - but you almost inspire me :) And the idea of a world where you could have that sort of honest debate between two decent people... An election where one could be happy with either side winning - well, that's a dream to aspire to, I believe.

Thank you :)
On your recommendation, I watched tonight's West Wing on 'Bravo' ... was the nomination episode. Was quite entertained with Ed Bundy [Married with Children] grasping for the Presidency. ;-)
I agree with you that The Debate was a brilliant piece of television, and the best West Wing episode in years--since Sorkin left, I think. It captured everything I adored about Sorkin's West Wing: real-life issues debated and discussed, often in more depth than you find anywhere else on TV. I wish that any debates involving actual Presidentail candidates worked a fraction as well to address issues and delineate finer points of difference.

I can't agree that this season has gotten anywhere close to the Sorkin era, though. Sorkin grounded the show firmly in realism, was quite dedicated to it, and not just in exploring current events. Yes, John Wells does drama well (look at ER), but he has made too many choices for the drama at the expense of the realism. Look at the presidential candidates: in real life, Santos would not have come close to winning (too ideal), nor would he have chosen as a running mate a political staff member without a following. I understand that it would be difficult for any team of writers to fill the shoes of a cocaine-enhanced Aaron Sorkin, but the degree of pure fiction is too much for me.

If you want drama with a strictly fictional base, you might check out Commander-in-Chief. That show started with an Independent, female Vice President to a Republican, so I know I'm in a fantasy world and can enjoy all the what-ifs. They just shifted writing teams, though, so there's no guarantee that the rest of the season will work as well as the first few episodes.
To use sfnal terms, I think that CIC started out in an alternate universe, and it works well enough. TWW started out in the real world (comparatively), and it has moved into an alternate universe. As most of TV operates in one or another sort of alternate universe, I prefer the old-style West Wing.
Look at the presidential candidates: in real life, Santos would not have come close to winning (too ideal)

As compared to, oh, Bartlet? Come on! Bartlet has all of Santos' virtues plus experience and a Nobel prize--the only reason his election was plausible is that we basically never saw it, and there's no way that you can claim the S4 election campaign was more realistic than this one.

Now, that said, I agree with you that Wells over-emphasises Drama. But this season the Drama has been largely confined to the West Wing--the leak story. And it's generally sucked, but it's so separate from what's going on elsewhere that I've been able to pretend it's not there. On the campaign, there isn't that much Drama. No scandalous revelations, no major crises; just the pragmatism of electoral politics. (I think it's also refreshing to see the Democrats losing again; they won far too much, far too easily in S5/6.)

I also agree with you that TWW has become more of an alternate history than it used to be, or at least more obviously an alternate history than it used to be. I think that's an inevitable consequence of the one virtue to the way Wells tells stories, in that he actually pays attention to continuity whereas Sorkin, er, didn't. (Mandy? Who's Mandy?) The Wells show accumulates detail in a way that the Sorkin show, either by accident or by design, avoided, so obviously it's going to end up feeling more separate to our own universe.
I agree that the campaign has been the source of all that's good about TWW this season. I'm glad that they're able to address a bunch of serious issues, and I'm hoping they'll address more (e.g., electronic voting machines). It's too bad that the general public will have forgotten all of this by the time the next Presidential election rolls around, though.

re: Bartlet vs. Santos
I'd argue that Bartlet remains more believable as a nominee, because he has more in common with actual Presidents. For one thing, he was a white, Protestant, re-elected governor (cf. the last four Presidents). Sure, the Nobel is a bit OTT; but then Clinton's Rhodes scholarship was made much of fairly regularly.

Santos is a Congressman on only his third term. He's Catholic, Hispanic, and married to a woman who's not Hispanic. Even just looking at the Congress part, he reminds me of Newt Gingrich, who ran for President more than once and now . . is on talk radio. Add in the other factors? I'll buy Bartlet over Santos, any day.
Yep, I'd vote for Santos too, but it is a tough call.

I think you're right that S6 was patchy, although I thought the same of S3. I'm finding S7 excellent - it's a shame that there's such a break, now, between episodes!
Are you sure it's possible to run a US presidential election slower than real time?
Well, in that there's seven days between episodes airing and less than seven days between episodes' continuity ... yes! :)
C'mon, Dubya's been paralysed from the neck up since birth, but it hasn't affected his electability.

I used to quite enjoy The West Wing, but then the idiots at C4 switched it to early evening, so I missed a season or so and never really got back into the groove. It's not the only show they've screwed up that way, either.