Closing Out the Bartlet Administration
Tonight NBC will air the final episode of The West Wing, ending seven seasons of one of the most brilliant television series of all time.
Since NBC and the actors couldn’t work out fees that would have allowed them to produce a clip-laden/fresh interview tribute special, they’re rerunning the pilot at 7. So, allow me to pay my own tribute.
Aaron Sorkin caught my attention with The American President and A Few Good Men, two exceedingly engaging and well written movies. The characters had some snap and some personality and the stories were very well structured. As a result, I followed him to Sports Night, one of the smartest and worst-handled sitcoms ABC ever aired. It ended after two wonderful seasons, a great series probably on the wrong network. I can rewatch episodes and be enthralled.
From there, Sorkin created West Wing and rewrote the rules for dramatic television. Just as Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues forced viewers to pay attention to multi-layered stories and a huge cast of characters, Sorkin took prime time drama to a higher level. Bocho clearly paved the way and most dramatic television has taken advantage of that, but Sorkin made the biggest jump.
His characters talked, and talked fast. They spoke about ideals, issues, actually had points of view, and had quirks in their personalities so you didn’t know what would happen next. Aided and abetted by director Thomas Schlamme, the series had a look and feel that demanded you pay attention. It really started in the first sequence, as Leo McGarry arrives at the White House for a new day. As written, it was about eight separate moments, but as directed, Schlamme made it one long walking and talking bit, setting the standard. Go back and watch that tonight and you’ll see.
Much has been made of the series showing an idealistic administration, its workers trying to serve the public good. Critics lambasted it as a democratic fantasy but Sorkin strove to show both sides of an issue while still giving you a set of characters trying to achieve an agenda. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a series and its characters having a strong point of view. Too often, even the best prime time shows avoid having their characters actually have opinions on the issues of the day or life itself.
What has garnered less notice is that Sorkin frequently allowed his characters to fail. Personality flaws aren’t that original, but actually having your leads screw up regularly was something novel. Governing and politics means that you will have to compromise and sometimes those compromises come as payment for arrogance or an error of judgment. The characters all have paid prices for their efforts from Bartlet’s Censure by Congress to Toby facing charges for leaking classified information. Josh nearly got fired in the pilot and continued to put his foot in his mouth for seven years.
Sorkin also let us laugh at them every now and then, reminding us that regardless of how smart or noble they are they remain human. Watching CJ fall over when she test fired a pistol or Sam admit to Leo’s daughter he slept with a call girl or Josh spill coffee over his hung-over self showed what a sharp observer of humanity Sorkin can be.
We fell in love with these idealists thanks to stories and plots and issues we hadn’t seen on television before, each hour being a mini-play. The casting was superb so the actors made us believe in the words and topics.
The series was never perfect. But, by striving to do something good and different, we forgave it the occasional flat note or odd-man-out-character (Mandy). Not every episode was the best television that week, but those first four seasons will stack up better than the first four seasons of just about any other drama since Philo Farnsworth (a character near and dear to Sorkin) gave the world television.
I’ll miss the series and its characters, its idealism and its call to do better. Few shows inspire in the same way.
Fortunately, Sorkin, Schlamme and several of their repertoire will return on NBC in the fall. Next week we’ll find out when Studio 60 will air but it has been approved for 13 episodes and for that we should all be grateful.
Fare thee well Bartlet Administration.