By Andrew Williams
June 24, 2014
Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and the rest).
Now, this is a story all about how… Faced with growing international unrest, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) also has the small matter of a national election to contend with.
Happy days? The fourth season of The West Wing is the last of the ‘Sorkin era’ and also where a lot of people pretend the show ended. Sorkin left the show (along with signature director Thomas Schlamme) at the conclusion of the season, and he’s so synonymous with The West Wing as a whole that viewers, buzz and award ceremonies pretty much abandoned the show after his exit. (There are plenty of reasons to stick with it, but we’ll get to that next time.)
What a way to go, though. The West Wing’s fourth outing is a virtuoso season of television, balancing some of the show’s most ambitious storytelling with the quiet, funny behind-the-scenes moments that made it so beloved. Sorkin handles Rob Lowe’s resignation from the cast (he left, essentially, because he wasn’t the star any more) with an almost absurd amount of grace, makes the fait accompli nature of the Presidential election into an asset, and winds the season up with an absolute barn burner of a finale featuring a stunning moment of leadership (and parenting) from his central character.
There are missteps along the way, for sure. Christian Slater’s brief guest starring role doesn’t work, Zoey’s new boyfriend is just the pits and there’s one episode that is drastically out of step with the rest of the show. For the most part though? This continues to be an all-time great television series.
The final frontier: The last stellar season of The West Wing winds up the best four-year run in television history.
Top three episodes: 1/2) 20 Hours in America. I get goose bumps just listening to Martin Sheen’s ‘angels’ speech in the second instalment of this funny, moving and thoughtful two-parter. It’s a stirring opening to an outstanding season. 21) Life on Mars. Matthew Perry guests in one of my favourite episodes to re-watch; more of a mystery story than anything else, and the way Sorkin sets up the pieces of the puzzle is first class. 6) Game On. Though it takes perhaps a tad too much delight in the utter spifflication of Governor Robert Ritchie (James Brolin, pretty much just playing George W. Bush), this debate episode still manages to be entirely thrilling.
Worst episode: 13) The Long Goodbye. It’s not just that The Long Goodbye is a jarring change of pace from the usual The West Wing format (though it is), but it’s also just not very good. It’s a dreary, maudlin episode absent of this show’s trademark wit and style; unforgivable given it centres around one of the show’s best characters in C. J. Cregg (Allison Janney).
Season MVP: Martin Sheen, Martin Sheen and Martin Sheen. From his performance in the debate in Game On, to his speech in the premiere and his heartbreaking work in the finale, he remains the show’s indomitable soul.
Check out Andrew Williams’ previous instalments:
The West Wing is available on Quickflix.