By Andrew Williams
July 8, 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).
Happy days? A much-loved and admired genius at the top of his game was forced by circumstance to leave his vaunted position at the head of a hugely respected institution, and everyone else was left to pick up the pieces. It was never going to be easy for the fictional characters of The West Wing to return to their walking, talking, jovial ways after the cataclysmic events of the Season Four finale. But the real blow came when Aaron Sorkin was arrested for drug possession and subsequently left the show along with director Thomas Schlamme. Without Sorkin, could The West Wing recover? Was there any point in continuing with a show that was so synonymous with its departed creator?
While The West Wing was certainly never the same, it was absolutely worth sticking with… just not yet. Season Five is without a shadow of a doubt the worst season of the series, as the huge ramifications of the previous season prove too big a hurdle for the show to clear successfully. New showrunner John Wells does an admirable job trying to keep things on track, but the transition from the show it was under Sorkin into the show he wanted it to be was a bumpy one, to say the least. Season Five is scattered, uninspired (drawing from real life events far too often) and introduces several regrettable characters and plotlines that would be promptly excised by the beginning of Season Six.
It’s not all bad. Season Five of The West Wing was still significantly better than most dramas airing on network television and a cast this stacked could have made rejected Two and a Half Men scripts seem like Shakespeare. Wells is an outstanding creative mind, but he was trying to make Sorkin’s show. It wouldn’t be until Season Six when he started making The West Wing his own.
The final frontier: This is the worst season of The West Wing by a long, long way, but improvement is just around the corner.
Best episode: 8) Shutdown. When the Republican party acts out of such cynical and disingenuous political self-interest that the entire government has to shut down (as if!), President Bartlet and Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) take matters into their own hands with a breathtaking display of political acumen. A standout West Wing moment that proved the show still had what it took to inspire even in the bad times.
Worst episode: 18) Access. Sometimes it’s good to experiment. It can yield interesting, often miraculous results. And sometimes you get episodes like Access, which break the visual mould of The West Wing to disastrously boring results. Allison Janney won an Emmy for her performance in this episode, and she’s fantastic as always, but Access is predominantly a failed experiment.
Season MVP: Bradley Whitford would essentially take over as the central character on The West Wing as the series progressed and President Bartlet faded into the background of the upcoming election campaign, and for good reason. He has Martin Sheen’s ability to handle comedy as deftly as he does high drama, and he is the undisputed anchor of a show constantly under threat of floating away.
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The West Wing is available on Quickflix.