The best Christmas present I ever got was a navy blue file folder with the seal of the president. Inside that file folder were seven files. Inside each of those files were 22 episodes of the greatest show of all time. The Christmas that my dad got me the entire series of The West Wing on DVD was the day our father/daughter time changed forever. Ever since, we've been making our way back through the series a couple episodes at a time whenever I'm home. My mother's gotten into it, my brother's gotten into it... it's become a family phenomenon.
As we progress through the series it has become abundantly clear how important Aaron Sorkin was to the series. His rhythms, comedy/drama blend and character development are unparalleled and the final 3 seasons without him really yearn for his genius. The stories move slower, the comedy falls flatter, the characters on occasion will say something completely inconsistent with their previously established voice, there's too much campaign-centered story, there's no character balance and Santos is freaking annoying. That said, we are currently 3/4 of the way through season 6 and in the time since the simultaneous loss of the show's creative force (Sorkin) and one of its strongest characters (Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe) at the end of season 4, we have seen the occasional ray of hope in certain characters and in one particularly brilliant episode.
Season 5's Ryan and Rina came in as small, comedic characters who gave the show a little vibrancy at a time when the writers were really struggling to find comedy in the drama. Ryan in particular (played by Jesse Bradford) was a really important character to the tone of season 5 in that he was a great parallel to Josh and served as a bit of a foil to Toby in the recent absence of Sam. He was intelligent but casual which was an important dynamic to hold on to.
In season 6 relief came in the 4'11 form of Kristin Chenoweth as the quick witted and cheerful deputy press secretary Annabeth Schott. Kristin Chenoweth can infuse even the driest material with a necessary bit of spunk, and while Annabeth is no Ainsley Hayes (perhaps the greatest of all minor recurring characters), she keeps the show fun and upbeat, or at least attempts to. We also are introduced to a wonderful new character in Arnie Vinnick, the Republican candidate for president. Vinnick is a liberal Republican who is as idealistic and amazing as Bartlett is- just on the other side of the party line. The incomparable Alan Alda plays him with such vigor and honesty that even I, the most liberal of liberals, would have voted Republican if I were voting for him.
Season 6 also marks the return of a season 3 favourite, Cliff Calley (Mark Feuerstein). Cliff (like Ainsley Hayes and Arnie Vinnick) is an example of a sympathetic and good Republican character in a show that is often criticized for its dehumanization of Republicans. Cliff was the hero of the hour when he saved Leo from unnecessary character attacks and inquiry into his alcoholism during the congressional hearings about Bartlett's MS during Christmas of season 3. He disappeared for a couple of years until he returned in season 6 as a replacement for Josh's position in the White House. Presented as a very classically Josh-like character, Cliff is a welcome character addition at a time when Josh himself is being taken out of the white house, away from the grounding of the character foils Sorkin built for him and made into a somewhat too intense form of himself.
The final saving grace of the show since Sorkin's departure is a single episode in season 5. The only post-Sorkin episode to be included in my top 10 West Wing episode list. "The Supremes", written by Debora Cahn, isone of the best of the entire series. The episode is a comedic look at Josh's alternative proposal for nominating 2 supreme court justices (a brainwave inspired by Donna's mom's cats). Glenn Close and William Fichtner make spectacular guest appearances as the two nominated judges (one extreme liberal and one extreme conservative). The episode features bright and lively dialogue, intelligent and fast-paced debate and interesting character moments. It almost seems like, for 43 minutes, Aaron Sorkin is writing the show again. Debora Cahn, a then somewhat new writer who went on to do more great work on The West Wing then write some of the best episodes of Grey's Anatomy, hit one completely out of the park with "The Supremes", an episode that gives hope to a somewhat disenchanted viewer struggling in a post-Sorkin West Wing.
Now, I realize that I may sound down on something I earlier called "the greatest show of all time". To call a single episode and a couple minor characters "saving graces" of an otherwise depreciated show may sound negative, but one needs to remember that the final 3 seasons of The West Wing ARE terrible in comparison to the unimaginably brilliant first 4. That does not, however, mean that they are bad. In fact, they are still some of the best TV ever produced. A bad episode of The West Wing still trumps a brilliant episode of Prison Break, it may even equal a pretty good episode of Grey's Anatomy. When I say "the greatest show of all time" I'm not kidding around.
When we finally reach "Tomorrow", the series finale, we will get to begin again. We'll get to see everything from "tell your friend Potus he has a funny name" to "you idiot, I'M Joey Lucas" to "when the president stands, nobody sits" all over again and we will love it, all over again. And when I finally get there, I promise I'll review the show with every bit of enthusiasm it deserves, at least for 4 seasons. Until then, I shall criticize the seasons that could be better, even if they are brilliant.