After the mediocre (at best) fifth season expanded on the worst aspects of Sorkin's time on the show -- overblown storylines, optimism that verged on reality blindness -- and combined them with a sudden lack of clearly defined direction and an inability to maintain a dramatic arc. The new showrunner, John Wells, fumbled the admittedly ludicrous but dramatically tense finale of the fourth season and he spent the rest of the season trying to recover. Eventually, they found themselves in the same position as the last year, with a finale that sacrificed logic for a desperate grab for suspense.
If the central issue of the fifth season was the sudden upswing in major political problems being wrapped up with stupefying expediency, the sixth season of The West Wing hardly inspires much confidence for a return to the unrealistic but at least vaguely plausible political dealing of the show's early years. Setting a new high for Jed Bartlet's capacity as a groundbreaking leader and a new low for understanding of the complexities of international tensions, the writers use the first two episodes to -- I am not kidding -- solve the bitter struggle between Palestine and Israel. There is some small measure taken to acknowledge how absurd this is and how difficult a peace would be to ensure, but after only a few episodes, even the matter of U.S. peacekeepers sent to monitor the situation cease to rate a mention. It is yet another embarrassing development for a show that seems at this point capable only of making plainly clear the thin line between sharply written off-reality and stilted, cockeyed idealism.
But diffusing one of the world's most dangerous time bombs thankfully does not set a precedent for superhuman achievements on Bartlet's part. Instead, it captures, or at least attempts to capture, the uncertainty of a lame-duck session. After winning reelection despite the massive controversy of lying about his multiple sclerosis and then resigning his post for a brief time to hunt for his daughter without emotionally compromising the position of the most powerful man in the world, Bartlet suddenly finds himself staring down his biggest challenge: retirement.
Unfortunately, the ennui and mounting sense of regret for policies left undone spreads to the pacing of the season. The first half of the season drags so badly I feel as if I could have watched two seasons of the show's early years in the same time span. Compounding Bartlet's feelings of being trapped in the office is the blatant metaphor of a sudden onset of advanced MS symptoms, leaving Bartlet paralyzed for a time and wearied for the rest of the episodes. Had this occurred sooner, the paralysis would have carried weight, impeding his bold plans for bettering America. Instead, it only exacerbates the feelings of aimlessness, miring the series in a loop that works like so: Bartlet discusses fatigue, Abigail begins edging into decision-making in full-on Edith Wilson mode, the staff gently grumbles about not doing anything, and everyone misses Leo, who had a hear attack, because why not?
Whatever shrewdness might have motivated the writers to suddenly scale back the sense of accomplishment and fire to the Bartlet administration, this exaggerated nonsense makes the already struggling series unbearable. One episode, involving Bartlet accidentally accepting the flag of the Taiwanese independence movement mere hours before he must deal with the Chinese on economic and diplomatic issues, manages to rival the badness of the fifth season's gimmick episode "Access" by simply being bad within canon. In some ways, that's even worse than "Access." (And what the hell was with that officious, and nonsensically British, guy down in archives?). Another story of note includes Josh lightly hitting a Prius while test-driving a gas-guzzling SUV, setting off the dumbest media frenzy in the history of Beltway echo-chamber frenzies. This laziness can be seen all over the place, even in minor details such as dragging Lily Tomlin out on location for the Camp David episode and giving her no lines.
Then, something miraculous happens: The West Wing rights itself, and in a wholly unexpected way. Rather than attempt to find that old spark, the writers finally understand that, after five seasons of dramatic arcs and single-episode issues, the show simply has nothing left to say about the Bartlet administration. Instead, Wells and co. turn their attention to the next generation of politics, splitting focus between drudging White House-centric episodes and vibrant, intriguing and rewarding looks at the campaign trail for the Democrats seeking not only to secure the presidential nomination.
Previously, presidential elections on The West Wing were covered primarily through flashbacks of the staffers coming to Bartlet's original campaign. But those episodes concerned what it was about Bartlet that made the characters decide to throw their time and effort behind the then-governor. Here, the writers focus on the nitty-gritty of the campaign trail, treating the mad house that is the election cycle with the same meticulous, if exaggerated, detail with which Aaron Sorkin plotted the inner workings of the White House through the staff, back before most of these decisions were filtered through the broader prism of the president's involvement.
The desire for the staffers to continue working leads to an ideological split: some stay with Bartlet to try and ensure that his last year is as productive and meaningful as his first seven, while others head out to find the next major player. John Hoynes, the disgraced ex-vice president, feels enough time has lapsed from his public scandal to consider a run, especially since his only real competition is Bob Russell, current VP and target for every joke about dumb politicians that people have saved up since Dan Quayle disappeared from the public eye. Will Bailey, who already aligned himself with Russell when he spotted the shrewd politician underneath the bumbling facade, becomes the vice president's primary campaign adviser in addition to being chief of staff. Donna, as fed up with the drawn-out sexual tension with Josh as the show's audience, also jumps onto Russell's campaign.
But the most interesting development is Josh's decision to hunt down a Texan congressman who had been considering retiring from public service while still young to effect more direct change at home. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) has no aspirations to run, but Josh's dealings with the representative nag at him until he heads to Texas to convince Santos to run. For the remainder of the season, Josh toils to make his candidate look like more than a joke as more and more come to believe he's running Santos just to split votes from Russell to benefit Hoynes, his boss before Josh jumped onto Bartlet's ship.
The writers based Santos on then-Senator Barack Obama, and it's remarkable how prescient his campaign is: an also-ran against presumptive front-runners, Santos slowly gains ground when he sticks to pushing issues instead of getting bogged down in the usual attacks (remember when Obama's unwillingness to stay on the offensive was a sign of integrity and not a routinely disappointing display of his reluctance to stand by his beliefs?). His unexpected rise throws the Democratic caucus into pandemonium, preventing a clear choice for nomination when the Republicans immediately fall behind Sen. Arnold Vinick of California (Alan Alda).
At last, The West Wing returns to gripping television. Both the confusing nature of the Democratic situation and the plans of the Vinick campaign make for fascinating stories. Part of this, of course, can be attributed to the actors. Jimmy Smits has always struck me as an actor I shouldn't like until he unloads a heap of talent while you're not paying attention. He looks as if acting excites him more than anything, like a boy wondering onto a set in the middle of classic Hollywood and managing to get on-screen. I almost expect him to stop in whatever performance he's giving and wave "hello" to his mother at the camera, and that eternal, endearing boyishness makes him magnetic. When he combines that with the conviction of belief he brings to Santos, I couldn't take my eyes off him, and I noticed more about this actor I adore than I ever had previously. His physicality matches his acting style: slight pockmarks lay off the side of his still-youthful face, adding a hint of wisdom and calm to his enthusiasm. When Santos walks around New Hampshire before the primaries, insisting on discussing policy instead of simply hunting photo-ops with average citizens, he still comes off as the most likable of the candidates.
At the other end is Alda, whose casting as the Republican senator only compounds the unlikelihood of Vinick's complexity. Not only do the writers at last come up with a conservative character who does not serve as a punching bag for our pent-up frustrations with Bush et al., they picked one of Hollywood's most committed liberals to play him. While Santos struggles to stand by his idealism as Josh attempts to soften him, Vinick has the voice of authority of a longtime politician, sticking to his guns even when it could cost him among the conservative base. His commitment to hands-off policy causes him to butt heads with social conservatives on issues like abortion, and his religious doubts lead him to denounce his castigation among the press for not attending church regularly. Perhaps it is a byproduct of The West Wing's tangential relationship to reality, but Vinick's more libertarian policies actually sound as if they could work. Modeled loosely after Barry Goldwater, Vinick lacks his inspiration's hawkish qualities but shares a commitment to fiscal conservatism over the Religious Right and an unwillingness to simplify or soften his message for the sake of easily digestible rhetoric. If Santos comes off as a man of the people, a young gun who can connect seemingly with anyone even if his beliefs clash with his or hers, Vinick emits an authoritative tone, fatherly without being patriarchal.
The caliber of these two candidates makes for riveting television, taking Bartlet's magnetism and splitting between two completely opposed but respectful men. Though the sixth season deals with the tension among Democrats as the race for nomination is too close to call even heading into the Democratic National Conference, one instantly hopes that the final race will pit Vinick against Santos, for the two of them continue to display such honesty that I would set aside any hopes for truly realistic politics just to see what it might be like if two candidates would conduct themselves honorably and truthfully. So enraptured was I by the pair of them that I never stopped to consider that, in real life, we finally got one such candidate in the last presidential cycle, only for him to sorely disappoint on many of the core issues that defined the courage of his beliefs.
If Santos brought up the Barack Obama connection openly, the end days of Bartlet's administration blurred the line of who might best embody our current president. Though Bartlet is entering his final year of a second term having accomplished much, the single year we see in this season mirrors the two Obama has presided over since taking office: Bartlet is besieged by compromise and regret, unable to get anything past a partisan Congress (though at least Bartlet has the decency to be gridlocked by a Republican majority and not a small but militant minority), and idealism takes a back seat to politicking. If the writers called Obama's meteoric rise three years ahead of time, they also anticipated the cynicism that would take foot when certain things beyond the leader's control spiraled out of control and some of the policies he enacted to right them only made matters worse. After suffering through a season I originally pegged as mediocre but not entirely terrible before revising my opinion to something even less positive, I needed to see this shift from dragging plots to ahead-of-the-curve projection. Though it appears as if The West Wing will never return to its original format before its finale in the next season, I no longer mind. By changing course, it saved itself, and I can at last look forward to completing a series that instantly leaped into the high reaches of my favorite programs when I dove into its mesmerizing early seasons so long ago.