Winging It

Because I’ve invested so many hours into watching the preceding seasons of “The West Wing,” I’ve more or less felt compelled to watch its wandering, sometimes agonizingly listless course since the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin in 2003. Under the now exclusive guidance of Sorkin’s producing partner John Wells, the show has lost a lot of its crisp nature and has appeared, many times, to be wheezing along, looking for some new purpose, and in doing so, almost wantonly inflicting severe physical distress on its characters — torturous kidnappings, deadly explosions, heart attacks and advanced stages of multiple sclerosis, for example, have all been visited on familiar characters in the past two seasons — in the hopes of revealing some re-invigorating, ratings-friendly momentum.

It’s been frustrating because the the characters and the milieu that Sorkin devised remain potent, still interesting (to me, anyway) after so many trials, tribulations and so much shark-jumping. I still have an affection for the way they talk and the way they interact, and the earnestness with which the cast invests these ailing roles. I find myself saddened, mostly, when I watch the show, which I rarely do during its original airing on Wednesday nights any longer, preferring instead to try and speed through a recorded version on my DVR.

Out of the Office

So it’s been surprising to watch the past month’s episodes, which increasingly have been focusing on the campaign to succeed Martin Sheen’s fictional president after his second term in the White House expires. For this, Wells has sent several of his characters out onto the campaign trail with newly-cast candidates Jimmy Smits, Alan Alda and the triumphantly cheesey Gary Cole. An installment in late January called “King Corn” was stunningly great, in no small part because it looked and felt nothing like any of the shows that had come before it.

These are the best episodes in years; they’re a welcome relief from the now claustrophobic halls of the White House, and they inject a new sense of suspense into what had become a predictable weekly serial. What’s most exciting about them is that they have the makings of a solution, a way out of the lumbering legacy of the past five years, and into a new phase for the series. Wells is laying the groundwork for, hopefully, an overhauled “West Wing” to be aired next season. I’m crossing my fingers that he can pull it off, and that NBC will let him.



  1. In the last couple of months we’ve watched seasons 1 to 4, right the way through. I introduced some friends to it who were seeing it for the first time, and it patched up for me the bits and pieces that I’d caught on TV. I knew the end of the fourth would result in some big changes, both on and off the screen, and it’s left me feeling very apathetic to watching any more of it.

    My mindset for The New West Wing is to treat it as a spin-off, or a piece of fanfic. I don’t want to think about this _thing_ as the real continuation of those characters lives. Have you seen I’m not sure that that exactly sums up my sentiments – maybe Wells can make it work.

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one that has these feelings. I’ve gotten in the habit of determining a show’s worth based on whether it takes place on the campaign trail or in the office. In the office just isn’t as much fun as it used to be. Sure, the show is exciting or tense but it’s not as much fun.

  3. “King Corn” was a brilliant episode–and one of the most innovative uses of lighting I’ve ever seen in television. Anyone notice the stark flourescent quality used to great efffect throughout the episode to highlight the anonymous life on the road aspect of political campaigning?

  4. I have to agree. I’ve watched the first few seasons recently on DVD (I missed them on TV mostly due to poor programming downunder) and having just finished the fourth season I can see the steady decline.

    I’m still addicted though, so it’s refreshing to know that things are looking up.

  5. I gave up on West Wing almost immediately after this season started. You could feel something was missing in the first act of the first episode. And once Alias started at the same time on another channel, that was the nail on the coffin.

    My only hope is that Alan Alda will become the next President. I can’t see how watching Jimmy or Gary will be compelling enough, week to week. Give me Hawkie and I’ll come back every Wednesday.

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