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.