Saturday, February 05, 2005

Cured of Liberalism
If you watch The West Wing, you know that the show is gearing up for an election and will, early next season, replace Martin Sheen with either Alan Alda or Jimmy Smits as the fictional president of the United States. Executive producer John Wells told a reporter this week that it's not preordained that the show will succeed the very liberal Jed Bartlet (man spells his name wrong) with another liberal (Smits' Congressman Matthew Santos), and neither is it preordained that the show will respond to the presumed conservative drift of the country at large and replace Bartlet with a Republican (Alda's Senator Arnold Vinick). (Wells knows, of course--but he wouldn't say so at this point unless he were waterboarded.) Many West Wing fans are all a-twitter about this--Iowa City's famous Hamburg Inn, where the candidates campaigned on the most recent episode of the show, is having the same kind of coffee-bean caucus for the show as it puts on for real presidential campaigns--but far fewer are asking whether it's a good idea to change administrations.

I'll ask, and answer: A new administration is a terrible idea, for a number of reasons.

First, the obvious one: A new West Wing administration means new supporting characters. By going with Vinick, Wells would have to create a whole new cast. This is problematic--for one thing, if Wells draws his new characters from the same bag of cliches he seems to draw his plots, the prospects would be grim. But even if the characters were somehow well-drawn, would longtime West Wing fans accept them? Maybe a producer could get away with it in an era of reality shows that change casts every season, but I can't think of another program in traditional TV forms, drama or comedy, in which the whole cast turned over at once and the show remained viable. By going with Santos, Wells could reasonably keep a few of his current characters, such as Josh Lyman, a Bartlet staffer who is running the Santos campaign, and Lyman's one true love (although he doesn't know it), his former assistant Donna Moss. Knowing how viewers love continuity (and networks love viewers), this is the best argument for betting on Santos.

But even if Santos becomes president, there are more subtle reasons why a new administration is a bad idea. If the show were still a major hit and had a few years' life expectancy remaining, a complete cast makeover might be seen as groundbreaking. But The West Wing's ratings and creativity have been in decline over the last two seasons, and most of the actors' deals are set to expire after next season anyhow. Why not just let the show wrap up as part of the natural order of things? Let Jed and Abby Bartlet ride triumphantly into the sunset of history, Josh and Donna finally hit the rack together, Toby get back together with his ex, Will run for Congress, C. J. get a talkshow on MSNBC, Leo become an ambassador? Although such an ending would be intensely satisfying for West Wing junkies, such a graceful exit isn't usually how TV works, of course. As long as NBC can continue to get cash from the cow, the cow will retain its place in the barn, even if said cow has been reupholstered so much it scarcely resembles the original.

Still another reason to fear a new administration is the political one. For its first four seasons, The West Wing represented a liberal utopia--Jed Bartlet was Bill Clinton, zipped up. Then, creator Aaron Sorkin was run out of the building, and in seasons five and six Wells and company aimed to make the show more bipartisan, but actually made the show's characters sound like graduates of a 12-step program to cure them of liberalism. Given the country's current conservative climate, I am betting Wells will go with Vinick as his new president in the seventh season next year. Even though the character is being set up as a Republican maverick, he's still a Republican, and have to watch the damn Republicans screw up the country every day--why the hell would I want to watch them screw up one of my favorite TV shows? Only if Sorkin were writing them--after all, Speaker of the House Glenallen Walken (memorably played by John Goodman), aide Ainsley Hayes, and White House lawyer Joe Quincy managed to be Republicans with nuances. The only Repug prominently featured in the Wells era is House Speaker Steven Hatley, a shrill red-state martinet.

(Digression: Apart from ideology, writing is another reason to consider giving up on The West Wing. It's become a ritual among West Wing fans to pay close attention to the writer credit on each episode--some of the writers, such as Debora Cahn and Eli Attie, understand both the show's form and how politics works, while others, such as Wells himself and John Sacret Young, have no idea. Wells' plotting is some of the most unsubtle on television--where Sorkin painted dots for viewers to connect, Wells drops anvils onto their heads. Furthermore, all of the characters worth watching were created by Sorkin. Those created by the Wells regime--such as the national security aide whose precise position is never made clear, or Congressman Matt Santos himself--are cardboard figures moved around at writerly whim. For example, Santos is supposed to be some sort of new-breed liberal who is guided by principle rather than party, but it's not really clear what his principles are. We are supposed to believe that Lyman sees in Santos what Bartlet's mentor saw in Bartlet. Exactly what Lyman sees, however, is so invisible to many dedicated viewers that one West Wing message board chalks it up to a gay crush.)

So yeah, changing administrations is a terrible idea, but that doesn't matter. The West Wing is headed for a final season from an alternate universe in 2005-06, like the last year of The X-Files, with new characters but little point, and few viewers left but uncritical hardcores. For the rest of us, at least we'll have the DVDs of the first four seasons.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?