Monday, May 15, 2006

Bartlet for America One Last Time
I may have to take back some of the bad things I've said about John Wells and The West Wing. Wells took the writing credit for last night's series finale--and it was as fine a piece of work as he's ever turned in, one that ended the series on a completely appropriate note, and in thoroughly satisfying fashion. The episode gave us the right balance of old and new, and of looking back and looking forward. After 2 1/2 seasons of hit-or-miss TV, The West Wing got it right at the end.

The final episode of a long-running series should be written for and be true to the people who have watched it religiously. This is where some other series finales have failed. Take the last episode of Seinfeld, which abandoned the style that fans adored for an episode with a conventional storyline that ended up being untrue to the spirit of the entire series. Or the 1983 finale of MASH, which was clearly written, produced, and acted with the knowledge that the whole world would be watching, and thus ended up so unlike the rest of the series in look, tone, and spirit that it played like an inferior remake. But The West Wing didn't fall into either of these traps. The final episode contained some great nods to the series' history--the framed napkin with the words "Bartlet for America," which dates back to the episode explaining how Bartlet came to run for president in the first place; and Santos, in the Oval Office, asking his chief of staff Josh, "What's next?" They brought the funny, as in Debbie Fiderer's advice to her successor as presidential secretary. They reminded us, as show so often did, of just how awesome and important the office of the presidency is. The show has often done this through the eyes of the characters who are most like viewers. In the first season, Charlie Young, newly hired as the president's "body man," watches him preparing to give a televised address and whispers to Josh, "I've never felt like this before." Josh responds, "It never ends." Last night, it was Donna Moss, who began the series as an aide's gopher but now appointed chief of staff to the new First Lady, getting a look at her office.

It might have been otherwise for The West Wing. As Matt Santos walked to the platform to be inaugurated, I imagined for a moment that we might hear shots ringing out or something--after all, John Wells is the same guy who ends each season of ER with mayhem. I would like to have seen Toby Ziegler find out about his pardon--and that it was Bartlet's idea to give it to him--but that's a minor quibble for which Wells compensated by thinking to do something else. At the inauguration, we saw various characters watching Keb' Mo' singing "America the Beautiful." The single unfamilar face in the crowd was series creator Aaron Sorkin.

Although it's fun to imagine how Sorkin might have written the finale, Wells did it well enough. And if you're a West Wing fan, you had to get pumped by the promo for Sorkin's new Studio 60, right?

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