NBC has announced that the current season of The West Wing will be the last. I won’t be mourning its passing that much, since I mourned its death at the start of the fifth season. After writer/creator Aaron Sorkin was fired at the end of the fourth season, we were all waiting to see if the show could carry on with even a tenth of its former presence; it was no surprise to see that it couldn’t. Sorkin really has a gift with dialogue that demonstrates so clearly that writers have far more of an effect on the quality of US TV and film productions than they’re given credit for.
In contrast to the first four seasons (the latter two admittedly not as good as the first two), the fifth season was dismal: the plots were dire, dialogue merely functional rather than entrancing and characters behaved inconsistently.The sixth season – the one currently airing on More4 in the UK – was a definite improvement, although nowhere near the heights of the Sorkin years, while the seventh season has had to deal with obvious budget-cutting. It has had a couple of good moments, though, but it’s still lacked the elegance and style of the early years. Ironically, the best episode so far was written by Bradley Whitford, who plays Josh Lyman and who obviously can remember quite clearly what made the show great in the early years.
The only things the later seasons had that Sorkin’s work didn’t were realism – the earlier seasons being obvious Democrat wish-fulfillment fantasies – and coherence: you could tell the man never planned what he was going to do until the last minute, resulting in characters and story arcs that got picked up, dropped and forgotten willy nilly. Mallory, Ainsley and various other first-rate incidental characters would just disappear without anyone asking where they’d gone. Even Sam (Rob Lowe), who was originally planned as the central character of the show, disappeared during the Orange County elections in the fourth season, never to be mentioned again.
Still, the ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet’ theme got repeated in different guises at least twice during the first four years and got repeated two more times during the sixth and seventh season, so this attention deficit wasn’t limited just to Sorkin’s time.
It’ll be sad to see it go, but with most of the main characters relegated to guest parts of late, it won’t be the passing of old friends any more, just the disappearance of new acquaintances.