Season 5 of The West Wing is the red-headed stepchild of the venerated series, which still holds up despite the dated political discourse thanks to excellent writing and acting.
Creator and head writer Aaron Sorkin had left the show between Seasons 4 and 5. The ensuing season is generally considered a low point of the series, as remaining showrunner John Wells struggled to find a post-Sorkin voice. It was also the first season without ostensible lead Rob Lowe (he departed in the middle of Season 4).
Subsequent seasons are considered to have recovered by introducing the race to succeed Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) as president, headlined by charismatic TV ringers Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda.
Season 5 is one of my favorites to revisit, however. Hey, what a shocker — Paul stands up for an underappreciated underdog. I think, however, that by bagging on Season 5, you miss a lot.
Seasons 1-4 were more broadly comedic and crowd-pleasing. They also indulged in Sorkin’s arch-liberal viewpoint that aligned itself clearly with a pollyanna view of the Democratic party. With the exception of Ainsley Hayes and Cliff Calley, Republicans were mostly mustasche-twirling villains.
In concept the show was about the staff, with the President as a background player. The most junior member of the inner circle (Lowe’s Sam Seaborn) was to be first-among-equals in an ensemble drama, befitting Lowe’s status as the biggest star on the early casting roster. Then two things happened. First, there was Martin Sheen, so magnetic and effortless in the commanding role as Leader of the Free World that to relegate him to background player would have been a waste — especially when foiled against the equally commanding Stockard Channing as his First Lady. (Recurring from the beginning, Channing joined the main cast in season three.)
Second, Bradley Whitford happened. The showrunners made the typical mistake of thinking that the audience would identify with Lowe’s “good-boy” character. Unsurprisingly, the “bad-boy” pugilism and verbal dexterity of Whitford’s Josh Lyman ended up breaking out far bigger. Everybody loves an asshole, and Josh was just asshole enough, combined with a good heart, deep insecurity, and impeccable wit, to win a far bigger fan base than Sam Seaborn. Lowe left the show in the fourth season because his character wasn’t being given enough to do. It’s too bad, because Sam is a great character, but I don’t blame the showrunners for running with the far more interesting characters of Josh and President Bartlet, as well as the equally engaging C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney), Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Donna Moss (Janel Maloney).
Sorkin ended his four-season run on his brainchild with the biggest cliffhanger the show ever pulled off — the kidnapping of the President’s youngest daughter Zoe (played by Elisabeth Moss early in her reign as “Queen of Peak TV” that would continue into Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale). With poor President Bartlet’s objectivity compromised, and his Vice President conveniently having just resigned in a sex scandal, he was forced to hand over the presidency to House Speaker Glen Walken, an arch-Republican hawk played by John Goodman.
It was a hell of a setup, but it ended up getting disposed of too quickly, in the second episode of the season, with too few consequences in the long-term arc of the show. Really the only lasting consequence was that the President and his wife were estranged for a long time, with Abby blaming Jed for the kidnapping. The season, by some accounts, was left to meander through several non-starters of plots and failed attempts at new characters, like C.J.’s blah love interest Ben. (Ben was no Danny Concanon, nor even Simon Donovan *sob*.)
That being said, there are tons of reasons to love Season 5. For example …
1. A whole lot of sad. If “Peak TV” is about anything, it’s the discovery, post-Sopranos, that Americans don’t need happy endings in their TV. In some ways, this is a consequence of serialization – people were hanging in with their favorite shows for the long haul, rather than dipping into the story one week and out for another, and therefore needing closure and a tidy curtain call after every 30- to 40-minute dose. Audiences wanted the full emotional range from their favorite dramas. This could include sad or ambiguous endings; those who craved the good feelies would indulge in the catharsis of a downer ending, confident that the show would deliver the happy one or two episodes into the future.
I’ll talk about some more specific examples later, but the exquisite sadness of episodes like “Han,” “The Stormy Present,” “An Khe,” “Talking Points,” and the closing arc of “Gaza/Memorial Day” represent a stark change from the week-to-week tone and expectations of The West Wing – for the better, I think. Even an episode like “Slow News Day,” which ends on a happy note, pushes the envelope as fan-favorite Toby Ziegler comes perilously close to losing his job.
2. … but still some shots of liberal feel-good. You can’t ditch the bleeding-heart liberal feelies entirely and still have it be The West Wing. Glenn Close’s and William Fitchner’s trip to the Bench in The Supremes stands out, as does The Benign Prerogative, a screed against harsh sentencing of drug offenders. Even Benign Prerogative makes time for a tear-jerker subplot involving the convict son of a wealthy donor, but the ending is classic feel-good West Wing. “Bless you all … it must be an honor to work for him.” “……. It is.” *sob*
3. Experiments with Structure. We get a mocumentary that follows C.J. through an unusual day-in-the-life (“Access”); a flashback episode (“An Khe”); and The West Wing‘s crack at a “bottle episode” in “No Exit” … well, four bottles really, when a security crash locks down unusual character pairings that then bounce off each other for surprising revelations (Leo/Abby, Josh/Kate, Toby/Will). The Leo/Abby pairing contains eerie foreshadowing of a devastating Season 7 plot twist that the showrunners could not have possibly predicted, so this episode has aged particularly well.
4. Jesse Bradford as Ryan Pierce. Several new characters, including Ben, Angela Blake, and Reena, don’t really stick. Jesse Bradford as Ryan Pierce is a big bright exception. The silver-spoon scion of a patrician family that included President Franklin Pierce (nothing to be proud of if you know your presidential history), Ryan is forced on Josh as an intern because his Senator uncle is too powerful to decline. Name-dropping, smarmy, over-confident, and exquisitely privileged, Ryan inhabits Bradford’s punchable face like a well-loved, very expensive shoe. He perpetually annoys Josh and Donna with his frat-boy brio, only to prove that against all odds he has a razor-sharp mind and a natural talent for deal-making. He uses it to Josh’s benefit (and chagrin), but Josh hates him too much to appreciate it … so Ryan finishes his arc by turning the tables, putting his talents to work down the street, and outsmarting Josh at his own game. Delicious.
5. Josh’s fall from grace. Remember loveable asshole Josh Lyman? One of the loveable things about him is that he seems perpetually out of his depth, but fakes it until he makes it and always lands on his feet. In a four-episode arc starting with “Constituency of One,” however, Josh’s grey-hat political infighting comes back to bite him in the ass, resulting in a major political setback for the entire Democratic party. The response of his colleagues is compassionate, but also merciless – they hold his hand and stand by him while quietly sidelining him – reducing his visibility, stripping away his portfolio, and temporarily bringing in someone over him. As Josh’s influence reaches a low ebb, his last ally the previously despised Ryan Pierce, he is reduced to drunkenly pulling over the cab and screaming his frustration at the Capitol Building itself, one man against the world seat of power. It’s pretty breathtaking.
6. More balanced politics. The march to a more centrist political vision continues with sympathetic-Republican turns by Matthew Perry, Phillip Baker Hall, and a few other opposition forces who can’t be fitted for black hats so easily. Even Glen Walken is not treated as a disaster of an interim President, save for the fact that his cold rationalism and hawkishness (the lack of which were exactly what caused Bartlet to step down) stands to threaten Zoe’s life.
7. Speaker Haffley. Then there’s Haffley. Picked as the Speaker of the House to replace Walken, Haffley assumes the role of The West Wing‘s most compelling villain not because the writers abhor his politics (as the back-and-forth between he and Bartlet in Shutdown makes clear) but because he is a bully, a dirty-fighter, and he gets his way. If the Democrats had a bully like that on their side, they would LOVE him. As it stands, the oily portrayal by Steven Culp is someone you just love to hate … and want to see put in his place.
8. The Shutdown. Which brings us to Shutdown, the showdown between Bartlet and Haffley. This episode is as great a moment of high drama as The West Wing ever achieved – more compelling than Zoe’s kidnapping, the assassination of Shariff, up there with Two Cathedrals and the Santos/Vinick election. I was too young to realize that shutdown showdowns had started under Clinton, and I was baffled to realize that a stalemate between the White House and Congress could lead to the Federal Government being “shut down.” I was politically aware of shutdowns under Obama, but the episode Shutdown goes to great lengths to make the practical effects of shutting down the government seem real (a dimly lit West Wing, Josh coordinating with Donna by cell phone because she can’t legally work in the White House without a paycheck, a home-cooked meal for a State Dinner, senators searching for printer ink because the assistants are laid off). The episode also pays off several multi-episode arcs – the feud between the President and the First Lady; Josh’s fall from grace; it even pays off an arc that began thirty episodes ago – Josh and Toby’s quest to make college tuition fully tax-deductable. The turning of the tables and the final confrontation with Haffley is deeply satisfying. I wouldn’t want a West Wing without “Shutdown.”
What do you think of The West Wing: Season 5, available now on Netflix?