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3.5 Stars: Back from the Dead
on March 10, 2006
The West Wing's Sixth Season was certainly a step up from its disastrous fifth season, which managed to cut the show's viewership in half and nearly got the show cancelled immediately after it. The viewing public didn't particularly take to the tenser version of TWW, complete with cliched TV spots a la Third Watch: for the episode Gaza, the narrator literally intoned "Someone from the West Wing won't be coming home." John Wells went back to his roots, and the result was unmitigated disaster. Rarely during the Sorkin era were there genuine crises to deal with (except at the end of the season, usually). West Wing is a show that you tune into for solid drama and smart, funny dialogue, not defibrilation.
Indeed, this season really proves superior to its predecessor, even though it does devolve to cheap narrative tricks at times to get people to tune in--that's right, I'm talking about making C. J. Chief of Staff when such a move in real life would make no sense, but they did get in an episode about "who's it going to be", and if it had been Josh, well, people would have been disappointed. After the wrapping up from the previous season, the show picks up with its story about the presidential race, even though the show's timeline is off by about a year. Initially there are a number of different candidates--for the Democrats, there's "Bingo" Bob Russell (Gary Cole), the replacement Vice President who might have moderate appeal but certainly has no brain; there's John Hoynes (Tim Matheson), the disgraced guy who used to have Russell's job and fancies himself a candidate, despite an adulterous scandal that involved leaking classified information. There's the Pennsylvania Governor, Baker (Ed O'Neill), who isn't in it for very long; and finally the dark horse, Texas Rep. Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits), the moderate yet forceful unknown who eventually takes the lead. From the right, it's all Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda), who steals the show as a moderate California Senator who plays the game and manages to capture the nomination. Both the major candidates have a supporting cast: Vinick has Pamela Richardson (from Home Improvement), his wife/campaign manager, as well as the brilliant Stephen Root (from NewsRadio) as an adviser. Santos has Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), plus Teri Polo as his wife.
It's undeniable that part of the reason people still watch is the wish-fulfillment factor, even though that was the point in the first place. President Bartlet was a Clinton-era wish for a White House with a strong moral compass. With the nation currently under a right-wing president who is rapidly losing the support of even his most ardent believers, Republicans can watch to see a president who does, in fact, read the newspapers and make decisions based off of facts, not his "gut", and Democrats can similarly find some satisfaction in a candidate who has liberal convictions and is not ashamed of what he believes, but is politically savvy enough to avoid the culture wars. However, John Wells' conservative views are more apparent here, since Vinick is the hero of the show. In fact, it is Vinick who tells a group of corn farmers during the Iowa Caucuses that he opposes ethanol, a very gutsy move that all the candidates agree with but nobody except him says. Much like Bartlet was the ideal Democratic President, Vinick is being represented as an ideal Republican Commander-in-Chief. And say what you like about TWW, it still is much better than the show "Commander-in-Chief".
It's been said to death, but the show still ails from the departure of Aaron Sorkin. Additionally, people who tuned in only because they liked Bartlet's politics will be disappointed (although Santos is an admirable character as well). However, this season at least set up the show's final season well so that The West Wing can die with dignity instead of its last words being "Bring it on" as shouted by Josh to the Capitol Dome, or something said by the muppets, or "someone will not be coming back alive." The West Wing again becomes at least a watchable show, although one wonders if the payoff is worth the cost.