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Farewell to two cherished friends: "West Wing" and John Spencer
on November 20, 2006
Alan Alda must feel blessed to have been such an integral part of two of the greatest shows in television history. The creative forces behind the West Wing gathered their collective strengths and gave the series the ending it deserved. Decades from now I'll be pulling out these discs and watching them.
With horror and sadness we learned last December that John Spencer had suddenly passed. West Wing fans grieved and sent their prayers on behalf of Mr. Spencer and those who had actually known and loved him. We can see that some of that love and respect gets translated to the show and the episodes that swirl around Leo's death are among the most heart-breaking I've ever seen on screen. When Kristin Chenoweth as Annabeth tells Bradley Whitford as Josh that Leo has died her tears didn't look at all like "acting". The same can be said for the expressions on the faces of all of the actors at Leo's funeral, ending with Martin Sheen as President Bartlet.
The storyline of this season centers on the Presidential race with Jimmy Smits portraying Congressman Matt Santos against Alda's Senator Arnold Vinick. This ticket was clearly the fantasy of the liberal writers as even the Republican candidate is pro-choice, insults some NRA-type vigilantes and all but thumbs his nose at the religious right. As Vinick's campaign is derailed somewhat in the aftermath of a nuclear accident in California a particularly shrewish right-winger is brought in to help the Senator woo back the republican base. Ron Silver continues in his role as Bruno Gianelli, the political strategist who only cares about winning - and knows how to do it. Patricia Richardson is effective as Vinick's assistant who tries to keep him on track. Janeane Garofalo serves as sparring partner to Josh as Lou, a democratic operative who gets almost as much pleasure from seeing Josh flounder (which he inevitably does for brief moments) as from helping her political causes. Teri Polo plays Helen - candidate Santos' wife - and this character always seems a little less enthusiastic than would be appropriate for the wife of a man who may become president.
Aside from the sensitive and respectful way the real-life death of John Spencer was worked into the fictional story, this season gets a few other things right. Where we may have been frustrated in the past at the lack of love lives of most of these characters for years - all in the service of their country - this season we get to see most of the principal characters hook up in one way or another. First daughter Ellie gets married in a White House ceremony curiously missing both of her sisters. (Although all three daughters make Leo's funeral.) Through their own obvious attraction and Donna's persistence Josh and Donna finally get together. In the opening of the first episode we're glad to see in flashback that C.J. and Danny Concannon have married and have a child, and in other episodes we get to see Danny's gentle courting techniques on one of the most powerful (and powerfully nice) women in the world. It's also gratifying to see some "old friends" show up in the final episodes such as Rob Lowe's return as Sam Seaborn. (Sam is recruited to duty by Josh in a scene that pays homage to the earlier flashback scene from season two when Josh conscripts Sam to the first "Bartlet for America" campaign.)
To the shows writers, directors, actors, and the professionals who shot, set and costumed the show: Bravo! I'll miss you dearly and watch these shows with enduring pleasure.
To the pinheads who decided to release these DVDs without any significant extras: A pox on your houses. While the first seasons came with full sets of subtitles, documentaries and commentary tracks in which performers, directors and creators couldn't withhold their obvious glee - this season comes with next to nothing. The first seasons came with subtitles in English, Francais and Espanol. The last two seasons have not had an option for English subtitles. What if the viewer is hard of hearing?
What is the reason for these deficiencies? Laziness? Complacency? No doubt the almighty dollar played the major role. This show - and this show's fans - deserved better.
Rest in well-deserved and honored peace, John Spencer. Adieu, West Wing.