West Wing: The Complete Sixth Season (DVD)
With the ghost of creator Aaron Sorkin fully expunged from the spotlit soundstage maze representing that most busy portion of the White House, the sixth season of The West Wing is less a return to form than it is a remaking of the things that were best about the show in the first place. There's C.J. and Josh throwing high-speed dialogue at each other; there's the tension and personality arc as characters are back in step with their original realization; there's the overarching story that runs throughout the 22 episodes along with the self-contained mini-dramas within each one; there are the new people who bind themselves to plots that are alternately tidy and messy, just like real life. The taking-stock the show's creative minds clearly did after a roundly drubbed season five had a lot of help from the necessity of thinking ahead to a new crop of faces and places as the Bartlett administration starts winding down its second term. Some of the plot points may be a little hard to swallow: Would C.J. really deserve to take over the Chief of Staff position? Would Josh really walk away from his dream job to pursue the seeming nightmare of running a presidential campaign for not-a-chance-in-hell Rep. Santos (Jimmy Smits)? Thankfully the answer turns out to be yes in these fully crafted episodes, even as they still sometimes ring with the people-don't-really-talk-that-way banter that makes up most of the conversation in the Oval Office or hallways of the elaborate set.
Jimmy Smits isn't the only welcome new regular face in season six. Alan Alda grandly returns to the medium that made him with effortless authority playing Republican senator and front-running aspirant to the West Wing's throne, Arnold Vinick. From his modest introduction, to the nuances of personality that slip through over the course of the season, Vinick is definitely one of the people we want to see more of. Adding her own personal flair and tweaking the subtleties of the scripts is Lily Tomlin as President Jed's protective secretary. Gary Cole plays smarmy and vapid with elan as the Vice President who believes he's heir apparent, and disgraced ex-VP Tim Matheson returns from the political graveyard, unbelievably believing he has a chance to win his party's nomination. The politics are still integral to the drama, with fiery President Martin Sheen refusing to go gentle into that good night of professional or personal shadows. The late, great John Spencer also brings poignancy to his last days as ex-Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, scenes made all the more touching by the actor's death in 2005. As with its best early seasons, The West Wing again proves that strong writing, top-flite production design, and authoritative acting always covers flashes of skepticism and makes great TV.--Ted Fry