Top critical review
4 people found this helpful
on June 9, 2011
Aaron Sorkin is one of the great storytellers of our time. A protege of William Goldman, he didn't recently secure himself an Oscar for Best Screenplay (The Social Network, dir. David Fincher) by some happy accident.
Tommy Schlamme, Sorkin's comrade-in-arms: Schalmme pioneered a number of visual storytelling techniques, the "walk and talk" (steadicam takes of various series regulars making their way through the halls of the West Wing while delivering necessary exposition as well as furthering previous mentioned plot-points in an active manner) being the most well-known. We see it on practically every television drama these days.
Together, they designed some of the best television in recent years. The first 4 seasons of The West Wing were masterfully constructed. Sure, they had a terrific cast at their disposal, but their ability to construct pitch-perfect narratives is what truly propelled the show into the spotlight.
So when both men were forced to leave NBC and The West Wing at the tail end of the 4th season, it was to be expected that the show would drop in quality as a result.
John Wells was left in charge. Competent? Sure, but nowhere near comparable to the Sorkin/Schlamme dream-team. Wells had previously worked on the mediocre NBC drama, Third Watch, one of numerous interchangeable, homogenized shows that rehash stereotypical, underdeveloped plots and two dimensional characters in attempts to maintain ratings.
So, yes, many things fell by the wayside in the 5th season, the show being held up exclusively through the formidable talents of its stellar cast.
Generally speaking, all the main characters were often hacked into 2 dimensional parodies of their former selves, caricatures (i.e. 1)the President begins acting like a petulant child, ignoring his duties due to emotional distress 2)Josh yelling at the Capitol building in a particularly embarrassing moment for the writing staff... and many more).
Sorkin was notorious for throwing new sub-plots into the mix at the last minute, but he would plan the overarching narratives out well in advance, subtly sewing them into the ongoing storyline piecemeal so that when they finally reached their climax, the collective effect was always a profound one. Also, he mentioned that it was of primary importance to him that viewers see how the main characters lived for their work, lived in service of their goals and philosophies, that their jobs in the White House always came first irrespective of whatever was happening in their lives. No longer...
Under Wells, we began seeing very familiar relationship cliches, characters appearing out of nowhere (i.e. 1)Toby's new assistant, Marina, cute with "aw shucks" folksy smarts... you can't just fall into a position as the Executive Assistant to the White House Communications Director 2)Jesse Bradford as the obnoxious intern who oversteps his duties, with Leo simply saying, "I want him on the staff. He's Pierce's nephew." What???), characters disappearing without mention (i.e. all of a sudden Mary-Louise Parker is completely gone and shortly after, Josh is having ongoing flirtations with other women, no reasons given as to why his relationship with Parker's character, Amy Gardner, is no longer any kind of issue), absurdly casual behavior around the President (too many incidents to mention... under Sorkin, we'd see the affection they all had for Bartlett, but always in appropriate context and the President would break through established formal conventions if need be... those moments were subtle and revealed a great deal about character, but under Wells, it was always the most obvious tacky sentimental cringe-inducing moment spit out over and over again), glaring inconsistencies (so, Hoynes and CJ slept together 10 years prior to Bartlett's 2nd term... HOW? She had never met the guy prior to joining the original Bartlett for America campaign... Hoynes was a Senator and she was a Hollywood publicist living in L.A.), and damned if they didn't reduce Josh Malina's role (yeah, let's give an incredibly compelling new character that Sorkin clearly intended to be a major part of the new Bartlett Administration less and less to do).
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Some of these ideas weren't bad on a conceptual level, but they were always executed with the skill of a student rushing to complete an essay at the last minute for a class they didn't know much about. Wells, his writing staff, and the network turned Sorkin's brilliant political drama into a feckless soap opera set against a political backdrop. The saving grace of the 5th season is the collectively and consistently outstanding performance of the acting ensemble.