on September 24, 2006
The unfortunate thing about Season 5 is that many of the most dedicated viewers of The West Wing started watching the show because they were fans of Alan Sorkin. There was an automatic knee-jerk reaction against the new regime on the show, perhaps understandably so in light of the early episodes. However, once they got settled in, the new writers managed to turn out some of the best episodes (including my personal favourite) of the entire series.
The season starts with a new "president," former speaker of the house Glenallen Walken, a blustering militaristic Republican who was brought in to help the country through the kidnapping of President Bartlett's daughter Zoey. The kidnapping cliffhanger of Season 4 was the best cliffhanger episode of the series, and if the payoff isn't quite as good, it's still gripping. John Goodman as Walken is one of the best guest stars the show has had, embodying an almost stereotypical member of the GOP, yet infusing a convincing degree of reality to the part. The series then continues with a depressing and overly drawn-out series of episodes containing a showdown between the new speaker of the House (a young and obnoxious Republican) and the White House over a budget appropriation bill. The season (and the series) almost goes off the rails for good in this storyline, wherein our favourite characters are repeatedly kicked and bullied for 4 straight episodes. Josh fares especially badly, which must have really angered the Sorkin purists, who remember that the show was originally supposed to focus on Josh, Sam, and the other junior members of the administration. Josh does redeem himself with a "publicity stunt" that ends this set of shows on a high note, but it doesn't really make up for the drudgery we've had to plod through to get to the resolution.
Fortunately, the series then picks up dramatically. There follows a series of 1-off episodes, many of which are among my favourite of the entire series. One subject dear to my own heart, as a scientist, is the episode Eppur Si Muove (named for a quote by Galileo), where Eli's supervisor's funding is cut off because he is investigating the transmission of a sexually transmitted disease, not a "respectable" disease in the eyes of some lawmakers on the Hill. It is eerily prescient of the current Bush administration's interference in research, cutting off funding for projects deemed as valueless in the "War" against terrorism. The point is made that independent research is necessary to find the big ideas - superconductivity, the structure of DNA, silicon microchips, etc. were discovered because the scientists looking at the problems were free to direct their research as they saw fit, without political interference.
Other highlights of the season include "The Supremes," my all-time favourite West Wing episode, guest starring Glenn Close as a candidate for a vacant Supreme Court seat. "Full Disclosure" has C.J. sparring with former VP Hoynes over a new tell-all book, in which he attempts to paint himself in the best light possible (to the detriment of the Bartletts and their staff). "The Warfare of Ghengis Khan" follows the joint stories of an unattributed nuclear test in the Indian Ocean and Josh sparring with NASA administrators over space exploration (another great science-based episode). "The Stormy Present" brings back John Goodman and brings in James Cromwell as former presidents attending a state funeral. And "Han" gives us a world-renowned North Korean pianist who asks for political asylum in the U.S. on the eve of a sensitive nuclear arms negotiation with Pyongyang.
The season then concludes with the "third rail" ("touch it and you die") of foreign policy - the Israel-Palistine conflict. In what is the weakest series cliffhanger to date, a congressional delegation (including Admiral Fitzwallace and Donna as observers, and Toby's wife, Congresswoman Wyatt) is attacked by terrorists. A roadside bomb hits their motorcade (apparently deliberately targetted), setting off a crisis in the Middle East. While I applaud the ability of the writers to bring clarity to the issue (including the distrust felt by the administration over the thinly veiled Yassar Arafat-esque chairman of the Palastinian Authority), there is little tension for our main characters, as we learn before the season ends who lives and dies as a result of the explosion. Thus, the "cliffhanger" part is nothing more than a political/intellegence mistep by Bartlett (and an international one, at that), hardly in the same league as Zoey's kidnapping of the season before, or the assassination attempt at the end of Season 1.
Overall, the middle is very good, the end is a little weak, and there is a 4-show set near the beginning of the season that is best forgotten. As usual, there are few extras, and so I'll include my standard plea - why can't we have political scientists comment on the show in audio commentaries? This would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the intellegence of the writing and foster debate about issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, social security, the vetting process of appointing judges, etc. Instead, we get mild and bland commentaries on the making of the shows. What a waste of an opportunity.